The Value of History

It was the Spanish philosopher Santayana who once remarked that those who ignore history are doomed to repeat its mistakes. He knew that we could be spared a lot of grief if we simply studied history more closely, and sought to apply some of the lessons learned there to our current situations.

Yet the study of history is not a strong suit for most people these days, let alone our politicians. So often we find ourselves doing the same stupid things our forbears did, with the same calamitous results.

We see many parallels today between the world of the militant Islamists, and the Nazis. Yet we fail to connect the dots, and see the implications of all the hate-filled rhetoric pouring out of some Islamists’ mouths. The truth is, if someone says they hate you and want to annihilate you, then you had better take some notice.

We did not do that earlier last century, and we paid a horrible price. The question is, is history repeating itself today? Will we suffer a similar fate, ignoring the threats so clearly being aimed at us, and instead take the path of appeasement and weakness?

Thomas Sowell, a black American commentator, takes up this theme in an article entitled “Morally paralysed,” which appeared July 24, 2007. “‘Moral paralysis’ is a term that has been used to describe the inaction of France, England and other European democracies in the 1930s, as they watched Hitler build up the military forces that he later used to attack them. It is a term that may be painfully relevant to our own times.”

He explains, “Back in the 1930s, the governments of the democratic countries knew what Hitler was doing – and they knew that they had enough military superiority at that point to stop his military buildup in its tracks. But they did nothing to stop him. Instead, they turned to what is still the magic mantra today – ‘negotiations’.”
This is how it transpired: British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain entered into negotiations with Hitler in Munich in 1938, and returned, with agreement in hand, declaring “peace in our time.” Says Sowell,

“We know now how short that time was. Less than a year later, World War II began in Europe and spread across the planet, killing tens of millions of people and reducing many cities to rubble in Europe and Asia. Looking back after that war, Winston Churchill said, ‘There was never a war in all history easier to prevent by timely action.’ The earlier it was done, the less it would have cost.”

Why all the moral paralysis? “The death of a million French soldiers in the First World War and disillusionment with the peace that followed cast a pall over a whole generation. Pacifism became vogue among the intelligentsia and spread into educational institutions. As early as 1932, Winston Churchill said: ‘France, though armed to the teeth, is pacifist to the core.’ It was morally paralyzed.”

And Sowell reminds us of another truth: “Incidentally, Hitler made some of the best anti-war statements of the 1930s. He knew that this was what the Western democracies wanted to hear – and that it would keep them morally paralyzed while he continued building up his military machine to attack them.”

So what are the lessons for today? “We know that Iran is moving swiftly toward nuclear weapons while the United Nations is moving slowly – or not at all – toward doing anything to stop them. It is a sign of our irresponsible Utopianism that anyone would even expect the UN to do anything that would make any real difference.”

Here is the real issue: “The Iranian leaders are not going to stop unless they get stopped. And, like Hitler, they don’t think we have the guts to stop them.” That may well be the case.

Concludes Sowell, “Nuclear weapons in the hands of Iran and its international terrorist allies will be a worst threat than Hitler ever was. But, before that happens, the big question is: Are we France? Are we morally paralyzed, perhaps fatally?”

The answers to this dilemma may not be easy to come by. But one answer can be ruled out right away: hoping that the problem will just go away, and that these madmen will not do what they threaten to do. That is surely not the way to proceed. The need of the hour today is far more Churchills and far fewer Chamberlains.

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8 Replies to “The Value of History”

  1. I won’t comment here on Iran, but the depiction of Chamberlain as weak because of his appeasement policy is somewhat misleading.

    It is true that Britain and France were very much keen to avoid war because of the carnage of the First World War. But there are two other reasons for their inaction not given here.

    The first is the harshness of the Versailles treaty. The punitive measures outlined in that treaty were seen as overly unfair and harsh, as indeed they were. Germany had its territory greatly reduced and had to pay crippling reparations. The first aggressive actions of Nazi Germany, namely the sending of troops into the Rhineland and the annexation of Austria and the Sudetenland, were thus seen by many as righting the wrongs of the Versailles treaty and not just cause for a war.

    It was only after Germany broke the terms of the Munich agreement by swallowing Czechoslovakia that popular opinion in Britain turned against them.

    The second point not covered here is the Great Depression. During Hitler’s rise Britain and France were still in the midst of the Great Depression. Thus their economic ability to wage war was greatly diminished. It is no wonder they were reluctant to wage war under those conditions. Indeed, the British government almost went bankrupt under the economic strains of the war, and certainly would have if not for the United States.

    Finally, it should be mentioned that far from doing nothing, Britain invested a lot in rearming during the ’30s, including the development of radar, which proved so crucial in the Battle of Britain.

    Mark Newton, Melbourne

  2. I fear that evolutionary humanism has already done half of the work of subduing the west without Islam having to do a thing; we are already Islamicised by our own ideology. What is the difference between the fatalism of Islam and the belief in blind chance of evolution? Both produce in the words of Churchill a fearful fatalistic apathy.
    David Skinner, UK

  3. Speaking of history, Do you know of any books or online material that is worth reading to get a sound understanding of the Christian past of Australia?
    Matthew Mulvaney

  4. Dr Sowell is as insightful as ever. Another forgotten lesson from history is the revival of Nazi-like eugenics in the name of “quality of life” ethics and genetic testing. It’s notable that like today, leaders in the medical journals support this today and supported it back then. According to the article Yale Study: U.S. Eugenics Paralleled Nazi Germany:

    ‘“Germany is perhaps the most progressive nation in restricting fecundity among the unfit,” editors of the New England Journal of Medicine wrote in 1934, a year after Hitler became chancellor.’

    Jonathan Sarfati, Brisbane

  5. The more I observe the pacifist Left, the more I am convinced that “pacifism” is but a code word for “cowardice”.
    Murray Adamthwaite

  6. Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers,” not “blessed are the pacifists.” The pacifists in 1930s Europe were largely responsible for WW2. And like the west today, they didn’t believe a man who clearly stated his intention to wipe out the Jews. Nowadays, they seem to want to wait will Iran sends a mushroom cloud over Tel Aviv to take them seriously.

    Jesus also said (Luke 14:31–32):

    Or what king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace.

    Similarly, Churchill and Reagan recognized that strength can prevent war.

    Mark Newton: the reason the war was so costly to Britain is that they waited till Hitler was very powerful to wage it. Is the west now going to wait till Iran has nukes before they act?

    Jonathan Sarfati, Brisbane

  7. Bill I was interested in Mark Newton’s explanation of the German/Britian interplay in the 1930’s. I recollect a small book in which John F. Kennedy commented on events in Britian in his naval days. It brings to mind regular, but fruitless, efforts by Winston Churchill to warn the government of Germany’s warlike developments. particularly its aeroplane construction.
    Pat Healy

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