Mistaking the lessons

Nov 13th, 2009 | By | Category: International

Andrew Marr’s ‘The Making of Modern Britain’ was on its repeat showing this evening.  Marr had reached the First World War, describing the unfolding of the events of 1914-1918 in his own inimitable style.  (His evocation of Sir Roger Casement’s landing on lonely Banna Strand in Co Kerry at Easter 1916 would make a perfect sequence for Bord Failte).

There is sense that such programmes are ‘improving’, that the telling of history will ensure that mistakes are identified and processes are not repeated; as though history is almost something where one has a second chance, yet history is an unrepeatable process and past precedent is no guide to future action.

Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, written in 1984, saw history as providing no lessons for the Czechs in 1968:

And again he thought the thought we already know: Hu­man life occurs only once, and the reason we cannot determine which of our decisions are good and which bad is that in a given situation we can make only one decision; we are not granted a second, third, or fourth life in which to compare various deci­sions.

History is similar to individual lives in this respect. There is only one history of the Czechs. One day it will come to an end as surely as Tomas’s life, never to be repeated.

In 1618, the Czech estates took courage and vented their ire on the emperor reigning in Vienna by pitching two of his high officials out of a window in the Prague Castle. Their defiance led to the Thirty Years War, which in turn led to the almost complete destruction of the Czech nation. Should the Czechs have shown more caution than courage? The answer may seem simple; it is not.

Three hundred and twenty years later, after the Munich Conference of 1938, the entire world decided to sacrifice the Czechs’ country to Hitler. Should the Czechs have tried to stand up to a power eight times their size? In contrast to 1618, they opted for caution. Their capitulation led to the Second World War, which in turn led to the forfeit of their nation’s freedom for many decades or even centuries. Should they have shown more courage than caution? What should they have done?

If Czech history could be repeated, we should of course find it desirable to test the other possibility each time and com­pare the results. Without such an experiment, all considerations of this kind remain a game of hypotheses.

Einmal ist keinmal. What happens but once might as well not have happened at all. The history of the Czechs will not be repeated, nor will the history of Europe. The history of the Czechs and of Europe is a pair of sketches from the pen of mankind’s fateful inexperience. History is as light as individual human life, unbearably light, light as a feather, as dust swirling into the air, as whatever will no longer exist tomorrow.

“The forfeit of their nation’s freedom for many decades or even centuries”?

Kundera’s anticipation of the future is based on a history where both resistance and submission had proved futile for the Czechs.  The mistaken anticipation actually proves his argument “What happens but once might as well not have happened at all”; history did not turn out as anticipated.  No reading of the past gave any clues that Communism would simply crumble away in the extraordinary months of 1989.

Perhaps it is not just that we do not learn from history, as Hegel and Shaw argued, perhaps it is that we cannot learn from history.

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  1. Either way history does tend to repeat and depending upon who’s affected by either submission or rebellion the West at least reacts very differently. It seems there’s been a cultural shift in invation and subugation to the east that would not be tolerated in Europe today yet Europe and America are complicit. Maybe you’re right, maybe we are incapable of learning from past mistakes. I wonder if we’re capable of learning from the good things history teaches us as well?

  2. I think Western policy is often based on false premises – they assume what worked in one place will work in another, and it is having painful consequences.

    I think the best thing that history teaches us is the indomitability of the human spirit – I read Primo Levi’s books and was awestruck at the man behind the story.

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