This is not a joke: John Broich, a history professor at Case Western Reserve University, published an opinion article in The Washington Post on Tuesday titled, “Allied leaders were anti-Nazi, but not anti-racist. We’re now paying the price for their failure.”
Broich writes: “While Allied countries opposed the Nazis and Allied troops defeated them, the leaders of the United States and Britain rarely attacked the core tenet of Nazism: the belief in a master race.” He continues:
The Allied leadership did not fight the war over fascist race-nationalism. That was the historical path not taken. As it’s once again on the ascent across the globe, this historian imagines where we might be today had the Allies fought on the basis of eliminating the racial supremacy of the Germans (and, in their variation, the Japanese). What if that principle had been, through the greatest global struggle of humankind, woven into our social DNA? And how can we make that principle central to our societies today?
All this I might well expect from a pundit or a columnist in a college newspaper. But it’s a particular disappointment for this to have been authored by a professor of history.
What, after all, is the reason it matters that young people study history? By “study history” I don’t mean majoring in history in college, or getting a master’s or PhD. I am referring instead to serious instruction in high school, non-majors selecting history electives in college, and the decision to read books, or even watch relevant YouTube videos, outside the classroom.
What’s Limiting about Trying to Understand Root Causes
Yes, part of the benefit of studying history is to understand the long-term roots of current woes. But that’s a very limiting approach, and sometimes even gives us the wrong answers to questions. What explains the present-day woes of a given minority group in the United States, or an impoverished developing country? The “understand long-term roots” lens risks seeing present-day situations so much through past causes as to leave individuals without agency, powerless to remedy their problems.
This “approach” certainly suggests that going back too far in time is fairly useless. What effect did the particulars of the world of the Ancient Greeks have on our day? The democracy of Athens has no real continuity to our own time, however fondly we speak of it as the first democracy. Certainly studying the world of the Spartans or such stories as the battle of Thermopylae can’t be justified by some notion of understanding the causes of our present world.
Instead, studying history, even of the fairly distant past, teaches that decisions have consequences, sometimes quite unintended consequences that couldn’t have been at all foreseen at the time. The Persian War, the cause of all the trouble at Thermopylae, was, as described in this documentary, the consequence of Darius, and then his son Xerxes seeking revenge for the Athenians having aided rebellious Greek cities at the edge of the Persian Empire. Oops.
It’s reasonably well-known that the Romans invited various Germanic tribes to serve as mercenary soldiers, who then got it in their head that they should make themselves at home. Sometimes the “unintended consequences” were truly unknowable and extraordinarily far-reaching, such as the deadly spread of Old World diseases in the New World. Or the tale about how when the Vikings traveled to the coast of North America, they met seemingly friendly natives, offered their food and drink, and the next day those natives weren’t so friendly any longer—because, the speculation goes, the drink was milk or milk-based, the indigenous Americans had no dairy in their culture so were lactose intolerant, and all got sick and thought the Vikings were poisoning them.
Had this not happened, the speculation goes, the first contact between the hemispheres could have been peaceful and permanent and would have made for a radically different course of events. All of this means that studying history means learning about cause and effect with illustrations from some concrete time period or another.
History Is A Form Of Multiculturalism
Here’s the second reason: history is a form of multiculturalism. I don’t mean studying the history of the oppressed group of one’s choice. I mean that, if multiculturalism is about learning that there are other cultures the world that are different than your own, rather than learning about this history of “underrepresented minorities” in the United States, then pretty much every era of history except our own recent past qualifies.
This means learning that among the Spartans, a child was expelled if the elders deemed him unfit. A harsh childhood of military training awaited the boys who survived, in order to, first, obtain slaves to farm the fields, and, second, keep those slaves from rebelling, and, incidentally, to gain honor as the 300 did. A young man presented with his shield was told, “with it or on it”—that is, come home from battle with your shield intact, successful in battle, or be carried home dead. How much more foreign can you get?
Or perhaps the Middle Ages, with one’s future largely dictated by one’s birth—as the child of a knight or a peasant—but also with the emerging cities of the High Middle Ages presenting exciting new possibilities, or perhaps cut short by plague or raiders or war, but with so many unknowns about the world that they sought out supernatural explanations.
Yes, that alien-ness extends to our own grandparents and even parents and every circumstance in which we are tempted to complain about what others should have done. In this study of people who are not like us, we have to learn the wisdom to differentiate between what’s appropriate to expect given the context of the time and fundamentally evil actions, regardless of time and place. This is a lot more complex than simply wishing that people in the past had conformed to 2019 norms .