When we don't learn from our mistakes
In 2004, the late Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski wrote eloquently about the Greek historian Herodotus's masterpiece, The Histories, while on assignment covering some of the most troubled areas on earth.
Documenting his approach to reading the classic, Kapuscinski described the act of dipping into it at random and discovering new anecdotes that would alternatively delight, surprise or shock him. Herodotus, often referred to as the Father of History, was supposedly the first to put into some semblance of order an investigation into the origins of the Greco-Persian Wars. He also collated tales, apocryphal and otherwise, from areas he walked through, and created, in the process, the Western world’s first major work of history. Kapuscinski, who arrived thousands of years after Herodotus, used the latter’s work as a guide not just to understand actual conflict, but to delve into the nature of human emotions that led to their creation.
This critic applied Kapuscinski’s method of reading Herodotus to his reading of Antony Beevor’s massive account of that epochal event, World War II. What made it so compelling wasn’t just the sheer size of the conflict or the shocking number of lives changed forever, but how it was more like a number of smaller wars crammed into one. From any historian’s perspective, the act of tracking those conflicts and trying to make them coherent would be looked upon as a challenge of epic proportions. Beevor, to his credit, rises to the task with aplomb.
One assumes most readers are aware of at least some of the facts — that first invasion of Poland by Germany, who the Allies and the Axis powers were, what lead to Germany’s unconditional surrender, the use of the atomic bomb and setting of a stage for what would become the Cold War. In 1961, the British historian AJP Taylor published a book titled The Origins of the Second World War, removing the blame for the event that had, until then, been placed squarely on the shoulders of Adolf Hitler. He blamed other world leaders equally, listing a series of what he referred to as mistakes that primed the escalation of war.
Beevor takes off where Taylor stopped. What makes his telling of this gory tale more compelling is the careful peeling back of layers surrounding each of the many bit players. He abstains from comment, choosing to present the facts as he sees them instead. The approach isn’t perfect, of course, especially because the historian happens to be a good writer too. His prose helps make sense of a bewildering array of facts and figures, news reports and diaries of soldiers, behind-the-scenes notes on diplomatic events and descriptions of blood-soaked battlefields. He brings to light not just stories of the men and women killed on battlefields in Europe and the Far East, but those of pedestrians felled by bombings in cities and others who suffered from venereal disease. One of his biggest accomplishments, however, is how he really does make it sound like a world war, as opposed to the more commonly-held perception of a bunch of countries trying to contain Germany’s ambition to rule everyone else. It’s an incredible amount of research whittled at in order to create a lucid piece of work.
This isn’t to say that there are no problems. The sheer volume of material Beevor has to deal with leads to some events getting the short shrift (the actual beginning of the first war, for instance) while at other places, it seems as if the only thing he is doing is relentlessly cataloguing a series of clashes. The jumps from country to country are also difficult to keep track of, at times, and some readers may question the need to devote more space to the Holocaust than, say, the twenty million who died in China or the sustained bombing of Great Britain and Northern Ireland between September 1940 and May 1941 — what was referred to, succinctly, as the Blitz.
An important thing one ought to keep in mind while reading history is that modern academic historians place an equal emphasis on analysing social and intellectual forces responsible for an event as they do on narratives of the events themselves. History, in our time, is treated more as a social science that allows for a multi-disciplinary approach and the presence of political historians, quantitative historians, Marxist and feminist historians. Where Beevor comes from is hard to pin down. Whether or not this is a fault is debatable.
His focus, wherever possible, appears to be the casualties of war, the faceless victims spread across deserts, gulags, oceans and jungles, who were all swept up in tragedies not of their making. What the book reveals, eventually, is a couple of clichés. History does repeat itself. We don’t seem to learn from past mistakes. One assumes Herodotus would agree.