Learning and not learning from history

It was a wonderful Shabbat lunch.

The homemade food was delicious, and we had just one first-world problem: the variety and amount were so overwhelming that we all had an undeniable urge to taste just a bit (or more) of everything, despite knowing there would be a price to pay on the scale Sunday morning — as indeed was the case for me. And the intriguing mix of company — men and women, baby boomers and millennials, family and friends, Americans and Israelis, liberals and conservatives — presaged simulating conversation.

And so it was. American politics, Israeli politics, shul politics wove their way around and through overlapping discussions of people getting to know each other, adorable stories about even more adorable grandchildren, and our newlywed couple describing their exciting new Jewish neighborhood — which, in reality, is an old Jewish neighborhood (the westernmost block of Crown Heights, across from the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens) in new garb. We chatted, laughed, and debated, although sometimes too loudly for everyone’s comfort, and discussed, sang, and argued as we enjoyed each other’s company in both agreement and disagreement.

And then I stopped the conversation.

Please understand that there are almost no taboos regarding civil discussion in our house. The old rule — one doesn’t discuss politics, religion, money, or sex in polite company — never applied at our Shabbat or yom tov table, and all were fair game for old and young alike. We therefore never had to resort to discussing the weather unless we were conversing about climate change.

Nonetheless, when someone analogized a controversial current event to one during the Shoah, I used what I deemed was my host’s prerogative and decreed: no Holocaust analogies.

I should have realized the Holocaust analogy was almost inevitable because Godwin’s law — as an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1 — unfortunately applies far beyond online discussions. My experience is that when this happens, the discussion veers to and concentrates on the analogy. Thus, instead of continuing with the topic under discussion, everyone starts arguing about whether the analogy is apt; some claim that no one can be compared to Hitler or the Nazis and others argue that even if it is not an exact comparison the factual settings are close enough. And on and on and back and forth until the earlier topic fades into the mists of memory, never to resurface again.

I understand that my no-Nazi analogies rule is unfair to those whose personal connections to the Shoah are real, tangible, and very much a part of their being. Nonetheless, continuing a thoughtful discussion often becomes impossible without it. So I suggest that if you need to make a historical comparison, try to come up with one that did not occur between 1933 and 1945. And if not, unfair though it is, please make your arguments another way.

(I do have one exception to this rule. If the person you are comparing to Hitler was personally responsible for the murder of more than a million people, I’ll let the reference fly. Luckily for humanity, not too many fall within this category.)

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t discuss the Shoah, or that there are no lessons to learn from it. Of course we should, and of course there are many nuanced lessons that arise out of its specific horrific events. But simple analogies to Shoah events or people, in addition to interfering with discussions, all too often are unhelpful. And this applies as well to historical analogies beyond the Holocaust.

What I’m objecting to is the too-often-glib use we make — and I plead guilty to have fallen into this “we” in the past — of Santayana’s famous maxim, as paraphrased by Churchill, that those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it. There are serious lessons to be learned from history, but they’re not as simple as saying that because we did x in the past and y happened, if we do x again we’ll be forced to repeat y.

One reason that doesn’t work is not that we don’t know enough about history. Rather, it’s that we know too much about history and not enough about the present. By that I mean, we know the results of our historical actions and now have knowledge about why many of those results occurred. So, for example, we now know that the Munich Agreement of 1938 didn’t work; those who entered into it didn’t, of course, know that. (Yes, I realize the irony of using a Holocaust example in an argument against using Holocaust analogies.)

And with our 20-20 hindsight glasses on, we have additional information that explains why it didn’t work — information we don’t have about present-day situations. We also know that small changes in facts can result in large changes in outcome and that post hoc ergo propter hoc is a logical fallacy, all of which should serve as a brake on facile analogies.

So, to continue with Munich, we err if we use Santayana’s adage to say that history has taught us that appeasement — the policy of making concessions to an aggressive power in order to avoid conflict — doesn’t work. That’s too easy since isn’t appeasement, in one sense, simply diplomacy that didn’t work? Had it actually achieved the desired results, as did other diplomatic efforts in different historical contexts, we’d call it smart diplomacy and learn different lessons. Moreover, learning not to make concessions to avoid conflict sometimes can be a wrong lesson; as some have argued, look at what happened in Vietnam and Iraq.

The lessons we truly need to learn, therefore, are the ones beneath the surface: for example, how carefully we must know our enemies and understand their intentions; how important it is sometimes to walk away from the table if we can’t adequately protect crucial interests; how the law of unintended consequences looms over critical decisions; how there’s so much we don’t know about which factors influence outcomes; how seriously we must consider the adverse effect of the agreement on others, and the fact that there will be others adversely effected even by wise and necessary decisions.

It’s those lessons and the many others that good historians tweak out of the past that we need to apply to current situations before us. That type of meaningful learning from history goes way beyond superficial analogies between events that span decades or even centuries.

There’s a wonderful Isaac Asimov time travel novel, “The End of Eternity,” whose conceit is that a group of trained time travelers make very minimal changes to past events that have enormous repercussions in the future. We know this as the butterfly effect — a butterfly flapping its wings in China can cause hurricanes in Texas. But since we’re mortals who don’t live with time travel and can’t adequately assess butterfly wing-flapping, we can’t simply assume that because something happened once under certain circumstances it will happen again in similar — but not the exact — circumstances.

So let’s continue vigorous discussion without simple historical analogies or comparisons to the Shoah. Hopefully, listening to and learning from each other will enable us to gain new insights while appreciating our agreements, and even disagreements, over that often completely unnecessary but always delicious second helping of dessert.
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About the Author
Joseph C. Kaplan, a regular columnist for the Jewish Standard, is a long-time resident of Teaneck. His work has also appeared in various publications including Sh’ma magazine, The New York Jewish Week, The Baltimore Jewish Times, and, as letters to the editor, The New York Times.
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