Lessons learned and unlearned from history (part one)

That “things can change for the better” has always been my mantra when it comes to understanding the darkest eras in human history.  If people learn about extreme forms that evil can take, if they just understood the profound consequences of hatred and bigotry, then they would set up roadblocks to the Holocaust and other genocides, creating a dead-end for perpetrators rather than victims. I grew up on the sacred secular vernacular regarding lessons learned from the Holocaust.  Lessons like “Never Again” and “Those who do not learn from the past are condemned to repeat it.”  “Never Again” deserves an “F” on the scale of “Learned” teaching objectives, given the host of post-World War II genocides, not to mention the rise of hate crimes that Jews and others face today.  But what about that second pillar of wisdom, surely that locution on the “lessons of history” can’t be disputed?

Too few who are committed to this enduring sentiment used to foster study on the Nazi genocide realize that historian George Santayana was not referring to the Holocaust.  Indeed, he published these prolific words decades earlier in his 1905 work entitled The Life of Reason.  Ironically, Santayana was then encouraging his readers to draw upon the past for its “positive” lessons so that society would not have to constantly start from scratch in achieving a transition from idealism to constructive activism.

No doubt, Adolf Hitler in his zealousness to wipe out the Jews learned history well–from the first civilian mass-murder of the 20th Century.  In his (now) fairly well-known speech to his generals, he stated “Who remembers the Armenians?”  Hitler was referring to the Armenian Massacre by the Turks during World War I.  He concluded that since no one cared about them or remembered the death marches, mass shootings, starvation, deportations, freight cars that the Armenian population endured, the Nazis could  re-employ these measures with a good chance that there would be little opposition from the well-meaning nations of the world and/or the indigenous neighbors of those targeted.   Hitler gets an A in “learning about past methods of annihilation” and then applying and innovating the tactics to state-of -the-art technology, popular culture and racist ideology.  He also gets an A in predicting the lack of response on the part of the Allied nations to the persecution and genocide of the Jews.

There is little doubt that Hitler’s accurate reading of the past fostered and facilitated the Final Solution. For him, learning from history led to the furthering of ruthless evil.   Grimly acknowledged, what does this tragic message that history can be turned on its side and utilized by those who exert brute power do for a teacher?  I entered Northeastern Illinois Teachers College, decades ago, committed to studying and teaching history to illuminate and explore alternative ways towards confronting evil, particularly by analyzing antecedents.  Now I wonder whether “learning” the lessons from the Holocaust is the best road to preventing future genocides.  Some post-war tyrannical national leaders have been inspired by how the Nazis carried out The Final Solution (annihilation of Jews) and sought to replicate Nazi atrocities AGAINST THEIR OWN PEOPLE.

One of my students pointed the way towards dealing with the disturbing thought that knowledge can be deadly.  She expressed that it is not enough to merely learn from the past and hope that reason and good intentions change things.  She believes that we must “unlearn the complacency of knowledge”; rather, we must act when it is warranted.  If our course, “Lessons Learned and Unlearned,” has taught me anything, she went on, it is that we cannot rely just on learning and studying about evil to stop hate.  Thus, on her way home to Washington Heights, my student intervened in a situation where a seemingly autistic young boy was being poked and cursed at by a male teen who appeared to her as a “gang banger.”

Immediately she positioned herself between the seated boy and the standing brute and confronted him right in his face yelling “stop.”  He abruptly (and thankfully) “stood down,” edging away in the crowded car of silent bystanders.  I shuddered at her telling of this story and feared in retrospect for my student’s safety.  Even as I applauded her courage, I beseeched her to never do this again.  The risk of endangerment was too great. She respectfully but firmly replied that if the same situation were ever to repeat itself, “she would so do it again.”  Perhaps this student is “walking the walk” and after 20 years, I have only been “talking the talk”? For both students and teacher, two questions emerged from this course.  “When does one shun potential danger and move in the direction of concern for a fellow traveler?”  And, “When does common decency (and responsibility to others) trump personal safety?

Part two will be posted next week.

About the Author
Dr. Karen Sutton is associate professor of history at the Lander College for Women, a division of Touro College, in New York City.
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