This morning brings with it news that Israel’s Government is invoking Hitler in its cause to build in East Jerusalem
Israeli officials said on Wednesday Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman told Israeli ambassadors to circulate the 1941 shot in Berlin of the Nazi leader seated next to Haj Amin al-Husseini, the late mufti or top Muslim religious leader in Jerusalem.
One official said Lieberman, an ultranationalist, hoped the photo would “embarrass” Western countries into ceasing to demand that Israel halt the project on land owned by the mufti’s family in a predominantly Arab neighborhood in East Jerusalem.
Some diplomats opposed Lieberman’s move, arguing it could earn Israel stiffer world criticism for seeming to sidestep the wider conflict it faces with the Palestinians who want East Jerusalem as capital of a future state, another official said.
Asked why Lieberman issued the order, a spokesman said: “because it’s important for the world to know the facts” and would not elaborate.
Winston Churchill, (a historian of great merit in his own right), once commented that the peoples of the Balkans ‘produce more history than they can consume’. The same so easily applies to the Israel/Palestine conflict. To most people it would seem that putting up such a photo is a meaningless distraction, but to Israeli’s, especially those aged 50 or so, born to parents who survived/witnessed the Holocaust then the history and historical importance of such a photo must resonate strongly. History we are often told by learned men must be learnt so as to prevent us repeating the mistakes of the past.
What they don’t mention is that reading it often incites people to try and emulate the successes too, only in very different circumstances and with very different outcomes. No better example of this can be found than the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Led by a generation of men who also had parents in WW2 (only their memories are of great victory and liberation instead of brutal slaughter), George W Bush, a man with a bust of Winston Churchill on his desk, Tony Blair, living in Churchill’s house and 500m from his war time bunker & memorial, and John Winston Howard set their countries in motion to liberate Iraq from Tyranny. Whilst Iraq had made zero antagonistic moves against the west in recent years (and even half-truthfully accepted UN weapons inspectors), those who disagreed with the war were instantly labeled appeasers, ala Chamberlain’s 1938 blunder, with Saddam Hussein helpfully playing along in the role of mustachioed dictator. Here was the chance for these three to emulate their hero’s and live up to the merits of the ‘greatest generation’ who had defeated the Nazi’s and made great inroads against Communism. The weight of this history must have been heavy on these men from their positions of power to help the Iraqi people from what was one of the most brutal regimes in the 20th century.
Iraq of course had very little actual military might and was thoroughly defeated in less than a month. And far from the ease and praise of post-war Europe and Japan, Iraqi’s quickly soured on the invasion and began to attack their supposed liberators. That the analogy of 1939 had failed in every single way possible in helping understand the circumstances western governments found themselves in at the start of 2003, has not stopped similar conservative forces today declaring that Iran is the new Nazi Germany and cannot be appeased. As Fareed Zakaria points out, (again bringing pesky current facts into the debate), far from being Germany 1939, Iran who has 1/68th of the US military, is more like Romania. Indeed some US Senators have even taken to calling their own country “about where Germany was before World War II”. So long as the Baby Boomer Generation, born to fathers of the Second World War -with all its myriad and contradictory lessons- have power, analogies from that distant moment will continue to have an impact on our current political discussions. As Andrew Sullivan wisely noted in his 2007 essay for the Atlantic Magazine ‘Goodbye to all that’ the true radicalness of Obama for the USA is not in his policy (he is largely a cautious moderate) but rather that he is beyond the debates of the baby-boomers that have ripped America in-twain over the last 40 years. On race, gender, abortion and war Obama offered the US a chance to let go of its history and begin to build something new.
History it seems far from granting us wisdom seems time and again to be preventing us from seeing the world as it actually is, rather than in patterns of the past. One cause of this perhaps may be the staggering rise in popular histories amongst the reading public. Recently released, though yet to appear here in Australia, is Margaret MacMillan’s Dangerous Games:
The Uses and Abuses of History which charts the many ways in which history is mishandled, distorted, politicized and mis-used by historians. After this great catalog of sins, the author, (a professional historian herself) poses this question:
MacMillan ends by asking whether we would be worse off not knowing any history at all…. “I think the answer would probably be yes,” she writes, a sentence that is unlikely to serve as the historians’ manifesto.
MacMillan argues that history’s greatest tool is to provide us with humility. To learn how often wrong and misguided past generations were in their efforts, and perhaps how we can use it to begin to doubt the basis of our own certainty. But in a hyper-connected and digitalized world, if anything history will be more and more with us. Where pub disputes about a past war or politician were forgotten with the purchasing of the next round, now someone invariably whips out a internet connected phone and checks that holy source Wikipedia for an answer. As more and more key moments are captured on film (witness the outpouring at the 40 year anniversary of the Moon Landing), the more history will be brought into current media streams to supplement and fill in time. Former Prime Minister John Howard may for this reason soon get his wish that young students are better exposed to history, but whether this is equal to an education in history is a completely different matter. Whilst memories imparted from books and film are never quite as strong as those gathered whilst sitting at the knee of a parent, this upcoming generation will likely not be able to escape the onslaught of history in their everyday life. As an avid reader of history I know no better source of personal development than reading history books, and yet every generation also deserves the chance to forget what has come before so it may remake and explore new potentials. If history’s lessons were never breakable we would never had had the rise of the church, nor that of the nation-state, nor international organisations. Each of these changes occurred through the acts of a generation that was willing to deliberately ignore the lessons of the past and push for a new future. Looking these days to places such as Israel/Palestine you can’t help but feel the people there also desperately need an act of wide scale amnesia, if they are ever to find peace.