The Circle of History

I’m reading To Hell and Back: Europe 1914–1949 by Ian Kershaw, mostly because I am a huge fan of this author’s work and because I used to be obsessed with World War II several years ago. The book is part of the Penguin History of Europe Series, which covers almost all of recorded history (from the city of Troy in ancient Greece until the present). It’s 522 pages with very few footnotes and no endnotes (just a really long bibliography) and a font size that’s not microscopic, so it’s an extremely brief survey of what happened during the two World Wars, the time between them, and a small slice of the recovery period thereafter.

It’s strange to read about European politics in the time before World War II and compare it to American politics today. In a way, it’s the same thing all over again: the ideology of the Right versus the ideology of the Left, the propaganda from both sides, and the regular, hardworking, everyday people wanting no more than the basics of life at a price that they can afford. But the human story goes on in cycles, and history repeats itself whether we are aware of it doing so or not.

We always say that if we were around during World War II, we would have stopped Hitler from destroying the Jews and all the others he deemed unworthy. We always say, with the benefit of hindsight behind us, that we wouldn’t have been as stupid as those Germans who joined the Nazi party or those Italians who supported Fascism or those Russians who supported Communism. We would have seen it coming, unlike those ill-informed citizens of history.

Today it’s different. We’re bombarded with news. We can’t escape it. There are televisions and Internet access everywhere. We have so much information about politics, government, and leadership that we can’t process it all. Most of us can’t effectively sift through all the information to find the bias, and most of us simply can’t be bothered to put forth the effort anyway. We try not to get too involved with politics or with the leadership of our communities because it’s complicated. It’ll just give you a headache and fill you with impotent rage because you can’t truly change anything. No matter which party wins the election in November, we’ll likely still get more of the same thing.

So we put our heads in the sand and go about our lives and fill our ears and eyes with mindless entertainment while world events go on. We become desensitized to terrorist attacks and school shootings and presidential candidate debates because there are just so many of them and new information about them is inescapable and in our faces constantly. Who can make sense of all these world events and do it in an unbiased way? Nobody.

Then someone in the future, one hundred years from now, will look back on our times and say something like, “Those stupid Americans of yesteryear! They shouldn’t have wasted so much time watching all that reality TV. They should have been more aware of what was going on in the world, and all those terrorist attacks could have been prevented.” Or maybe that person in the future won’t say anything because he’ll live in a “brave new world” where history has been obliterated. Who knows? The only thing that stays the same is human nature, so we get what is effectively the same story over and over but with different characters.