We have to learn history before we learn from it
Every so often, a newspaper will get a call about somebody regarding some historical information or artifact and those always are fun conversations.
Well, fun for me, anyway, because I’m a history geek. Most of the time, such calls will have to do with something about the caller’s family history.
The latest came last week when called regarding something she found while going through her recently deceased father’s possessions. It was a small book, “Service Record World War II, Wauneta and Community.” Apparently put out by the Wauneta American Legion Auxiliary, it had the names and pictures of everyone from Wauneta and the surrounding area who served in the war. She was wondering if there was any way to scare up another copy.
We may have a copy of it here somewhere, but it’s unlikely after 70 years. And even if we did, God knows where it would be. I referred her to the local library and the county historical society.
People have a varying attachment to history, but when it’s personal, most people are going to be interested. It’s always fun to hear some familial historical legend, and it’s always disappointing when you find out the story is just that: a legend.
When I was a kid, I was told by my father’s aunt that we had an ancestor who was a Civil War general, a guy named Forbes. I’ve always had an interest in the Civil War, so I thought that was kind of cool.
Years later, I heard a different version of the family tale, that Forbes was actually a general who was George Washington’s commander in the French and Indian War. If anything, that was almost more intriguing. I mean, the only thing cooler than having George Washington as an ancestor would be having one who literally got to order Washington around.
From what little research I was able to do, it turns out our ancestor was actually the brother of Washington’s commander. And a family legend sinks into the sunset.
Still, having any kind of personal history gives a certain shape and meaning to one’s own background. Karon’s family in this country actually goes back to the Revolutionary War and I’m a bit envious.
Still, my own personal history is a source of some pride. My grandparents were off the boat from Sicily. They were illiterate dirt farmers there, but like millions of others they rolled the dice, came to this country and helped build it. All but two of their children served in World War II, then returned to build the middle class. It’s the quintessential American immigrant story. Its very banality makes me proud. And I find it significant that two generations after a man who could not read stepped off a boat at Ellis Island, one of his descendants has made his living as a writer.
But as thrilling as personal history can be, and as much as people get into it, history in general gets short shrift in America. Way too many people neither know it, nor understand its importance.
For those of us who do know history, of course, these are interesting times.
It’s way too easy for those who oppose Trump to compare him to Hitler. It’s probably because Trump’s rise, like Hitler’s, was unique in some ways. As I heard a historian say recently, history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.
And there have been times when the parallels are nothing if not creepy.
For example, I was very disturbed by the alt-right march in Charlottesville that resulted in the death of an antifascist protester. That was just too close to incidents in 1930s Germany, and the people involved in the Charlottesville march were too similar to a segment of the German population.
The people on that march, with their anti-semitic chants and torches, were too much like the SA, or Brown Shirts, Hitler’s first organized group of thugs. They were sort of a paramilitary wing of the Nazi party, and loved nothing more than to hold marches that often as not devolved into hunts for Jews to beat. Even some of the Charlottesville marchers’ chants, like “Blood and Soil,” were the same.
The SA came to a bad end. Hitler actually had them all killed during an intra-party power struggle that became known as “the night of the long knives.” But for a while, they caused a lot of trouble.
While Trump has proposed and done some things uncomfortably close to Hitler, I’m not sure I can take the step to say he’s Hitler-like, because I know a fair amount about Hitler. And the U.S. isn’t 1930s Germany, where the economy was so shattered that you literally had to have a wheelbarrow full of money to buy one loaf of bread.
Still, a lot can change before the next election, and if the economy goes south, it could get ugly. Not 1930s-Germany ugly, but ugly. We’ll see.
The closest historical parallel I see to Trump is Nixon. Maybe that’s because I lived through Nixon, but I haven’t seen anything to change my mind. Trump also lived through Nixon but appears bent on making some of the same mistakes he did. But again, we’ll see.
The other historical parallel I see these days is the increase in income inequality and a certain mindset on the part of the wealthy. It’s a lot — a lot — like the 1890s, the so-called “Gilded Age,” when the wealthy held costume parties dressed as the poor while the real poor died in the tenements and streets.
What gives me some optimism is that at least we have some history to learn from. If we have a mind to, we can look back on other, similar historical periods and at least try to not make some of the mistakes our ancestors did.
Am I unreasonably optimistic? Maybe. Stupidity and cluelessness are more or less part of the human condition. But with a little work, maybe we can learn something from what’s happened before.
Tom Pantera is the news editor at the Wauneta Breeze. He has a passion for storytelling, obscure trivia and family. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org