Tuesday, October 19, 2010

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." 

Almost every high school graduate who reads knows the quote that is the title to this post (or some version of it), from George Santayana. Here is the quote with some context:
Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. The Life of Reason, Vol. 1, Ch. XII.

I am reading The Rise And Fall Of The Third Reich, by William L. Shirer. It is an eyewitness account by a renowned journalist and historian of how Hitler came to power in Germany, how he Nazified the country and started World War II, and how he ultimately perished along with everything he had created. In addition to reporting the news as it happened in the late 1930s from his posts in Berlin and Vienna for Universal News Network and CBS, Shirer had extraordinary access to the records and documents collected for and generated by the Nuremburg trials, whether or not they were introduced as evidence. When the work was first published, in 1960 it was a sensational best seller. I'm not sure it would be so popular today because it is long and dense with information, and I don't know if a lot of modern Americans would have the patience to plow through it. That said, like most historical works it contains many ideas and concepts applicable to our contemporary world.

For example, I am struck by how closely the behavior of the British and French, and the League of Nations vis a vis Hitler in 1936-38 is paralleled by the West and the United Nations with regard to Iran's Ahmadinejad. In both cases, the dictator signaled well ahead of time what his plans were, and his feckless opponents refused to take him seriously. When Hitler finally could not be ignored, the British and French opted for appeasement rather than confrontation, much like the US and European powers are opting for negotiation and dialogue with Ahmadinejad rather than taking action, and for many of the same reasons. I am also struck by how much the behavior of Ahmadinejad (and other dictators of the day) resembles Hitler's behavior--as if they're reading from the same playbook (I plan a future post detailing the techniques Hitler used to become Der Fuehrer without violating the letter of German law at the time). There are also similarities between Germany in the 1930s and Iran today.

Because of these parallels I am becoming alarmed that we are condemned to repeat history, and soon. Karl Marx said, "History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce." I have a very uneasy feeling that in the case of Iran we will experience the first repetition, not the second.

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