History Still Matters

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I am fascinated by what I see in the rearview mirror of experience. The future, being a mystery, excites, but the past instructs. When I was a student at the University of Texas, one of the favorite campus legends concerned a professor of anthropology, whose great power was in bringing the past alive through his brilliant lectures on the ascent of the human species. Once, when he had been holding forth on a certain phase of evolution, a student in the rear of the room raised his hand and said, “Professor, I just don’t see what difference it would have made if my great-great-great grandfather had been an ape.” And the professor shot back: “It would have made a significant difference to your great-great-great grandmother.”

So the past matters. In the words of the historian Christopher Lasch, “All of us, both as individuals and as a people, are shaped by past events more than we can fully understand. … Trapped in a past not of their making, most people cannot afford the illusion that tradition counts for nothing, even if much of their energy goes into a struggle against it.”

Lyndon B. Johnson learned this. “No one,” he said, “ever arrives in the White House with an agenda all his own. He finds the blackboard already covered with the unfinished work of others.”

No journalist dare ignore the view in the rearview mirror. Every story I cover as a journalist is the consequence of events often unremembered but always inescapable. Finding the story means digging for the root.

Try covering Poland without taking account of the centuries-old hostility between Russians, Poles, and Germans: the extraordinary role of the Catholic Church in the most Catholic nation in Europe; the partition of Poland in the late eighteenth century; the subsequent struggle for independence; Poland’s terrible experience in the Second World War; and the circumstances in which a Communist regime was imposed on the Polish people at its end.

Only through the rearview mirror does the Middle East appear in sharp relief. The crisis there today stems from the ancient claim both Jews and Arabs make to the same small piece of territory, and the passion of Zionism is given its driving force by the historical memory of anti-Semitism culminating in the genocide of World War II.

In South Africa the claim of the black majority to self-determination is opposed by the descendants of the white Dutch Calvinist settlers, who have defended their position and traditions against Africans and British alike for two hundred years. We have to take that into account; just as, in our own nation, we must understand how the racial travail of modern times results from the slave trade that brought Africans to work on Southern plantations.

As my friend, the historian Alan Bullock, once explained, even nuclear weapons, most surely wrought from the flesh and bone of our century, cannot be considered without a due regard for history. Although they are a totally new element that has transformed the nature of warfare, the framework within which they are deployed is inherited from the past. National states developed international relations, which continue to be dominated by competition, suspicion, and rivalry. No amount of well-meaning rhetoric about the need for international control and disarmament has so far succeeded in removing the fear created by this combination of something entirely new with something as old as the practice of power politics. Thus, when the Russians look into their rearview mirrors, they see mushroom clouds rising above Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and they tell themselves that only one nation has ever used the bomb in war—and it wasn’t them.

Americans have never lingered long looking backward. We’re a people of the future. The horizon compels our gaze, not landmarks littering the past. As my mother said often to me, “Be sure your headlights are brighter than your tail-lights.” But something is always bumping me from behind, trying to get my attention.

A journalist is licensed to explain things he himself does not understand. This includes the past. We journalists are literally amateurs, lovers of all things— the old stuff up there in the attic too. This led me to undertake for public television a series on our immediate past called “A Walk Through the 20th Century.” So it was that I came to appreciate the power of television to help us discover, as Thomas Carlyle said, that “the past is a world, and not a void of grey haze.”

Consider just one of the documentaries in that series. This particular one looked at the propaganda battle of World War II. Now, propaganda is as old as the sorcery and pageantry by which ancient emperors awed their subjects—as old as missionaries and the Declaration of Independence. But in the hands of the twentieth-century super-state, propaganda has become a fearful means for a zealous few to manipulate the minds of millions. One of the people I interviewed for this film is a man named Fritz Hippler. He was eighty-two years old when we located him in Germany in 1981. As a young man during the war he served as a chief of Adolf Hitler’s film ministry. He lives today in the shadow of Hitler’s old retreat, the Eagle’s Nest near Berchtesgaden. He is tall, healthy—and unrepentant. In a chilling interview, Fritz Hippler told of how he tried to reach the soul of the masses through appalling propaganda films like The Eternal Jew, which planted the seeds of justification for genocide. Listening to him, I found it hard to believe that evil could wear so placid a face and fester behind eyes so serene.