Why don't people learn from history

History happens. Therefore it is difficult to learn from it

Can you learn from history? Of course, there is a lot that can be learned from it. Like a huge arsenal, history holds an enormous number of events, fates and personalities in store. A look at history shows what was and is possible, it shows what people were and are capable and incapable of. Not to forget Caesar, Nero, Augustine, Friedrich der Staufer, Pope Celestine V, Luther, Riemenschneider, Kant, van Gogh, Hitler, Stalin. The quote from the “Antigone” by Sophocles, which stands above a door of the Niobidensaal in the New Museum in Berlin, formulates it validly carved in stone through the ages: “There is much that is amazing and yet nothing more amazing than man.” The story is one beautiful and terrible cabinet of curiosities.

But none of that is meant today when the question arises whether one can learn from history. What is meant is rather: Can we draw lessons? Can we learn the right thing from history? And in such a way that mistakes and crimes that have happened once are avoided in the future, even excluded? These are very German questions. Those who raise it are shocked to learn that a cultural nation as it liked to see itself was able to commit the greatest human crime imaginable within a few years. It is true that in the first decades after 1945 the Germans did not exactly bother to remember, to commemorate, to look closely. Rather, the majority of them, perhaps ashamed, quickly went over to everyday life, they “kept silent” about the monstrous. If the monstrosity of the Nazi crimes was initially a motive for not looking and not looking to the bottom, it was later, however, precisely this monstrosity that almost forced one to look. Not every individual and the many individuals certainly to different degrees. But for about three decades now, looking at things - regardless of the ritualized - visualization of the Nazi era has been part of the raison d'être of the Federal Republic of Germany. Never look away again!

On Eternal Peace: Immanuel Kant

In this attitude, Germany probably differs from all other countries on the globe - apart from Israel and the Jewish people who suffered the Holocaust and for whom the request “Zachor!” (Remember!) Has always been a religious commandment of Torah is. Almost all other societies have a very different approach to the negative aspects of their history. They either do not treat them at all or only treat them dilatorily. Japan, which still honors war criminals at the Yasukuni Shrine, is the now classic example. Behind this way of dealing with one's own history, based on oblivion, is also, but not only, the unwillingness to shed light on the mistakes of one's own nation. The method of erasing the memory of crime has had a long cultural tradition since the Hellenic-Greek period. According to her, it is not useful and not conducive to the future to keep the memory of misdeeds alive. Because that, so the argument goes, only perpetuates the strife, can only be an occasion for new violence and new atrocities. Therefore, because of the future, a line must be drawn, the proverbial grass must grow over committed crimes. Only the fiction of an - innocent, excused - zero hour makes civilized life possible. The suffering of the victims must, as it were, be sacrificed on the altar of the future, that is, given up in silence.

Practiced, comfortable commemorative culture

There is wisdom in this attitude. In Germany, however, it was not possible to do this permanently after 1945. Because the crimes that should have been “forgotten” went beyond any framework, they terminated all civilizational agreements. Life went on afterwards - as if the negation of all bourgeois values ​​had not existed. Without the implicitly assumed, but actually unfounded trust in the validity of civil rules, survival in Germany would not have been possible (Jan Philipp Reemtsma, for example, deals extensively with this painful paradox in his study “Trust and Violence”).

In the long run, however, it became apparent that this continued existence required, indeed forced, a confrontation with the past. The Germans have been practicing this confrontation for some time. May 8, November 9 and - less so - January 27 are fixed days in the German commemorative calendar, and from the Federal President to the President of the Bundestag, the heads of the memorials to almost every school director, the country has a large number of personalities, who, with the eager consent of all the good-natured, can proclaim in well-placed words that sound as modest as they are lofty and testify that the Germans have learned their lesson and that it is always necessary to be vigilant.

Even if all of this comes too easily and smoothly for some people: it's a good thing. But does that make you immune or at least more resistant to future attempts at violence? I doubt it. For as necessary as it is, there has long been something pleasant and self-centered about this commemoration. As serious as the tone sounds, it cannot be overheard that there is also a certain satisfaction. I consider the word “pride in sin” to be fatal, and I also do not share the thesis that the Germans quickly turned from world champions in crime to world champions in remembering, commemorating and “making amends”.

But there is no doubt that a large part of our commemorative culture is characterized by mental comfort. “How is it now possible?” This standard sentence from Walter Kempowski's mother, who expressed her pure amazement at the turbulent times, can hardly be helpful and insightful when looking at the Shoah. Because although it was possible, it cannot be understood. To reject the murder of the Jews of Europe from the safe haven of an established democracy as the terribly other, is necessary, but completely banal. It does not distinguish the rejecter. Sometimes silence would be better than practiced talking and remembering.


“The secret of reconciliation is called remembrance”: We should deliberately take this sentence from the Talmud, which we use far too often and far too often incorrectly, out of use. This also applies to George Santayana's often tried sentence from 1905: “Those who do not remember their past are condemned to repeat it.” (In the original: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat is. "). As round and beautiful as this turn of the philosopher may be, it does not contain that part of the truth that disturbs: Even those who try to remember the past are not immune from committing misdeeds or being blind to them. The ancient historian Christian Meier noted in his work "The commandment to forget and the inevitability of remembering": "It is by no means certain that active memory excludes repetition."

The old story of the drunken key hunter: A man who has had too much alcohol is on his way home at night. A policeman sees him frantically searching the floor in the light of a lantern. When the policeman asks him what he is doing, he replies that he is looking for his lost house key. The policeman replies that he is sure that he has lost it right here. The man replies: "No, but it's light here."

The point of this anecdote can be transferred to the confrontation with the Nazi past. This is brightly lit - but there is little to suggest that we will find the key to avoiding future breaks in civilization if we search for National Socialism. Again, it is necessary and important to visualize it - in the interests of our moral sensibility. For that reason alone, without sending any message to us as today's actors. Perhaps we are lucky, and the German preoccupation with the German civilization break will help us to recognize civilization dangers and even to master them. But there is no guarantee that it will. More and more and more of commemorative culture does not bring us one step forward.

History can only be "explained" in retrospect

For one simple reason: history is an event. An event is characterized by the fact that it happens, that it happens, that it is usually not to be expected. We may cast as many glances at past events as we like, that in no way increases the probability that we can better recognize or decipher events that are just coming or going.

The ancient historiography in the tradition of Herodotus was quite familiar with this. There was no goal here, no direction in history, and basically no progress either. Story happened. It was fascinating and in a way instructive to learn about the deeds and misdeeds of past generations, about heroes and villains. But nobody would have thought that this preoccupation with the ancestors could provide guidance for a better survival of the present. Also not because history can only have consistency and consistency in retrospect and can thus become “explainable”. If it is still in the corridor, it moves continuously from fork to fork. And it could have turned out differently for each of them than it did then.

1815: The Battle of Waterloo

Just a small thing and Napoleon would have won the Battle of Waterloo. If Hitler had stayed only 13 minutes longer in Munich's Bürgerbräukeller on November 8, 1939, as originally planned, Georg Elser's bomb might have prevented World War II and the Shoah. Or: If Germany had not given Lenin safe passage to Petersburg, the Russians and the world might have been spared the October Revolution and 70 years of Soviet empire, etc. etc.

2015: The battlefield of Waterloo

The fact that a developed awareness of history and a demanding culture of remembrance do not have to help to be prepared for current challenges can be clearly observed at the moment. The historian Karl Schlögel can certainly not be accused of having no sense of historical inconsistencies and of believing that the civility of Europe's post-war history is irrevocably assured. And yet he, too, who knows Russia and Central Europe, seems to have at least hoped that with the miraculously peaceful end of the Soviet Union we would have left the worst behind us and the binding force of treaties would in the long run replace the threat of violence that existed at that time the Cold War was always virulent.

He could not have imagined how Russia would deal with Ukraine, it was a shock to him. In “Cicero” he wrote (we will learn more about this from his new book “Decision in Kiev”, which will be published in the autumn): “This shock particularly affects those who have spent a lifetime with Russia and the improvement of the relationship between Germans and Russians have dealt; there are not a few. They all wonder whether they overheard or overlook something, have even fooled themselves and others and now have to admit their failure. "

There were probably no signs or signals that could be overlooked. It was perhaps a mistake, however, to believe hopefully that the return of Eastern and Central Europe to history also meant its end, as now - for the benefit and piety of all in East and West - the in principle everlasting age of the rule of law had dawned . Afterwards one is always wiser, and so we now take notice with horror of what is actually taken for granted, which any look at the history of any epoch could have taught us: Rules apply until someone comes along who does not adhere to them. Such a person can always come, such a constellation can always arise, even the most devoted diplomacy of Frank-Walter Steinmeier cannot prevent it.

Donetsk, January 2015

What is most astonishing is our astonishment about it. 25 years of the end of communism, almost 70 years of the rule of law in Germany, almost 250 years of democracy in the United States: only the blink of an eye in history. It is because we have tended to forget that we stand so perplexed before Putin's return to geopolitics and his coolly calculated and skillfully choreographed departure from the politics of agreement. Putin taught us that the no, which cannot be converted into a yes even by the gentlest tongues of diplomacy, is an always available option. That doesn't speak against treaties and diplomacy, on the contrary. It only speaks against the belief that treaties and diplomacy could make the rule of law and democracy weatherproof forever worldwide.

From problem to solution to problem

Why do we tend to believe this? In Germany at least it has a lot to do with the European Union. It is, to the detriment of the EU, notoriously inflated in terms of salvation history. As can be heard in almost every celebratory speech, it should be the consequence that we have drawn once and for all from the history of European violence in the 20th century: the EU as a defense against historical threats, as a bulwark. From the rubble landscape to the realm of everlasting European peace - that should be the path of the European unification process. The inherent logic would consequently require the turning away from the principally contentious and violent nation-state and the merging of the individual states into a superordinate structure, which would be a kind of anticipation of the world state and world government.

Even if a number of manifestos from the time before 1945 - such as the beautiful Manifesto by Ventotene (1941) inspired by Altiero Spinelli - suggest this reading, in truth the European unification process would have been hopelessly overwhelmed if it had been entangled with this historical-philosophical and teleological twist In gear. The EU is not pursuing a salvation program, but is stumbling more or less skillfully from problem to solution to problem and again to the provisional solution. That is their strength. On the other hand, it would be completely overwhelmed if the mission was ascribed to it, that it had to free Europe and, if possible, the whole world from the spirit of National Socialism, totalitarianism as a whole and thus from the potential for violence inherent in human history. The EU is good and useful, but it is not the phoenix that rose from the ashes of the 20th century. No phoenix nowhere, the furies of history are never banned.

Because not a few well-meaning people understood and understood the EU as a machine that would at least free the continent permanently from the fate of history, the European unification project was overloaded with history-steleological overload. In political everyday life, which is determined by pragmatic finger-wrestling, this is persistently denied, but is nevertheless - like a secret lubricant - always present. The EU never seems to be only the obvious and advisable, it should always live from a history-philosophical surplus. It is said to be the civilian plant that blooms on the grave slab that seals off National Socialism and the entire history of European violence. This - ex negativo - justification of the EU cuts it off from the European past.

There is a long pre-national history of Europe as a federation, as a loose, in political philosophical terms hardly comprehensible and describable union: not state, but federation. This is what the EU is essentially continuing to do, and above all it is in this tradition. It is therefore more than strange that in today's European discourse there is almost no comparative reference to older federal and imperial traditions - Roman Empire, Old Empire, Habsburg Empire. The key is sought where it is light. The turning away from the - well-lit - totalitarianism of the 20th century is said to be the foundation of the EU. But that is a false, misleading and undemanding reason. If we wanted to learn from history at this point, we would have to leave behind the self-referential nature of our view of history, in which 1933 is the only watershed. Learning from history also means: taking detours and picking up on what has been left behind.

Niobidensaal, Neues Museum, Berlin

The past year of commemoration in 1914 has shown that a culture of remembrance that has developed so magnificently as the German one by no means has to encourage an open approach to history. Although the beginning of the First World War a hundred years ago was thought everywhere, numerous new and sometimes surprising studies on the subject appeared. But there was no profit, a gain in knowledge, a rethinking of the apparently familiar.In the end, at least in German-speaking countries, that orthodoxy prevailed that Heinrich August Winkler most brusquely put into its old law against all new investigations: the orthodoxy that we actually already knew everything about the Great War and that in the end everything would work out revolves around the question of guilt. When the Great War began in 1914, the states of Europe faced a prosperous future and doom took its course.

The public discourse of the past year has dealt almost exclusively with doom. A chance to widen the view was wasted. Presumably because the fear prevailed that with an unbiased, fresh look at the Great War, we would recognize a multitude of coincidences. And these coincidences would relativize the fate and damage the practiced historical-philosophical archery.

Always remain aware of the revocability

There is a fear of getting involved in the randomness and silence of the story. There are good reasons behind this fear: We do not want to accept the principle contingency of history. What is the use, one might ask, of all preoccupation with history if it is only good for delecting or horrifying or just looking at it? As meaning-oriented beings who are fundamentally capable of future planning, it would be very convenient for people if every event in history were part of a course in which - if necessary ex negativo - a direction, a goal could be identified. This has, at least in the Christian-Jewish tradition, a religious reason.

Salvation history also means: history no longer runs cyclically, no longer breaks down into puzzling and actually meaningless details. Rather, it has a supernatural telos which - so the punch line of Christianity - can also strongly influence earthly events. What counts, even more so in the Protestant than the Catholic variant, is what happens down here, and people are encouraged to do their own good and sensible. Seen in this way, history could be a process of accumulation of success, meaning and coherence. But it is not, as it has emphatically shown itself.

Perhaps the best way to learn from history is to hold on to the possibility of progress as carefully as conceivable, but always be aware of the contingency and the fact that everything and everyone can be revoked. Ultimately, that would be a much more demanding program than that which our self-revolving commemorative culture has to offer, which only armies against the known. The current world situation, which from Ukraine to Libya has so impressively put the No to treaty thinking in position, offers ample cause and reason to begin quickly and decisively. Because National Socialism was absolutely evil, anything that turned against it could appear good.

What remained of the German extermination camp Belzec

The German preoccupation with the Nazi era also promoted a morally charged black-and-white way of thinking: the good guys here, the bad guys there. It is understandable that it could come about, as it also meets the human need for clarity and unambiguity, which is rooted in the childish element. But it prevents us from understanding complicated realities. We would actually have learned a lot from history if we had tried, for example, to stop looking at the Ukraine-Russia antagonism under the question of who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. Not doing it trains you in dealing with dilemmas.

Perhaps it would be nice if mankind had the ability to internalize experiences once they have made, to integrate them into the genetic code and thus to avoid mistakes once made in the future. But that is not the case. The collective experiences are not stored in the consciousness of the individual. The human being assumes - and not only wrongly - that his actions are unconditional. He is free, his actions are not predetermined, and he tends - more unconsciously than consciously - to assume that the world begins with him. He knows that he is in a long chain, but this knowledge is usually not decisive for action. Everyone has every new experience - including the last, death - for the first time. It doesn't help that others have already done them. That's why it's so incredibly difficult to learn from history.

This article has just been published in the journal "Internationale Politik" (IP), Volume 70, No. 4, July / August 2015.