What can we learn from history 1
As a historian, one looks back, one digs into the past in order to better understand the world, in order to draw lessons for the future. Magnus Brechtken received the NDR Kultur Sachbuchpreis in 2017 for his biography about Albert Speer - now the historian has written a new book: "The value of history. Ten lessons for the present".
Mr. Brechtken, as a historian, how do you understand the value of history? Does preoccupation with the past inevitably have something to do with the present or the future?
Magnus Brechtken: There is the well-known question: Can you learn from history? Some say: "History does not repeat itself, but history rhymes." Or: "You can only repeat past mistakes." All of this is not really correct, because we can only learn from history - nothing else is available to us. The knowledge that has been accumulated in the past through thinking, acting and researching people who lived before us is available to us, and we can use and tap into this large fund every day. We just have to be aware of it and realize this existing knowledge in the present.
In technology this goes without saying: Nobody would take the stagecoach from Hamburg to Munich today, but use the ICE, fly or use their car. This is an advance in knowledge that has developed over the past few decades. In the same way, one can see advances in knowledge in the world of politics, business and society. People have experimented in the past - some of it worked, some not so well, and we can benefit from it.
They make it very clear: Those who have their appendix operated on today can rely on much greater know-how than people 50 years ago. However, the experiences from the field of politics and society are to be evaluated quite differently - you speak of the "soft world". Why is it so much more complicated to derive historical experiences from the "soft world"?
Brechtken: This is primarily due to the fact that many people are often not aware of this historical dimension and are not required to think about it more intensively. Thinking usually only comes when you are in a time of crisis or when you yourself are faced with personal challenges that you have to overcome. At present, the example of Corona is a vivid way of becoming aware of these things, because there have always been such epidemics and challenges of a medical nature. In the past, science, medical research and the associated political and social rules ensured that we know how best to deal with such challenges: through research, through rational analysis, through precautionary measures, so that as few people as possible are affected. You can see it that way in history in many other experiences, and you can benefit from it in the present.
Other examples would be the disputes in the international world, for example between Turkey and Greece over gas reserves, or the dispute with Russia over the question of how to deal with opposition politicians. All of these are experiences that many people in the present seem inexplicable at first, and one does not know how to react to them. But we can recognize from our own history which patterns and behaviors underlie it and what we can do ourselves to keep our society stable and perhaps also to be helpful for others.
Important values were recognized and fought for: freedom, self-determination, participation. Values that will in turn be questioned by nationalists and populists in 2020. What can not only human beings, what can a society learn from history?
Brechtken: That is basically the core of what the value of history is: we know where nationalism is going. We know where dogmatic ideologies that claim to have recognized the laws of history lead to - whether that is communism or National Socialism. We know that these ideologies result in millions of victims and that we must be careful not to repeat such things. We should do everything to maintain a free society with the rule of law, with parliamentary democracy, with a free press, with free expression, with an open society, so that all people with their individual rights to life have the opportunity to participate in it, within the framework of consideration on all other people to unfold. We don't have to repeat the mistakes that people 100 or 150 years ago saw as promises of happiness in the future, for example in nationalism, Nazism or communism. We can save ourselves the whole thing, and we can defend what has been established in Germany, Central Europe and many other countries in the world over the past 75 years in order to achieve this peace that has existed for the first time in this long period of time to back up.
Include "Ten Lessons for the Present" at the end of your book. Which lesson is most important to you?
Brechtken: That people understand that they are fallible beings and that there is no such thing as a perfect world. But that we have the opportunity to use our fallibility to create a society, political structures and a constitutional state in which everyone - bound by certain rules - can live a free, healthy, progressive and, in a certain sense, happy life if everyone takes each other into consideration and follow these rules. This is something that has developed as a body of knowledge over the past few decades. We should be aware of this knowledge base on a daily basis.
The interview was conducted Claudia Christophersen
This topic in the program:
NDR culture | Journal | 09/01/2020 | 6:00 p.m.
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