Careless History Costs Lives

Cultural amnesia is very hard to reverse

Daniel Johnson

The National Prayer Breakfast is a peculiarly American institution. Some 3,500 guests gather in Washington from all over the world to learn how to save their souls before breakfast—and to do some networking too. This year they heard the NASCAR driver Darrell Waltrip tell them: “If you don’t know Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour . . . you are going to hell.” Also present was the Dalai Lama, who listened politely to the news of his impending damnation. You never know who will turn up at the National Prayer Breakfast. But nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.

That was what they got, though, when President Obama stood up to speak. Warning them not to “get on our high horse”, he added: “Remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.” He was speaking immediately after Islamic State had burned alive a Jordanian pilot and weeks after the Paris massacre. Mr Obama later dismissed the threat posed by those who “randomly shoot a bunch of folks in a deli in Paris”. He did not identify the perpetrators, let alone the victims.

The President must know that there was nothing random about the attacks in Paris and Copenhagen. Why does he  feel able to ignore the Islamist threat, which is urgent and global, while visiting the centuries-old sins of crusaders and inquisitors on the present generation? The Crusades effectively ended with the fall of Acre in 1291; the last victim of the Spanish Inquisition died in 1826. Charles Krauthammer, who besides being Washington’s sharpest pundit is also a psychiatrist, was “stunned that the President could say something so, at once banal and offensive, adolescent stuff”. Yet Mr Obama is the leader of the free world, a Harvard academic, an educated man. This is what passes for intellectual sophistication in our day.

Last month our greatest living playwright, Sir Tom Stoppard, gave a talk at the National Theatre, where his first new play for nine years, The Hard Problem, recently opened. He explained that he had felt obliged to rewrite some scenes during previews, in one case three times, because audiences were simply not getting his jokes. “It’s to do with reference and allusion,” he explained. “I was completely wrong and I really resent it.” In 1974, he could assume that everybody would know King Lear well enough to laugh at a line in Travesties when the main character is told: “You were a wonderful Goneril at Eton.” By the time the play was revived in 1993, “maybe half” knew who Goneril was. A quarter of a century later, the most basic familiarity with Shakespeare can no longer be assumed—even though, thanks to technology, his works are accessible to everyone. It is as if we had just inherited all the riches of civilisation at the very moment when we feel the onset of cultural amnesia.

The condition is not incurable. What makes cultural amnesia very hard to reverse is that it feeds on our condescension to the past. Hollywood is especially cavalier with historical facts in such recent movies as The Imitation Game and Selma. Hardly anybody cares if LBJ’s contribution to civil rights, for example, is denied. But what if a combination of ignorance and fear leads us not simply to write awkward facts out of the script, but entire peoples?

In his notorious Obersalzberg speech to his commanders, just before he unleashed the bloodiest war in human history, Adolf Hitler spoke of his utter indifference to “what a weak West European civilisation will say about me”. He continued: “Who, after all, speaks today about the annihilation of the Armenians?” The answer, alas, is: very few. How many of us knows that the centenary of the Armenian genocide occurs next month? Even the duty never to forget the Holocaust apparently offends some. In a YouGov poll, 13 per cent of Britons agreed with the statement: “Jews talk about the Holocaust too much in order to get sympathy.” It ought not to be for Jews alone to make sure the Shoah is never forgotten. That responsibility belongs to humanity in general, and Europeans in particular. Jews don’t need sympathy, either; they just want to live in peace.

The manipulation of memory—for example, the memory of the Holocaust by anti-Semites—is only made possible by the cultural amnesia to which Tom Stoppard points. Demagogues and dictators will always use and abuse history if ignorance gives them the chance. Hitler thought history would forget his crimes. We may like to think that we are wiser than previous generations, that we would never again let the world lurch into war. In fact, we are closer to self-immolation today than at any time in history. Learning the right lessons from the past is literally a matter of life and death for mankind.

Our history is our most precious possession. It belongs to no one because it belongs to everyone. Our history is indivisible, too: it all matters, for our lives are moulded by innumerable ancestors, known and unknown. The more remote in time an epoch is, the less we are likely to know about it; but our ignorance does not diminish its importance. Posterity will measure what was significant in our time, too, by reference to what came before us. Hence the future ultimately depends on what the present makes of the past. If we invest our historical capital wisely, it will yield great rewards in ages yet to come. But if we denigrate the past in order to preen ourselves on the superiority of the present day, we shall pay a heavy price. Not only will we deprive ourselves of the pride and glory that rightfully belong to every people with a history; we shall also find ourselves one day declaring the bankruptcy of our civilisation.

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