The Importance of Studying History to Make Sense of Current Events

“We like to say frequently that those who do not study the past are destined to repeat it. I have bad news for everyone. We’re all destined to repeat it anyway. But those who study the past are at least a little bit less surprised.”

By Rhonda FanningDecember 20, 2016 3:15 pm|

Monday evening, Russia’s ambassador to Turkey, Andrey Karlov, was shot and killed where he was speaking at an art exhibition in Ankara. It’s been labeled a “terrorist attack” by both Turkish and Russian officials. His assailant was not a member of any fringe political group, but a vetted law enforcement officer upset over the tragedy of Aleppo and Russia’s role in it.

For some, the killing brought to mind a whisper of the past from 1914. Google searches for Franz Ferdinand – not the band, but an heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne – spiked yesterday. Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo in 1914, which was enough to pull the trigger on World War I.

Those who’ve been re-reading the history of what happened in Sarajevo are plumbing the turning points of the last 20th century to discern the trajectory of the 21st. And it’s not just World War I they’re exploring, but stories about the rise of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini.

Jeffrey Engel, professor at Southern Methodist University, says that people should be looking to history.

“We like to say frequently that those who do not study the past are destined to repeat it,” Engel says. “I have bad news for everyone. We’re all destined to repeat it anyway. But those who study the past are at least a little bit less surprised.”

Karlov’s death is reminiscent of Ferdinand’s murder, Engel says, but from that parallel, it’s easy to falsely make a snap judgment that what happened in Ankara will lead to something more.

“There is a fundamental difference – which I have to say I’m not happy to report,” he says. “In 1914 we essentially had Europe as a powder keg of great powers that were really looking for a spark to light. People had forgotten how bad war was in many ways and they were essentially ready to see what can get a conflict going. In this case, in 2016, unfortunately the conflict has already been raging. The powder keg has already blown up.”

But reading through history to help inform us of current events and what could happen in the future is important, Engel says.

“I’m quite concerned,” he says. “Less because we have a president-elect who seems to have Mussolini-like tendencies essentially declaring that he is the only one who can solve the problem and a tendency to personalize every political issue. What really concerns me about the president-elect is his willingness to essentially throw out the baby with the bathwater when he talks about international affairs.”

Since 1945, American leadership has helped the world’s state of affairs, Engel says. Since World War II, there has not been another world war. Instead, he says, there has largely been global prosperity.

“To violate the central tenets of American power and leadership simply because you’re frustrated with a perhaps waning power in the world is a very dangerous recipe,” Engel says.

What we’re seeing around the world now – post-Brexit, after the American election and a rise in nationalism in eastern Europe – is a rise in populism, Engel says.

“Populist passions have tended over time to lead to greater violence and greater wars,” he says. “If we have a world in which people are more driven by populist passions, it could be a very unstable and a very dangerous world to live in.”

Post by Beth Cortez-Neavel.