Why Reading History Matters

Since the beginning of the most recent Israeli/Palestinian crisis, my social media feeds have become a disheartening list of opinions. Many of these opinions are unbalanced, knee-jerk responses to whatever “side” the author or poster subscribes to at that particular moment. The hatred behind these postings is alarming.

Assassination of EuropeThis past year, I had the privilege of working with one of the most prolific historians on European, Jewish, and Middle Eastern history: Howard M. Sachar. In his forthcoming book, The Assassination of Europe, Sachar explores how key assassinations between 1918 and 1942 hurled Europe into the maelstrom of World War II. When I initially read the manuscript, three thoughts crossed my mind: first, why is it so easy to hate? Second, why is hate so powerful? And lastly, I was reminded that hate can be very dangerous.

The Assassination of Europe describes one particular act borne out of hate: political assassinations. Europe, after World War I, believed that it could fix itself. After all, it had the experience and the political and economic leadership to repair the racial, ethnic, and religious hatreds that tore it apart in the first place. However, as Sachar writes, hatred was more powerful than European arrogance:

The glowering hatreds that engendered the late war—Germans against Slavs, Roman Catholics against Eastern Orthodox, Gentiles against Jews, poor against rich, conquerors against conquered—were neither trivial nor susceptible to assuagement either before or after the armistices of 1918. Rather, the demons survived and intensified. If they were incapable of wreaking their havoc in the immediate aftermath of the postwar “peace” conferences, there were other, equally functional paths to “rectification” and revenge.

One of these “equally functional paths to rectification and revenge” was the silencing of moderate voices—often with bullets—by hate-filled extremists in Germany, Italy, Eastern Europe, and Austria. Their removal from power led to the rise of Hitler and Mussolini among others. And we know where they led the world. Today, on the seventy-fifth anniversary of the outbreak of World War II, reflecting on this is crucial.

We have all just lived through a summer filled with hate. A decade ago, students may have been able to avoid the minute-by-minute reports of devastation in Gaza, dead Israeli teenagers, or the beheadings of American journalists, but not today. Their Facebook and Twitter feeds don’t give them much respite. Many of them, just like many of us, have been overwhelmed by the opinions on social media and given in to their emotions. They have taken sides, and sometimes when people take sides, hate creeps in.

Sachar’s book is a terrifying and violent lesson in what happens when hate creeps in. Given what has happened in the last few months and what is likely to keep happening, there is something of a moral obligation for educators to counter the often thoughtless opinions expressed on social media. If you are a professor teaching a course in modern European history and you assign a basic textbook, I would suggest that you replace the chapters in that textbook that deal with the years between 1918 and 1942 with Sachar’s book. Your students will appreciate the break from the conventional text. Or, if you frequently assign more popular histories by such authors as Robert Service, Ian Kershaw, Michael Marrus, Primo Levi, or Eli Wiesel, assign The Assassination of Europe as well.

After your students have read the book, ask them what it has taught them. Although most of your students will not become professional historians, some will become lawyers, policy analysts, and community leaders. Most of them will become parents. The Assassination of Europe is a history lesson, and a necessary reminder that hate is not only powerful but also murderous.

Reading books like The Assassination of Europe is a key first step in stopping the current side-taking that dominates discussion of current events on social media. I know personally of what I speak. Years ago, as an impressionable, Jewish female entrenched in the North American Reform Jewish community, I took sides, and my posts reflected that side. And I hated. But then I started to read books like The Assassination of Europe to remind myself of the power and dangers of hate. Today, I avoid extremist opinion on social media and when I do post, it is in support of peace. As Howard Sachar educated me, so can he educate your students.

-Natalie Fingerhut, History Editor

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