Edmund Burke said that those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it. This is certainly true and it is one of the reasons we should history. We should however make sure that we are studying history for the right reasons. An important clue is that Burke referred to those who do not know history, not those who do not feel history. We should study history in order to understand it, not in order to wallow in emotions.
These days people who quote history are much more concerned with feelings than with comprehension. History is all too often an excuse for wallowing in guilt or wallowing in resentment. Both are equally useless.
It is worth trying to understand how the French Revolution occurred and why it turned into a bloodbath. It is not helpful to indulge in an orgy of emotion over the victims of the Terror. We can’t help them now. All we can hope is that we can avoid such horrors in the future. It is worth trying to understand how the Second World War began but we cannot stop the invasion of Poland and we cannot help the millions of people who died as a direct or indirect result. The best we can hope for is to avoid the many errors that led to such horrors. We cannot prevent the Holocaust. We can only hope to avoid future Holocausts. We cannot undo slavery. We can only learn from such tragedies.
In order to learn we have to put feelings to one side. Feelings do not help us to understand. When we study an historical event such as the English Civil War it is no use feeling anger or pity or resentment towards King Charles I over his mishandling of the ship money affair or religious reform. We can however try to understand why a reasonably intelligent, conscientious and well-meaning man misjudged the situation so badly. Whether we think the king was right or wrong, good or bad, is irrelevant. What is relevant is that his policies failed and he was unable to prevent the nation from sliding into civil war. Similarly there is nothing to be gained by making moral judgments on Neville Chamberlain. The man is dead. It is however very relevant indeed to try to understand in a cool-headed rational manner why he failed in his object of preventing war.
And we need to cast aside popular opinion and prejudice and received wisdom and all the things that “everyone knows” and be prepared to pursue our attempts at understanding wherever they may lead us. Simply to assume that Chamberlain’s failure meant that appeasement was a bad policy is not enough. Policies may fail for various reasons. Sometimes they are applied too aggressively; sometimes they are not taken far enough. Sometimes they are tried too late. Sometimes they are good policies but are pursued unskillfully. Sometimes they fail because the situation was so explosive that no policy could have prevented disaster. Deciding that a failed policy failed because it was wicked or stupid is not enough. Chamberlain may have been right or he may have been wrong. We cannot decide such questions on emotional grounds. If he was right we need to know why he failed. If he was wrong and his policy was doomed to failure we need to do know why it was doomed.
Could the American Civil War have been prevented? This is a question that cannot be resolved by taking a moral stance or relying on feelings. No-one would suggest that slavery was morally right, but could it have been abolished without the loss of possibly 700,000 lives? Surely if there had been another way to achieve the same goal it would have been preferable? If there was no alternative then we at least need to understand why no alternative was possible.
Most of all history should never be an excuse to indulge in useless emotions like guilt or resentment. Even the youngest slave-owners in the American South have been dead for a century. There is little point in getting angry at people who have been dead for a hundred years. It is completely insane to feel anger towards the distant descendants of such people. It is completely insane for the distant descendants of such people to feel guilt for the actions of their ancestors.
Judging history on the basis of feelings is like judging physics on the basis of feelings. It doesn’t matter whether you feel that quantum mechanics is moral or immoral, all that matters is whether it works and whether we can learn from it. In the long run an emotional view of history will simply result in more unnecessary suffering. The paradox is that the more we indulge our feelings the more likely we are to increase the sum total of human misery.