Monday, 22 September 2014

The lessons of history

Just a short post today. I was listening to Start the Week this morning and there was an interesting item on the unification of Germany. In it, one of the contributors referred to a sense that for Germans history can be defined as that which must never be allowed to happen again.

This got me reflecting on our own nation's attitudes to the past, which had already been thrown into sharp relief by the Scottish Independence debate. In that context, the Yes campaign became pretty clearly identified with the future and the No campaign with the past. The strongest emotional arguments on the Yes side were all to do with moving forward and embracing change, whilst the No campaign's emotional trump cards were about appealing to a sense of shared history.

Because it seems that, in direct contrast with the Germans, the British have a pervasive sense of the past as a better, nobler time, and by definition of the future as something tricky and threatening. I have written on this subject before (here for instance) but the simple comment I heard this morning really pointed up the weaknesses implicit in the British attitude to the past. Whilst Germany today no doubt still has negative aspects (some attitudes to the Turkish immigrant population for instance) the country does seem ot have a much more positive and forward-looking ethos generally. Economically successful, yet embracing renewable technologies and environmental concerns wholeheartedly; a significant player diplomatically on the world stage whilst avoiding military adventurism; with a young people who seem creative, alive and thoughtful it is a world away from both the brainwashed, militarised dictatorship of the Third Reich and the traumatised and divided wasteland of the post-War years. Because they see history as something to learn from- as containing lessons one ignores at ones peril.

So how about the British? Do we learn from the lessons of our own history or do we bathe in the comforting warm fug of nostalgia? It is clear what 45% of Scots think. What about the rest of us?

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