The Importance of History
Judith S. Goldstein delivered this talk at the 2017 Humanity in Action International Conference in Berlin, Germany on June 22, 2017. Judith S. Goldstein is our Founder and Executive Director.
“I think it fair to say that we have been on a roller coaster of uncertainties and emotions in the past year between our last annual conference in Athens and our meeting today in Berlin. In Greece last June we received the stunning news of Brexit, in November the Trump and Republican Party victories, in March the elections in the Netherlands, in April the Turkish referendum giving Erdogan, much of which his authoritarian temper demands, followed by the French victory for the Centrist, pro-European Macron and most recently the British election and French parliamentary elections. These votes have tested the foundations of liberal democratic societies including the discipline of history, predicated on facts, memories, meanings and the search for truth about the past.
The year has provided a stunning moment for bona fide historians and a bonanza for the media and commentators—especially in the States—from the very wise to the outrageously facile and destructive. Among the wise ones, American historian Karen J. Greenberg, recently focused on Hannah Arendt’s writings. Citing The Origins of Totalitarianism Greenberg asked: “What is real? What is not real? To Arendt, the danger comes when it no longer matters to the populace whether something is true or not, only whether it is useful. The result is that the inability to distinguish between values and to make judgments accordingly becomes obsolete, and in her view eventually disappears entirely. ‘The ideal subject of totalitarian rule,’ she argued, ‘is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction…and the distinction between true and false no longer exists.’”
The current American President has found such tactics and conditions of thought of great use as he tramples on history and truth. He doesn’t read books so we can assume that he knows nothing about Arendt’s dissection of an authoritarian world. We know, however, that Trump has utter faith in his own dark instincts—he is most probably a prisoner of them—and those of some of his advisors. Arron Banks, the combatative English banker behind Brexit, put it straight to Trump during the President’s campaign: “Never apologize…. Facts are white noise and emotions rule.” In this new administration, it is sometimes hard to distinguish among the forces of sheer ignorance, the manipulation of facts and deliberate deceit.
It might seem demeaning or even ridiculous at this conference to focus on the stunted mind of President Trump and the entourage of government officials who defend him. But his voice exemplifies the assault on historical knowledge and the guild to which I belong. Trump notwithstanding, history is not something you kick around, like a ball, without consequence and peril. History is one of the greatest ventures of the human mind and a basic human need. It is a discipline for understanding the past; an investment we make in recording the course of human and natural events; a mechanism to help us know who we were, who we are, how to make sense of the world we live in and how we prepare for the future.
History is never an enterprise of perfection except for those who adhere word by word to religious texts such as the Old and New Testaments, the Koran or tribal epics. On more mundane levels historians are influenced by personal and cultural beliefs and, despite best intentions, are often limited by inadequate research, information and imagination. At their best, however, historian integrate knowledge of anthropology, economics, geography, psychology, religion and political science to establish an historical record and inform the public and posterity of the patterns and meanings of events.
The Trump election requires a defense of the discipline as well as questions about misreading the past. Progressive thinkers legitimately find themselves in a cold world of uncertainty. They question whether the traditional rhythm of moving between conservative and progressive ideas—social, economic and political advances and retrenchment—will be sustained. Starting with the American and French Revolutions, the great experiments of expanding democracy and forming a national identity have been in constant tension and torment with punitive exclusionary racial practices that violate liberal democratic intentions and hopes. Can Enlightenment doctrines, post-World War II democratic practices and human rights principles, honed with pride and promise over the past 70 years, survive the populist/nationalistic surges to power in Europe and America? This is a critical question to address at this conference in pursuit of Humanity in Action’s principles and goals.
History is a critical part of Humanity in Action’s pedagogy.
As history is a critical part of Humanity in Action’s pedagogy, let me present some thoughts about Germany and America—in particular the separate and intersecting forces of racial ideologies—which will hopefully help us understand better the world in which we live. One can start with the First World War for a telescopic historic view. The War caused the deaths of millions, bled economies and realigned political power, national borders and colonial possessions. Germany forfeited its colonial base in Africa, its monarchy and political and economic stability. After several years of near chaos the Weimar Republic settled into shaky stability as a succession of governments sought to recover from the war and reduce violent pressures from the Left and the Right. The country looked fearfully at the possibility of massive immigration from Poland—at Polish Jews in particular—and other Eastern European countries. During the great depression, the government collapsed under pressure from Hitler, the Nazis Party and the complicity of weak politicians who forfeited their democracy in 1933. A leader, party and people inflicted their demons all over Europe and beyond until defeated by the Americans and Russians in 1945.
America entered the First World War in 1917 and helped to defeat Germany. In the following years, the US turned its back on Europe by abandoning the League of Nations, elected the feckless and ultimately corrupt Republican President Warren Harding and Congress. Fearing massive numbers of immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe, the federal government in 1924 denied entry to all immigrants except white Northern Europeans. Presented as restriction based on national identity, immigration restriction was in fact racially-based restriction—as identity was singularly racially conceived. Before ending liberal immigration President Harding’s Administration engaged in raids and deportations of thousands of immigrants—mostly Jews and Italians—considered dangerous to the society. The country which enjoyed vertiginous prosperity in the mid1920s, ended in a massive depression. With the election of Franklin Roosevelt in 1932, the US preserved its so-called democracy—so-called since it protected the ubiquitous segregation of blacks, Native Americans and Asians and to Jews as well, to a lesser extent. (Upton Sinclair, the American author, described Princeton University in the early 20th Century as “the most perfect school of snobbery in America” with “few Jews” and “no Negroes.”
Despite the vastly different trajectories in regard to military, economic and political forces, race beliefs formed a dynamic connection between Germany and the US. Vital differences notwithstanding, from the late 1800s into the 1940s leaders in Germany and America, collectively constructed racial ideologies and legal structures that shaped and defined their societies. Extensive international cooperation involved scholars in numerous fields, legal experts, political leaders, scientists, philanthropists, organizations and institutions at the high levels in each country. Germany gave life to a suicidal totalitarian regime with Jews as its number one racial enemy. The US presented itself as a gift from the gods of democracy, despite Jim Crow in the South and discrimination throughout the rest of the country.
The racially based affinities and interactions between the two countries were deeper and more nefarious than is generally recognized. They thrived through the fertile ground of genetics, the study of genes and heredity, and eugenics, postulated on hierarchies of human worth. Eugenicists dedicated themselves to improving human beings and preserving healthy societies by proper breeding—protecting the pure by prohibiting racial mixing or miscegenation. In the surge of capitalistic expansion, rules based on divinely inspired hierarchies and landed aristocracies no longer applied. In industrialized, increasingly urbanized and imperialist countries, the rich and educated in Europe and America based their power on racial ideologies. Eugenics was the magic bullet for the habitual hatred and fear of so-called inferior groups. The racial formulas—Rassenhygiene—justified Nordic white Christian control over the resources and destinies of societies. Darwinian competition through natural selection sanctified exploitation by superior populations. Racial beliefs justified the most horrific treatment of colonial populations. In pursuit of extracting resources from colonies such as Namibia, Rwanda and Burundi for the Germans, the Congo for the Belgians, the Italians in Libya and Ethiopia and Indonesia for the Dutch. In sum, late 19th and 20th Century eugenics triumphed through colonialism, anti-Semitism, Jim Crow, discriminatory policies throughout the US and draconian restrictions on immigration.
Protection of the Nordic white race was believed to insure the health of a country. To preserve white society, those considered inferior (seemingly evidenced by smaller brains) could be sterilized, bred out of existence, and destroyed for their parasitic qualities, mental defects and social contagion. Francis R. Nicosia and Jonathan Huener, editors of Medicine and Medical Ethics in Nazi Germany: Origins, Practices, Legacies, summarized the basic precepts of the eugenics movement. “Although the eugenics movement meant different things to different people, eugenicists generally believed that human progress could be ensured only through national breeding programs designed to increase the number of children born to educated, intelligent, and accomplished upper classes, and to discourage the birth of children among the poor and handicapped lower classes. Science, not religion or philosophy, would direct humanity toward a biological, social and moral utopia.”
Hitler’s assumption of power in 1933 brought joy to eugenicists on both sides of the Atlantic. They engaged in mutual congratulations over sterilization laws—the first order of business in imposing what the American historian William H. Tucker calls the triumph of the “biological state.” The American eugenicists looked with envy at what Germany was intent on achieving: pruning the Nordic race of undesirables: the disabled, deformed and “parasitic” Jews. Country to country there were obvious social and economic differences that shaped racial configurations. Whites and blacks in America could not be separated in all circumstances. Blacks were needed for their labor. Nor could they be considered as diseased, especially in the intimacy of white homes where blacks served as domestic help and sexual prey for white males. German racists, however, drawing upon a long tradition of anti-Semitism could move with impunity to isolate Jews of their civic rights and prey upon their assets.
There was much that America had to offer the Nazis. Hitler’s speeches and writing lauded the devastation and degradation of American blacks and Native Americans. First, Hitler admired America’s success in seizing land from Native Americans across the vast country. According to the historian Norman Rich, “The United States policy of westward expansion in the course of which the white men ruthlessly thrust aside the ‘inferior’ indigenous populations, served as the model for Hitler’s entire conception of lebensraum.” This is just one of the disturbing connections that James Q. Whitman, a professor of law at Yale University, exposed in Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law. Whitman studied the depths of interest that German legal experts had in America’s restrictive immigration and segregation laws, particularly in Southern states but throughout America.
Whitman wrote: “The Nazis were never interested in simply replicating the United States in Central Europe. Nevertheless Nazi lawyers regarded America, not without reason, as the innovative world leader in the creation of racist law; and while they saw much to deplore, they also saw much to emulate. It is even possible, indeed likely, that the Nuremberg Laws themselves reflect direct American influence.” Anti-miscegenation laws were particularly important to the Germans. Nonetheless, the widespread 1% blood law in the South—1% percent of black blood meant a person was colored and subject to all Jim Crow punitive laws—was found to be too extreme for the Nazi experts. The German Nuremburg race laws, enacted in 1935, were more “liberal” in tracing “pollution” only back two generations.
We keep a safe distance from the rapacious ideologies of Darwinian competition and eugenics that dominated Europe and the US.
Today, 82 years later we keep a safe distance from the rapacious ideologies of Darwinian competition and eugenics that dominated Europe and the US. We assume that we cast off those views and ideologies. We believe that we buried them in the Allied victory in World War II in the cause of democracy against a totalitarian racist monster state. Anti-Semitism, particularly as state policy, was no longer credible after the Holocaust. (However, a recent survey revealed that 40% of Germans ascribe to some versions of anti-Semitic beliefs.) Germany’s defeat, however, did not immediately affect the attitudes and practices of colonial powers such as France, the Netherlands and Belgium. Equally important, the Allied victory did nothing to weaken the hold of Jim Crow despite the fact that millions of black American fought in wars across two oceans. Post-war segregation in the South and discrimination in the rest of the US meant that blacks continued to be locked out of the economic benefits of US domination of world markets. The grip of segregation was so strong that it even kept the US from supporting the full development of human rights doctrines. As the most powerful country in the so-called Free World, the US exempted itself from adhering to specific human rights standards as they applied in Europe and elsewhere.
And now in the 21st Century—after World War II, the development of the European Union and European welfare states, colonial disengagement, the Civil Rights movement, the end of Communism in Europe, strong TransAtlantic ties and advances in progressive policies in the US—we are in a state of shock. Except for the current believers in the extreme right or Alt-Right, we are in semi-denial over the ever-present vitriolic power of xenophobia and racist beliefs in both the US and Europe. We have built a vast body of literature and educational instructions against racial beliefs: we rely upon academic studies of communities and individual ways of thinking and behaving to enable us to understand the tenacious hold of fear and hatred towards others. Yet we are still surprised at the depths of alienation that come from racial, religious and gender differences.
James Baldwin, ever subject to racism, described that enduring torment. “Yes, it does indeed mean something—something unspeakable—to be born, in a white country an Anglo-Teutonic, antisexual country, black. You very soon, without knowing it, give up all hope of communion….The universe, which is not merely the stars and the moon and the planets, flowers, grass and trees, but other people, has evolved no terms for your existence, has made no room for you….” How poignant his use of “other people”—two words which he italicized in the heart of his agony over exclusion. We have established the category of the “other”—not “other people” as Baldwin wrote, despite the fact that that one small word hardly describes the foul winds of prejudice and exploitation.
Is it possible that certain immutable roots or channels of racially based thoughts and behaviors are permanently embedded in national beliefs, formed and hardened by past attitudes and individual and collective actions? Out of complex fears, do we actually crave the fantasies of suspicion, hatred and blame towards other groups to explain misfortune even in times when the addictions lie dormant? Are we focused too singularly on speaking in terms of political polarization and partisanship, real and intense as they currently are, that mask deeper and tenacious divisive beliefs and behaviors? And thus my ultimate question: have the racist ideologies based on eugenic misconceptions from a century ago—directed most powerfully against Jews in Europe and Blacks in the US—left a fundamental imprint on our societies? Are those beliefs and belief-based behaviors deeper than we dare acknowledge and thus tolerate? History, I believer, provides some answers.
Michael Ignatieff, the president of the beleaguered Central European University in Budapest, wrote recently: “It hardly needs to be said that history does not appear to be on the side of liberal and progressive ideals. We are in the full gale of a conservative counterrevolution that could last for some time and reshape modernity in a reactionary direction.” Our societies are fractured over immigration and diversity—categories which may provide thin cover for racial beliefs. Our societies are divided over the nature of social cohesion and split over authoritarian rule versus liberal democracy. Ever the believer in the liberal mandate, despite the 2016 American election, Ignatieff hopefully observed: “It is the contingency, the sheer avoidability of the current situation, that should rekindle faith that it can be changed in the future.”
The great Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz wrote: Poems should be written rarely and reluctantly, under unbearable duress and only with the hope that good spirits, not evil ones, choose us for their instrument.
This is the challenge for us at Humanity in Action. We are under duress but not yet unbearable duress—and not the duress of Fascism and Communism that Milosz experienced. He calls for hope and good spirits. Ignatieff calls for “political agency” and strong political leadership to resist the counterrevolution. The French in electing Macron are doing it. And many of us in America are doing it as well. In a stunning a twist of fate, we Americans now ask you in Europe to have confidence in our ability to preserve our constitutional norms and integrity in government. But we can’t be sure we American believers in liberal democracy will prevail. I was struck by the power of this doubt when I read a recent interview in the “Financial Times” with Svetlana Alexievich, the 2015 Nobel Prize Laureate from Belarus. She said that 60%-70% of the Russian and Belarus population have “contempt for liberal values.” That didn’t surprise me but this is the part that resonates painfully. “To be in conflict with the authorities is one thing. We Russian writers have got used to that. But to be in conflict with your own people—that is truly terrible.”
How extraordinary (and ironic) that Germany, guided by Chancellor Angela Merkel, has now assumed leadership of our liberal democracies on both sides of the Atlantic. It is her country that seeks to be ever conscious of the fatalities of its history—its racist history in particular—and the promise and reality of change in accordance to the values of Human Rights. How fortunate we are to be in this country at this time and eager and poised to learn so much.”
- Karen J. Greenberg, “Beyond the Origins of Totalitarianism,” New Republic, April 14, 2017,
- Arron Banks, quoted in Steven Erlanger and Kimiko de Freytas-Tamura, “Godfather of ‘Brexit’ Takes Aim at the British Establishment“ (New York Times, January 21, 2017), a5.
- David Leonhardt, “Princeton — Yes, Princeton — Takes On the Class Divide,” The New York Times, May 30, 2017
- Francis R. Nicosia and Jonathan Huener, ed. Medicine and Medical Ethics in Nazi Germany: Origins, Practices, Legacies, (New York: Berghahn Books, 2002), 5.
- Ibid, 124.
- James Q. Whitman, Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017), 10.
- Ibid, 5.
- Darryl Pinckney, “Catching up to James Baldwin,” The New York Review of Books, March 25, 2017, 22.
- Michael Ignatieff, “Which Way are We Going,” The New York Review Books, April 6, 2017, 6.
- Adam Kirsch, “Pole Apart: The Struggles of Czeslaw Milosz,” The New Yorker, May 29, 2017, 71.
- Tyler Brûlé, “Grandmother Russia,” Financial Times Weekend, June 17-18, 2017, 3