Thursday, April 10, 2014

Learning History from Books

From my first blog post I made it clear how important I believe it is for intelligent people, and especially decision makers, to have a well-informed awareness of history.  (See "I Love History," 1-3-2012 reposting in archives.)  I hope my subsequent posts have shared some historic wisdom with all of you who follow my blog.
Titles from Isaac Werner's Library

What is essential, obviously, is the accuracy of the sources from which we acquire our information.  My admiration for Isaac began early in reading his journal, as he described the books he acquired for his personal library.  The quality of his selections was apparent.  (See "Isaac's Library," 2-2-2012.)  Later in his life he engaged in a practice we all must avoid if we are to be fully informed.  He began to narrow his reading to those authors with whom he already agreed.  As I quoted pollster Frank Luntz in "Isaac & the Political Press," (archives 10-24-2012), "We [Americans] don't collect news to inform us.  We collect news to affirm us."  If we restrict ourselves to biased information, our opinions are inevitably biased.

I have always had an awareness of World War II, but most of what I had read was written from an American perspective.  Only recently have I happened to select books with a European perspective, and I thought I would share some of these books for your consideration.

My first recommndation is a book written by a German author, Hans Falada, called Every Man Dies Alone.  It was written in Germany just after W.W. II and was not available in an English translation until 2009, when I first learned of the book based on the true story of a German couple whose  drafted son died fighting a war of which he disapproved.  His death gave them the courage to begin their personal protest of the war.  The book opened my eyes wider to the universal potential of war to corrupt the citizenry through greed, jealousy, fear, ambition and other dangerous motives to turn on one another, as well as the personal courage of ordinary people to do small things that make a difference.

More recently I read The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, with a young girl living outside Munich as the central character.  Now having been made into a wonderful movie, the book is described as being for young adults, but it has ample interest and wisdom in its pages for adult readers.  I definitely recommend both the book and the movie (now on DVD).

Madeleine Albright
I just finished Prague Winter, A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, by former Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright.  Sec. Albright, born in Czechoslovakia, was not yet two years old when her homeland was invaded following an attempt by British and French leaders to appease Hitler by compromising away part of Czech lands.  She was still a toddler, living in England with her parents, when she was baptized into the Catholic Church, and she did not know of her Jewish heritage until a reporter disclosed that information through his own research when she was 59 years old, after both of her parents were dead.  With the news of her ancestral heritage came the discovery that more than 2-dozen of her close relatives had died in the Holocaust.  

Her father had been a diplomat and the head of broadcasting for the Czechoslovak government in exile in England during the war, so his records of the war play a significant role in the research for this book, but she had to look elsewhere for information about her family's Jewish roots.  The result is a very personal account, sharing her childhood memories, her father's documented role in the Czechoslovak pre- and post war activities and government in exile's activities during the war, as well as her search for information about her own discovered relatives and their suffering as Jews during that tragically inhuman persecution.  She brings not only the personal tragedy and the political insider's perspective of her father and his circle of acquaintances but also the wisdom and professionalism of her own training and experiences.  It is an amazing book, and I highly recommend it.

While this is a bit different from my typical blog, it is certainly consistent with my theme of using history to avoid mistakes of the past in our present decisions.  As I was reading Sec. Albright's book, Putin's soldiers were marching into Crimea, and a part of one nation's citizens were voting whether to secede from their own country.  America and other nations were watching and seeking ways to intervene appropriately.  I could not help but consider the similarities to events before W.W. II, when some ethnic Germans living inside Czechoslovakia welcomed a takeover by Germany of that part of Czech lands and European leaders sought to appease Hitler by doing nothing about his land grabbing.  Our own country has its own bloody example of one region deciding to secede from this nation.  

Perhaps if we look to the wisdom of history, the decisions made in the present will be better informed.  


Brittany Novotny said...

Great post! When I was in undergraduate school at University of Denver Madeleine Albright came to speak- I remember it was a very motivating experience for me to hear her story! Thanks for a great account Lyn!

Gregg McPherson said...

Good reminder. Being well informed means hearing several points of view, rather than just one. With today's media, it is easy to limit your sources of information to those that merely reinforce your existing opinions.

Lynda Beck Fenwick said...

I enjoyed both comments, although I am a bit jealous of Brittany's opportunity to have heard Madeleine Albright speak. Gregg, I could not agree more with your observation.

The Blog Fodder said...

There are a great many similarities though I also find many between Putin and Stalin. Russia is being encouraged to be very nationalistic "Russia for the Russians" and how it will all end is something we cannot predict. Ms Albright's story has been repeated many many times over the years as people have to hide their race or ethnicity.