The most terrible of times

Why study history? Apart from the fact that it’s an incredible story, an unbelievable drama, what’s the point of looking back? And why bother learning about the most disturbing episodes of the human narrative? What’s the value of reading about the World Wars, about Stalin and the Gulags, about slavery, about narcotics, about genocides and massacres, about poverty and exploitation, about the darkest components of our collective past? The answer is quite simple. The darkest episodes are the most illuminating.

Consider the Second World War. In the periods before, during and after this tragic event, there were acts of great courage and great cowardice. People died nobly and did ignoble things in order to survive. Entire cultures were ripped up and torn to shreds. Cities and towns were flattened, people were terrorised, and many fought back, forfeiting their lives so that others could live free from oppression. In the Second World War, the cruel were given the chance to shine and the brave were forced to hide, to flee, to stow themselves away, and to act.

If we wish to learn the truth of human nature, the ugly and the beautiful, we should study the most terrible of times. Because only in these most extreme situations is the full spectrum of humanity revealed.