Why Don’t We Learn from History? (1944) is a reflection on the nature of history and on why so few regard its lessons. First published near the end of World War Two, this thoughtful treatise contains many insights still relevant today.
About the author:
B. H. Liddell Hart was a British soldier, historian, and acclaimed theoretician in military strategy. His many works include Scipio Africanus: Greater Than Napoleon, The Revolution in Warfare, and The Other Side of the Hill. Germany’s Generals. Their Rise and Fall, with their own Account of Military Events 1939–1945.
Learning about history expands our comprehension of the world:
It makes sense that once we learn from history, we’ll change anything in the world. Take Otto Von Bismarck, for example; he was one of the most successful statesmen in the 19th century. In very little time, he was able to do what seemed impossible. Bismarck’s clever diplomacy and decisive military action united numerous feuding principalities into one immense German empire.
The question is, how did Bismarck exploit his extraordinary political skills and battlefield excellence? Well, the man himself claimed that his knowledge didn’t come about by itself, nor was it a natural talent. Instead, he was able to harness it by studying history.
He says that fools are the only ones that try to learn from their personal experiences. True visionary leaders cultivate their inspiration from the experiences of others.
You might ask yourself, why would you study history? The simplest answer would be that history can help you understand why events ended up the way they did. A professional historian uses real evidence to accurately portray what happened in the past and why.
Nonetheless, history is much more than an academic pursuit. It can truly help you to make sounder decisions. It provides you with wisdom and knowledge you can’t acquire from daily life. Sure, a 70-year old has decades of life lessons to guide him, but someone who learns history will have hundreds or even thousands of years worth of expertise to draw upon.
Historians usually concentrate on slow and subtle shifts in the economy of societies. However, they should focus on studying military history because it’s usually armed conflict that leads to any economic changes.
Imagine how different the world would be if the important battles took a different turn. What if Greece lost for the Persians? Or what if Napoleon was defeated at Toulon?
As you consider these questions, It’s essential to maintain a broader view. Don’t get too caught up or delve too deep into just one source of information. Or you’ll risk disturbing your knowledge of the events. Great leaders tend to message the truth to sustain their legacy. And, well, even the greatest historians have their biases.
So when you dig into the past, it’s better to approach any topic in a dispassionate scientific manner. Figure out how in the following.
“History is the record of man’s steps and slips. It provides us with the opportunity to profit by the stumbles and trumbles of our forerunners.”
-B. H. Liddel Hart
A historian should aim for the truth even when it’s uncomfortable:
Back in July 1917, British Feild Marshal Douglas Haig had planned to end World War I. He believed that if they made a devastating attack on the Germans at Passchendaele, they would be able to turn the tables of the conflict.
Even on paper, Haig’s plan had a problem and didn’t make sense. When he pitched his plan, the Marshal didn’t mention any of the obstacles that might render them without victory. Obviously, when they made the attack, it was a disaster.
Although the battle was a failure, the Marshal still reported to their superiors that it was going well. This misguided lie continued until 400,000 were killed.
Haig chose to say his creative version of the truth. But a true historian should be able to see right through such lies. This, however, is easier said than done.
The study of history is a mix of science and art. Revealing the facts of the past demands a dispassionate and scientific approach. A historian should never let his emotions get involved in his studies. But creativity and intuition have a huge role in this investigation. It’s their turn once it’s time to interpret historical evidence.
Take official documentation like government reports of military archives, for example. Those are a historian’s main sources, and they should present objective facts only. The truth is they can be swamped with outright lies. It’s an art when a historian uses his cleverness to distinguish the lies from the truth. He might take their creators’ biases into consideration or ask himself if these so-called facts serve myths or propaganda.
Any historian should be prepared to question doubful events, even if the truth is uncomfortable.
The most important moments in history actually happen behind the scenes:
Reginald Baliol Brett, known as Lord Esher, is rarely mentioned in history books. But if you come to think about it, maybe that’s what he intended. Although Lord Esher was born into a wealthy, well-connected family, he never used his status to attain political prestige. He took the liberty to turn down any prominent positions because of his connections. He preferred to work behind the scenes.
Esher might have never run public offices or stood in the spotlight of events, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t have a say in politics. He was a close, personal confidant and advisor to King Edward VII himself and his son, King George V.
So, even though Lord Esher worked under the table and kept a low profile, he was the one pulling the significant strings in the British politic.
The history we learn and hear about often converges on the big headlines and grand narratives. Those events often portray how the world was controlled by notable public figures and institutions like parliaments or governments, which seem straightforward. However, they tend to hide something far more striking.
Take, for example, how history books cover the democracy of the United Kingdom. Historians focus their attentions on debates of representative bodies, from the local councils up to the parliaments.
At first glance, this might look reasonable; after all, that’s where the big decisions were made. However, is that how the real world works? The world is far from this. History is proclaimed by the powerful figures and their personal connections, which hides what they do behind the scenes.
The ones that don’t appear in the spotlights are actually the ones calling the shot because they are the actual experts. And the famous figures are just the faces of whoever decided the real decisions.
When Churchill became prime minister back in 1940, his inner circle is the one that helped him instantly strategize his tactics.
There is a pattern in how dictatorships rise and fall repeatedly:
In June 1812, Napoleon’s half a million army stood on the banks of the Niemen, a river in eastern Europe. The emperor was infuriated with Russia because of the country’s trade relationships with the UK. He was sure that a swift invasion of Moscow would better the compliance of the Tsar. However, Napoleon was on the verge of making a huge mistake. A few months later, the harsh winter of Russia emerged, and the emperor fled back to Paris with less than 50,000 men.
Similarly, 130 years later, Hitler fell in the same hole. His invasion of russia in 1941 marked the begining of his end.
These failures were more than a century apart, which demonstrates that even in the past, the strongest of dictators didn’t learn from history. History proves that all dictators and despotic governments rise to power under the same simple pattern.
First, they take advantage of people’s existing prejudices and disappointments to release bitterness and resentment. Then, the future dictators realize the discontent of the people and blame it on the current regime. They offer alternative resolutions, which sound convincing but are actually far from realistic. Lastly, they seize control while giving people empty hope and promises of a better future.
This manual to how dictatorships are build has persisted strikingly similar throughout history.
The main flaw in authoritarianism is that it’s nothing but false promises. A dictator simply says what people need to hear and manipulates them into believing that he is their salvation. And as time passes, it reveals what they actually are, a lie. People will start to wake up from their hypnosis, and the dictatorship crumbles just so another one would rise.
Most governments try to resolve the issue by enhancing conscription – forcing citizens to join the military. However, history has shown us that this is another failed strategy. People never give their all if they are forced to do so against their will.
The question is, why do all democracies always follow the same failed policies. How do they expect to be all-mighty and all-powerful if they don’t even achieve the support of their people? Forcing militarism is no way to ensure liberty. Personal freedom is the one thing that people need and cherish. So why robe the from that? Why cause your country to crumble?
War in an unneccessary result of humanity’s moral failure:
What caused world war I? All people think that the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria by the Serbians is what flared up the war. But this was just what sparked off the crisis and not what caused it. The chessboard of war was already set long before Ferdinand’s murder. The actual cause is a combination of severe human vanity, folly, misguidance, oblivious pride, competitiveness, and some real crooked logic.
The economy is also a very vague reason for the alliance of rival nations in the Great War. Unlike what most historians say, a more transparent narrative would give the people who ruled Europe at the time most of the blame – with their foibles and peculiarities.
It’s clear the Archduke’s assassination didn’t need military action. That, however, is where pride comes in. Austrians didn’t want to look weak, so instead of thinking of a long-term strategy, they declared war on Serbia and brought the germans as their tag along.
Meanwhile, the Russian Tsar regarded Serbia as its own fiefdom. He considered Austria’s attack as a disregard of his honor. So he felt obliged to respond.
As the issue escalated, other Europeans started acting upon bad impulse. German military leaders spend decades before planning out their war plans. their plan to conquer Russia needed them to attack France simultaneously. And without reassessing the conflict, the german general carried out the pre-planned strategy and alleged war on both fronts. Obviously, this was a military setback.
Little by little, the conflict worsened and rose with it the Great War generated by human flaws.
The tragic misfortune is that the war could’ve ended way before it did. Governments had hundreds of window openings to call for peace. But alas, their commitment to power and victory didn’t wear off. With that, hundreds of millions of lives were wasted.
Following several timeless principles can alleviate the destruction caused by war:
When the Roman Empire was at its strength’s peak, the roman elite stood by, “If you wish for peace, prepare for war.” This is a concise aphorism, but there’s a catch.
The famously aggressive Romans were always ready for a fight, and consequently, they were always at war. So their prescription of peace is clearly a washout. As a matter of fact, every effort humanity spent on ending war has failed.
Technology never stopped progressing. These days, the advancement of nuclear weapons means that eliminating and preventing war is more important now than ever. But maybe if you wish for peace, you don’t have to prepare for war, but understand it.
Back in 500 bc, the famous philosopher Sun Tzu appraised history to figure out The Art of War. His basic principles are:
Nations should invigorate their internal strength and stability.
Leaders should stay calm and collected.
Conflicted countries should maintain their opponent’s chance of a graceful surrender.
Armies should limit the scope of acceptable means of violence.
Sun Tzu’s advice alone can’t eliminate war. However, his principles can subside casualties. For example, if nations invigorated their internal strength and stability, they’ll be less likely to fall into conflicts. Any international agreement works best when both sides are operating from strength. Also, countries come together with more consent if both of them are secure, stable, and successful.
However, what happens if conflict does arise? How do countries deal with the consequences? Unlike Carl Von Clausewitz’s argument that modernization has no place in war, history proves otherwise.
Thousands of years ago, countries set rules on specific days of battle where the safety of non-combatants is ensured. To this day, this tradition was kept alive by the Geneva Conventions, and armies should always spare innocent bystanders.
The idea that humanity can be saved if all stood under the same nation and faith is true but far from realistic. Instead, boundaries and mutual interests should be sought against all the differences between nations. The world is full of diversity, and diversity ignites conflict. However, the only way to move forward is to learn from history.
“What can the individual learn from history – as a guide to living? Not what to do but what to strive for. And what to avoid in striving.”