The Importance of History

There are claims that the study of history and social science have little relevance. Voltaire once said “that history is a lie commonly agreed upon.” These criticisms are inaccurate. History documents human development and civilization. It not only performs that task, but gives an explanation to current political and social conditions. International affairs has become extremely complex for people with limited understanding of the social sciences. Having some knowledge can help make this subject more comprehensible. History is often used as a way to promote national unity and patriotism. This can have both negative and positive effects. Sometimes it leads to myths and outright distortion. Maintaining historical knowledge gives a people a sense of identity. The most pivotal aspect is that allows an individual  to develop analytical  and critical thinking skills. Humankind has reached an age in which information knows no limitation. The ability to decipher and understand it is critical.  History serves these main purposes : comprehending current affairs through study of the past, promoting unity among citizens, forming an identity, and developing techniques of  critical thought.

              The past has an effect on the present and future. If it is conflict, social issues, or political there is a historical explanation. International affairs demonstrate this. The reason why some nations are in conflict and be related to past events. The divide between the European Union and the Russian Federation can be linked to the past struggles of empire. When Russia emerged as a great power in the 1700s under Peter the Great, other European empires took notice. France and Great Britain were the two most powerful. They had to desire to share control of Europe with the new Russia. France  went through a political transformation with the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte. He upset the balance attempting to make France the master of Europe attacking both the British Empire and the Russian Empire. His defeat ushered in the Congress of Vienna. European powers attempted to keep the traditional political order in tact, by stopping the emergence of liberalism. The agreement failed to hold creating the revolutions of 1848. The Russian Empire held on to its absolute monarchy and found its self in conflict with the British Empire over Southwest and Central Asia. The Great Game as it was called resulted in Anglo-Afghan Wars. The British were not successful and the Russian Empire would end up absorbing  Central Asia. Russia was still seen as an enemy, but a new power came into existence. Otto Von Bismarck  had unified Germany defeating both Austria and France.

The Expansion of Russia

Germany’s victory in the Franco-Prussian War changed the political landscape. France, the British Empire, and  the Russian Empire became threatened by the German rise. Although France and Britain did not consider Russia a friend, they were forced to become allies because of the geopolitical situation. Bismarck worked hard to produce a foreign policy that would prevent Germany from fighting on two fronts. Kaiser Wilhelm II however wanted to see his empire expand and began building a bigger naval force. He challenged Russia by aligning  closer to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. World War I broke out and Russia worked with its former enemies Britain and France. The Russian Revolution ended the empire’s participation in the war. The East and West divide became more exacerbated with the paranoia of Communist revolution in Europe. The Soviet Union was seen as a bigger threat than emergent fascism. Nazi Germany  had conquered most of Europe and attempted to absorb the U.S.S.R into its Reich. The fascist governments were defeated, but the East and West divide continued in the form of the Cold War. This time Russia was being challenged  by the United States. This lead to many wars of proxy across Africa, Latin America, and Asia. When the Cold War ended, Russia was still treated with suspicion. There was a point when it saw weakness in the 1990s with political transition. The emergence of President Putin and the hostility toward Russia from Western Europe comes as no surprise. The East and West divide has been present for three centuries.

ww1 Europe
Europe before and after World War I saw major geopolitical changes. New states emerged and later in the 20th century would break apart. Yugoslavia cease to exist in 2003.

 This understanding of the past can help decipher the confusion of international relations. This also explains why certain regions are unstable. Asia, Africa, and Latin America had been colonized by major European powers. When they subjugated these areas a policy was to exacerbate local tensions and ethnic hatreds to divide the colonized population. The emerging nations in the Afro-Asian block had to struggle with past rivalries and building a functional state. Looking to past civilizations leaders pointed out was an example of how formerly colonized nations could overcome both cultural and political imperialism.

            History is used to promote national unity among citizens. It is no coincidence that it is taught in primary, secondary, and tertiary education. Students learn to value their country and its heroes. They way it is taught in public seems to be the propagation of myth rather than actual fact. United States history has this problem when being taught to students. The common theme emphasizes America’s role as the protector of freedom at home and abroad. This obviously is not based on solid truth. Slavery, the extermination of the Native American population, white supremacy, racism, and wars of conquest dismantle that popular myth. Yet, leaders understand the importance has history as a unifying force. The idea of a common destiny motivates people to action. This abusive use of history or pure distortion has been used to justify violent acts and atrocities. Adolf Hitler’s distorted view claimed that history is the struggle of races for domination and conquest. The weaker peoples or racially unfit  are doomed for extermination, because ultimately lose the struggle. This violent and racist view was what motivated many of his followers. He constantly exalted German history and claimed that providence was guiding the nation to grow. Hitler spoke of past Germanic civilizations such as the Holy Roman Empire  and the former empire lost after World War I. History was used here to advance a rabid aggressive nationalism. Although history can be distorted for negative purposes, there are paradigms in which its it is used for more positive causes.During the anti-colonial period after World War II leaders of the global south took an interest in past history. The purpose was to break psychological chains imposed by colonizers. Africa, Asia , and Latin America had  many empires and civilizations prior to European contact.



the americas

 Kwame Nkrumah the first Prime Minister of Ghana encouraged his citizens to study their past. It was part of expanding developing Pan-African principles. The Gold Coast was then renamed Ghana in reference to the ancient West African kingdom. Africa and peoples of the African diaspora looked to the past for solutions to the present. This had a major impact on academia. Black and Africana studies started to emerge in Western universities. Africa’s history had either been ignored or distorted by former colonizers. John Henrik Clarke, Ivan Van Sertima, and Anton Chiek Diop  were scholars that uncovered and showed to world Africa’s role in history. They corrected ethnocentric claims of racial superiority through their writings and research. This was not only critical for African people, but others who felt the brutality of white supremacy. Jawaharlal Nehru  who would later serve as India’s first Prime Minister  wrote The Discovery of India.  This monograph was composed during Nehru’s imprisonment by the British in the 1940s. The purpose was to counter the fact that the British would teach Indian students history of the UK instead of their own. This is important, because a colonizer will always attempt to place themselves in a position of superiority. If a people has a knowledge of their history and past accomplishments being controlled by foreigners is no longer acceptable. When building a state, unity becomes critical. History was used in this case to advance anti-colonial nationalism.  This was not designed to direct hatred at other nations, but to uplift people who were oppressed. This discussion of history then leads to identity.

               Identity is important to states and people. Identity can be formed through a historical context. African Americans had to regain their identity through examination of their history. Slavery placed many indignities upon the Black population in the United States. The major one was the loss of knowledge of their African heritage. Carter G. Woodson wanted to recapture this lost heritage. He produced works chronicling the African American history and developed Negro History Week. Woodson was a pioneer in African American history and the black studies revolution of the 1960s  owes him credit. African Americans rediscovered their identity through that emphasis of scholarship of history. Nations use history to form a common identity. Otto Von Bismarck when waging war to unite Germany realized that a new identity had to be formed to keep the new nation-state together. The idea that had to be instilled was that the citizens were all Germanic peoples sharing a common history and destiny. The German Empire would incorporate all the German principalities under a national culture. This did form a unified German national identity to an extent, but in some cases it met challenges. The Kulturekampf  put the Catholic  Church in conflict with the state. This did not only happen in Germany, but other countries across Europe. This was a conflict between secularization and the role of religion. Bismarck  was triumphant in getting some secularization in government. Identity can become either a strength or weakness in state formation. When a state has many ethnic, religious, and cultural groups there can be the possibility of balkanization  or collapse. The former Yugoslavia and Sudan have experienced this. Serbs, Croats, Solvenes, and Bosniaks  began asserting themselves in terms of nationalist fervor. They no longer wanted to be a part of the Federal Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia. Many supporters used history to justify separation. The Serbs constantly alluded to the 1389 battle against the Turks as a nationalist triumph. Serbs were suspicious of the Croats for being collaborators with Nazi Germany. Sudan has been divided into two countries. South Sudan’s Neur and Dinka population made the argument that they did not share a common history with the Arab north. Darfur is also breaking away and making the same arguments. Both scenarios demonstrate people using history to formulate a defined identity. This will continue to be a challenge as new nations emerge and conflict spreads.

              History teaches people how to master critical thought. Humanity now lives in an age in which mass amounts of information is available. Knowledge is power, but it is pivotal to understand facts in a particular context. Questions should be considered when examining the past. How reliable is the primary or secondary source? How does the gradual transformation impact our contemporary period? Do these new facts change how a social science is studied? Understanding different perspectives  gives a more lucid view of past events. Historians are never completely devoid of bias. Many argue from a thesis and support their argument through sources. Historiography utilizes many approaches to solve problems in attempting to decipher history. When new information is gathered this means revision must take place. Historical revision is done to either correct errors or add more substance to a subject. Writing is an extension of the critical thought process. It involves the historian presenting information and explaining concepts. The historian attempts to provide a broader view of a particular subject. The historiography of the American Civil War has been a long debated issue in academic circles. One perspective claims that it was the South attempting to break free from what it viewed as an oppressive federal system. Another view was that slavery had long divided the nation and could no longer be ignored. The United States was being broken up been free and slave state. A Marxist interpretation has been articulated in terms of class struggle. Two ruling classes the planter aristocracy and the Northern industrialists were fighting for control of the working and underclass population. The Southern planters wanted to continue to exploit the enslaved population, while the Northern industrialists preferred immigrant labor. There was no way the North could compete with slave labor, so conflict was inevitable. These are examples of different perspectives that some historians present. There is never just one simple explanation or factor for the causes of certain events; there are multiple reasons. Examining multiple factors can lead to conclusions and a new synthesis. Making connections and comprehending their relevance are the products of critical thought. History is more than just facts and dates it is the detailed analysis of  humanity’s development and growth.


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