Reading and writing history

We learn history for many reasons. When discussing WWII we want history to never repeat. Reading about the decline of Rome we want America to be great again. And reading about the Spanish flu we want to be wiser facing new pandemics. As we live, we also experience and write history. Can we really improve and become wiser? How to treat history more effectively? More ideas here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Who writes the history?

The history is written not so much by the winners, as it is written by the survivors. Some survivors have a deep need to tell the true story, others prefer an easier narrative. Everybody wants to know that the events were important, meaningful, and “not in vain”.

During WWII US lost  418,500 (civilians and military), during WWI US lost 117,000 dead, in Vietnam 59,318 American lives were lost, the war of American independence cost above 6,100 American lives. The death toll of the American civil war was 620,000 soldiers – more than other conflicts combined. The death toll of the COVID19  is similar. We understand quite well the heroic death in a war. Civil war death is harder to stomach. Half of the nation lost its people AND its cause. Civil death from a virus is even harder to accept: they did not achieve anything by dying. It just happened.

We are survivors, children of survivors. We hold the memory of generations, mostly in written form. Some of the sufferings could be avoided… Did we learn our lessons? Did all of us learn the same lessons? Will our children learn from our mistakes?

The power of denial

During WWII around 6mil Jews lost their lives, possibly more. The number of dead people we know about is not final: it is still growing.  Most of the Jews died due to criminal actions by nazis and their allies. The situation was most dire in Poland, simply because there were so many Jews there. Some Polish people helped nazis, others risked their lives saving Jews. Denying one part will diminish the courage and sacrifice of the other, and yet this is what the Polish government is trying to do.

In a similar way, the COVID19 virus was deadly. Healthcare workers and all sort of frontliners risked their wellbeing and their lives to help patients. Now there are still those who try to deny the dangers of the virus and the benefits of vaccination. They have their reasons, and some of them are very wise and eloquent. We cannot teach them, even if we have great scientific arguments, and they cannot educate us with hearsays and anecdotes. People who curse doctors on social media soon after used to ask medical professionals to save their lives.

Could we prevent it?

From the first days of the COVID crisis, everyone dealing with statistics understood that quick and decisive action may save lives. We could see the effects of these actions in Asia and in New Zealand. Yet the US and European governments appeared lost when facing the crisis. Doctors were arguing with each other, and at times it was not clear what should be done.

Before and during WWII there were many chances for the UK to save the Jews. British knew a lot more than they would like to admit, partially due to the Enigma code-breaking machine. They could also allow the transfer of European Jews to Palestine in late 1930. And they could disable the infrastructure of mass murder by clever bombing or commando operations. Yet none of this was done.

A person can act, can be brave and decisive or otherwise. The inability of democracies to react quickly is seen in the biggest humanitarian crisis in history. Yet once the democracies start moving they have tremendous momentum. We may feel guilt for choosing bad leaders or not doing more to persuade, yet some weaknesses are built-in elements we cannot control.

Are the professional reports really so complex?

My PhD deals with certain areas of statistics, so I can read data better than most, yet I did not feel I need any special understanding to interpret the graphs. I definitely did not feel that I lack a degree in epidemiology to understand that the disease is contagious, or that vaccine is effective.

Yet I could not shake the feeling that we are dealing with huge propaganda machines. The efficiency of the masks was proven by making the masks mandatory and watching the result. News channels showed long explanations of how to wash hands, yet it is still not clear to which extent infected areas are dangerous for this particular disease. The actual data was scarce, and good the reports were not properly available on official sites. The worldometers site got very popular due to the lack of better data.

It is clear that peer-reviewed science cannot work with war or pandemic schedules. Yet, I expected more and better access to raw data, more transparency. And I am highly educated in critical thinking.

Many people responded with a massive lack of trust in any sort of authority. Or worse, with total and blind acceptance of the authority.

Writing is not for all

The deep roots of writing take us to elites: the rulers of China or Mesopotamia, with their tax-collecting bureaucracy, used writing to keep track of something. Tax collectors tracked money.  Astrologists tracked stars and construction processes. Historians tracked the prestige of leaders and powers of nations.

Simple people did not need writing. Even aristocrats ruling over a small area did not really need to read and write. They remembered very well who of their constituents could deliver.

Today almost everybody is literate. All kids learn to read and write, some math, some history. This is good for business, but what about the chaos it creates? There are opposing opinions on every subject, with an unholy mix of good data-oriented judgment and crazy delusional dreams. We gave up on editors when we started using social media. Now what?

Will social media define our history? We cannot trust Julius Ceasar in his description of glorious wars in Gaul: it was political propaganda. The disintegration of Rome did not result from its moral bankruptcy: there were economic and demographic factors.  Government propaganda machines, moralizing elites, and revolutionary countercultures are not trustworthy witnesses. Yet these are the most obvious witnesses of our history.

Was the victory expected?

Some victories are expected. Pandemics rise and fall in huge waves. Others are less expected.

Since I was a kid I was trying to understand the great changes of  WWII. Which were expected, and which less so? Below are some controversial personal thoughts.

  • The Nazi rise to power was a surprise fueled by British and American money in 1930s. Germany could as easily become communist or could be ruled by a small group of financial oligarchs. The democracy could not sustain financial debts and mass depression, but there were many viable alternatives.
  • Fueled by methamphetamines Nazies conquered half of Europe before suffering serious withdrawal near Dunkirk. If the effect of drugs lasted a little less or a little longer, the history could be very different.
  • German airforce failed to conquer Britain. Hyperactive German pilots of meth were countered by British radar and code-breaking tech, noble tenacity, and bravery, and even the English language conscripted by Churchill. Could the war over Britain end differently? Unlikely. The German fleet was not sufficient to transport an invasion force and airforce superiority alone was not sustainable.
  • The attack on the Soviet Union in July 1941 was surprising. In fact, Stalin planned to land the first and surprising blow in the fight with Germany, possibly in October. After Soviet operations against Japan, Finland, Romania, and Poland, the next logical target was Germany.
  • Russian ultimate victory in the war was expected. Noone could ever conquer Russia. The country is too big. An elite force of a million soldiers under Zhukov in Sibiria was expected to arrive in the winter and change the fate of the war. I think the story of Stalindgrad could happen earlier in some other Russian town or later in some Asian republic. Germans were overstretched logistically.
  • The Japanese failure in the Pacific was absolutely expected. They lacked the industrial power compared with US. However, each particular fight, like Pearl-Harbour or Midway, could easily be different subject to the disposition of US subs and carriers.
  • The cold war was an inevitable result of the previous confrontation. There was no love between the democracies and communists. France and Italy could be divided like Germany, and I am happy it did not happen. Germany could become fully communist or fully democratic if Hitler had died earlier.

Could the suffering be avoided?

The dark forces of Nazis appropriated the scientific might of the enlightenment movement, the religious symbols of Indian spirituality, the American economic energy.

Ford and Disney were Nazis in America. Coco Chanel was a German agent in France. Heisenberg and Shroedinger were nazi scientists proudly developing a German atomic bomb. Very smart and highly educated people were supporting the most dangerous group in modern history. It is clear that no education could help.

Could spirituality help? Not really. The catholic church did not really take sides. Cinema, press, and music were mobilized by the governments.

What about human decency? In 1920s Germans were very decent people. Only decent people take the side of the winner. As long as Nazis were winning, the decent voices were silent, and then it was too late to talk.

Basically, we can cry “never again” as much as we want.  There are no mechanisms I am aware of that can prevent the next cataclysm, except the nuclear arsenal. Will that threat stop the next psychopath from releasing a biological weapon or a computer hack capable of blasting a country into the stone age? Highly unlikely.

Let’s celebrate!

The right thing to do right now is celebrating our survival.

Every Jewish holiday replays the same motive: “They wanted to kill us. We are still here. Thank god! Let’s eat…”

The history is told by the survivors. We are the children of survivors, and our children will continue our story.

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