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Interesting Findings And World Unfolding Through My Eyes.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

History Matters?

History Matters
I have been working for the past several years with a group of historians who are trying to create a National History Center in the nation’s capitol. This is an idea proposed many years ago by J. Franklin Jameson when he was the Librarian of Congress, and resurrected by my former Princeton colleague James Banner several years ago. The distinguished University of Texas historian, Roger Louis, adopted the idea as his own when he was elected the president of the American Historical Association. The goal is to create a separate organization, closely affiliated to the AHA through an interlocking board of trustees, that can undertake a variety of roles related to promoting the importance of history in American and international public life.

Toward that end the NHC has undertaken a fundraising campaign among the membership of the AHA, and has collected sufficient funds to raise its flag and initiate its first programs. Among them have been summer seminars for community college history teachers, exploration of issues relating to history policy (state and federal history programs), a publication series on historiography with the Oxford University Press, and Congressional briefings on the historical understanding of contemporary public policy issues. The underlying ideas are both that historians have obligations to the public that extend beyond ordinary teaching and research, and that if the public is to support the work that historians do, it must understand better what it is that professional historians do.

One of the most promising activities of the new Center has been the inauguration of a series of talks on the history of foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City. Last night I attended the second session at the CFR, a brilliant presentation by the Columbia University historian Fritz Stern on why the Nazis rose so quickly to power in Germany in the 1930s. Stern pointed to the long, failed political education of the German people, the failures of leadership on the part of the German ruling class and other specific reasons for the (nonelectoral) transfer of power to Hitler, but he focused on the manipulation by the Nazis of national security issues to consolidate their power – fear of the enemy within (the Jews) was manipulated to devastating effect. This produced, according to Stern, a “silent and jubilant submission” of the German people. There was a long and spirited discussion following the talk, in which it became clear that the audience was making connections between the dangers and failures of the 1930s and those of the contemporary world. When asked what he most feared today, Stern replied “the Singapore model” – authoritarianism and economic development. Which of course is one way to describe the Nazi experiment. History matters.
By Stan Katz

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