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Is history useless? A historian tries to give an answer

As with most disciplines of the humanities, the actual use and worth of history is being much disputed. As for myself, I had – and still have – doubts about a lot of stuff that is being done in the field and frankly, the motivation which brought me through the years at university pretty much exclusively derived from the joy I had in reading about the past and looking at old pictures and maps.

Hence, throughout my five years of studying, there was hardly any time where I was not jealous of my colleagues studying medicine, chemistry or engineering. How nice would it be to learn how to heal illnesses, invent cures or improve manufacturing technologies, I frequently asked myself.

Now, after the completion of my master, the comfort of just letting myself drift through university and get credit points and degrees for what is basically my hobby is definitely over. As many young professionals, I have to find an occupation which secures me an income and, at the same time, is of any use for the society I live in. In other words, I need something which is worth getting up every morning. The question is: Does the field of history offer anything in this regard?

If you ask a historian about the usefulness of history, she is most likely to refer to its ability to improve our understanding of the present (for professionals as well as for the public), to history being an indispensable part of liberal education and for its importance of comprehending cultural diversity in order to cope with it and to equip oneself.[1] For me, however, as for most amateurs who only occasionally come in contact with history, being able to learn from history is paramount.

Historians often have trouble with drawing specific lessons from past experiences, because they assume that this means predicting the future. Indeed, historians are pretty bad in making predictions, most of the times they are totally incompetent to be frank. For example, one of my all time favourite books is Paul Kennedy’s ‘The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers’ from 1987. It analyses the big political and military struggles of the last five centuries with their underlying social and economic forces in an astonishing manner. Although being of the opinion that the relative strength of the USSR, USA, Japan and China would change in the future, Kennedy’s speculations about the 21st century were already worthless three years later and seem pretty funny from today’s perspective.

Nevertheless, historians can do more than just lean back, cryptically cite Marx (‘history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce’) and pretend to be intellectuals who do have to offer any help for making decisions today. Yet, there are certain phenomena, e.g. financial crises, wars, revolutions, which repeatedly negatively affect societies. I came to the conclusion that it has to be the task of historians to learn from these past experiences in order to help people to cope with them. One might interject that the circumstances of decision making change every time and that no phenomena are exactly alike. In my opinion, however, comparative history is a suitable tool for overcoming this obstacle.

In my next article, I will get down to business and demonstrate how this can be done in practice. I will compare the massive inflations in Germany 1922/3 and in Zimbabwe 2007/8 and exemplary identify strategies which workers can apply to protect themselves from such a huge threat today. If you think that comparing two such distinct countries across almost a century is abstruse, please visit next week and let me attempt to change your mind.

History can be useful – but only if the historians leave the ivory tower, run the risk of making fools of themselves and adapt their research topics to the needs of today’s society.[2]



[1] Michael Howard: The Lessons of History (Oxford, 1991), pp. 8-9.

[2] You might say that my example is rubbish, because massive inflations will not affect any economy in the near future. I would agree with you, but than again, I am a historian and you know what I said about historians’ predictions.

Gunnar Take

One comment

  1. Howdy! Do yyou use Twitter? I’d like to follow you if
    that would be ok. I’m undoubtedly enjoying your blog and look forward to new posts.

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