Moralizing Historian

A few years ago, a photo of a group of junior high kids in Taiwan who dressed up as Nazi soldiers for a school parade went viral, promoting a severe outrage from the society and Israeli’s representatives at the local office. I didn’t really pay attention to the news until a few days later when I could no longer bear the rage and moralizing talks on my Facebook homepage. I never knew I had so many such enthusiastic and perhaps somewhat maniac historian friends.

By the time I finally decided to look up the news, the photo that went viral were no longer showing up alone: Next to the photo of the kids hoisting swastika banners and having fun with their near-life-size cardboard tank was a picture of the school’s principal bowing and apologizing to the public while preparing to resign from the office. Still, I didn’t really form any opinion, not until I read a comment from a friend who started accusing the kids for not being able to learn from their study of history, of which the purpose was to teach us about, quote and quote, the “rights and wrongs.”

Interesting. Does history to teach us about the rights and wrongs?

I like how Yuval Noah Harari, a historian and professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, in his book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, puts it:

“We study history not to know the future but to widen our horizons, to understand that our present situation is neither natural nor inevitable, and that we consequently have many more possibilities before us than we imagine.”

“Possibilities,” as I see it, is the key. We study history to understand the possibilities before us and stay humble to realize that there is nothing inevitable about who or what we are today. More often than not, the rights and wrongs, as they are conceived by our norms today, are not absolute and should not be based on the historical events or their respective outcomes. This is because the history of mankind is, by definition, manmade, and the world, including our thoughts and behaviors, might well have been arranged differently. We humans are adaptable, so are our beliefs.

This is not to say that Adolf Hitler’s attempt to murder an entire human race and conquer Europe through sheer horror and armed force was justifiable in any way by any mean, but people tend to suffer from short memory when it comes to who or what we were before our time and that the same story of Nazi has repeated itself throughout the history of mankind. Just take a look at the list of the largest empires in history on Wikipedia. Or, perhaps consider the following quote passage:

“The greatest joy a man can know is to conquer his enemies and drive them before him. To ride their horses and take away their possessions. To see the faces of those who were dear to them bedewed with tears, and to clasp their wives and daughters in his arms.”†

It is hard to imagine that any sane individual in the modern society would enjoy or openly discuss such pleasure of his or her own. Yet the story of the conqueror is old enough and the man of the quote is now deemed a great hero by most at our time in the 21st century. The man’s name is Genghis Khan, the founding emperor of the Mongol Empire.

In a rather ironic sense, most people are confined to the very time they live because seeing beyond our present requires a different perspective called history, a study that enables us to learn from our own kind, the human race, and stay humble to the possibilities before, during, and after our time. History, however, does not approve or disapprove Adolf Hitler, Genghis Khan, or any other emperor or militarist before us, but rather, it provides us with a factual record for the collective memory of the human race that tends to fade with time. There is a lot to learn from our past, but judgemental beliefs such as ethics or virtue of life may not be one of them. The purpose of the study of history is not to judge but understand.

As such, I find my friend ignorant for his naive view of history as a way to learn about the rights and wrongs. Perhaps to this day, this friend of mine continues to post his opinions on Facebook without realizing that the bases of many of his thoughts and behaviors are not in any way formed or influenced by historians but philosophers whose names he has probably never even heard of. But that is another story with another essay.

On a side note, the kids being accused did have “learned” from the history as demanded by my friend on Facebook. Their application for the theme of the parade, which had gained far less publicity, was later reported: “We all need to cherish our freedom today for we have learned from the wrongdoings of Nazi and Adolf Hitler.” After all, it was the society who was illiterate enough to bring about such senseless rage and rushed to a conclusion merely based on some news articles written for the sole purpose of making a profit.


† “The greatest joy a man can know”: Quoted in numerous sources, including Gat, 2006, p. 427.”

Asset 5