Discussion Guide on the Importance of History

Why bother with history, or World War II, or the Battle of Britain?

In this study guide John Rhodes discusses the nature of history, and why he writes about World War II and the Battle of Britain.

Why history?

Let me begin by saying that history is complicated!

A simple definition of history is that it is the record of everything that happened in the past. The world today is therefore the cumulative sum of every event in our collective past—every good decision and good idea, every bad decision and bad idea, every intention and accident, every action and inaction, all melded together to form the world we live in today.

However, there is no immutable, independent, or complete depository of all these facts. The historical record can be—and often is—rewritten, sometimes because of scholarly research and discovery, but also, I fear, sometimes for political or ideological purposes.[1] From this perspective, history is the record of the past that the writers of history want us to know as the past.

Our record of the past is also incomplete. It is an account of events and their causes that now seem important, but these ‘important’ events may not have been seen as particularly significant by those who experienced them, nor may the events have been caused by the reasons now given. Thus the ‘historical record’ tends (innocently or not) to be a backward projection of what we now see as important. The inverse is also true: current versions of the past will minimize or omit what seemed crucially important to the people that actually lived through them.

Winston Smith, the protagonist in George Orwell’s seminal work ‘1984,’ was employed to rewrite past newspaper reports to conform to the ruling party’s current wishes, thus ensuring that history would prove that the party was always right.

In another great dystopian novel, Ray Bradbury’s ‘Fahrenheit 451,’ the ruling party has simply destroyed all books, and thus all records of the past and thus the past itself.

Just to complicate matters further, philosophers have argued ever since Heraclitus and Parmenides in ancient Greece as to whether time is an illusion, a view reflected in the modern ‘B Theory’ of omnipresent time in modern theoretical physics. If there is no past, how can there be history?

Perhaps the shrewdest example of the malleability of history came from Winston Churchill. He wrote, ‘I think history will be kind to me, for I intend to write it.’

But that’s all too complicated to me!

My simpler version of history, in which past, present and future all exist, and in that sequence, is that history is like a vast river flowing through time, encompassing everyone’s lives within its currents; a ceaseless flow of causes and effects in which the effects become the next causes.

It follows that if we want to understand the world we live in today we need to understand the past. If we don’t know where we’ve come from, we don’t know where we are now, and we certainly cannot predict where we are heading.

That’s the importance of history: it explains where we are and why today’s world is the way it is, and it offers us vital clues about what lies ahead.

[1] The Holocaust, to cite one current controversial example, happened only to the extent that people are told that it happened; if they are taught that it did not happen, then it didn’t. The fact or lie of the Holocaust understandably makes a major difference in how one views the legitimacy or illegitimacy of Israel and its place in the Middle East.

Why World War II?

In my simple view of history as a mighty river, every so often the river reaches and crashes over a waterfall, a seminal event that changes the very character of the river.

World War II, 1939 to 1945, was one such waterfall. It created the modern world, a world still shaped by the Allied victors in 1945. If the Axis powers had won the world would be very different. The world’s power structure and global and regional institutions, the world’s economy, the distributions of what we think of as individual freedom or lack of freedom, the pecking order in terms of national power and prosperity, and so on, can all be traced to August, 1945, when the war ended—and to how and why it ended.

Some waterfalls are natural; others are artificial.

World War II was a man-made event, an artificial waterfall. Other waterfall events were natural—the great plagues like the Black Death, for example, in which a third of humankind died in about five years in the middle of the fourteenth century, (the rough equivalent of three billion people if a third died today,) or the desertification of the Sahara five or six thousand years ago, which created the geography in which western civilization would evolve.

World War II, a man-made catastrophe, is a study in the extremes of human behavior: the lengths to which ruthlessness and cruelty can be stretched, and the degree to which individuals and groups can survive and resist in the face of brutality.

Why the Battle of Britain?

World War II lasted six years, from September 1939 until August 1945. It was fought on every continent (except North America) and every ocean, and consumed at least one hundred million lives—and perhaps many more, depending on one’s basis of calculation.

Within this long and complex series of events there were a handful of inflection points that determined the outcome—who fought, who allied with whom against whom, who won, who lost, and how long the war lasted. The attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, for example, was an event that brought the United States into the war and determined its ultimate outcome.

The Battle of Britain was one such inflection point. It occurred exactly one year after the war began. It ended with the unlikely defeat of the German Luftwaffe and caused the cancelation of Hitler’s plans to invade Britain. It was the first time that the previously unstoppable Third Reich suffered a defeat.

If Britain had lost, it is highly unlikely that America would or could have intervened in Europe, which would have fallen, permanently, into the grip of either Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia. The architecture of a modern world based on authoritarian regimes controlling Asia, Africa and Europe, with only North America in democratic hands, would have been profoundly different from our present world. 

Karl Marx and many, many others have believed that history is an inexorable march toward an inevitable outcome—an outcome that, by no coincidence, is exactly the one they want. I do not believe in that kind of determinism.  On the contrary, the Battle of Britain is also an excellent example of men and women controlling their own destinies, rather than being controlled by inexorable forces of history—of men and women being the masters of their fate, the captains of their souls, as Ernest Henley put it.

The tide of history in the early twentieth century flowed strongly toward authoritarian states and philosophies, as exemplified by Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. One would have expected that Britain, still exhausted from the First World War, beggared by the Great Depression, and in the sway of fashionable Appeasement policies, would simply succumb.

But Churchill would not surrender, regardless of the odds, and a few hundred heavily-outnumbered Spitfire and Hurricane pilots ensured that he did not have to do so.

The men and women of the ‘Greatest Generation’ who fought the war are all but gone, and their children have grown grey. Soon the war will recede into the distant past. Let us remember as best we can, before it is forgotten or—God forbid—men like Orwell’s Winston Smith rewrite it into something else.

Why historical fiction?

History is taught less and less, and is more and more politicized. An event such as the Battle of Britain seems utterly remote and totally irrelevant to the modern world—and can therefore be forgotten. But I don’t think it should be forgotten! I think we should realize just how important, how critical, this battle was, and what people were fighting to defeat.

I thought it would help if we could see the battle through the eyes of the men and women who were there. I therefore invented characters to live through the battle: a pilot to see the enemy emerging from the glare of the sun, guns blazing, wondering if he is about to die; and a staff officer in headquarters, watching the battle playing out on the map table before her, calculating the balance between victory and defeat.

I wanted to understand what Churchill meant when he wrote: “The odds were great; our margins small; the stakes infinite.” 

The stakes were indeed infinite—no less than the future course of history. That is why we bother.

Discussion Topics

1. Rhodes describes various definitions and interpretations of history, and then offers his own.

  • Is Rhodes’s interpretation of history as a river made up of every human life correct, in your opinion?
  • If not, what is a better definition of history?

2. Rhodes gives the existence or non-existence of the Holocaust as an example of different versions of history.

  • Can you offer other examples of historical interpretation?

3. Rhodes describes World War II as a ‘waterfall event’ that created the modern world.

  • Do we agree with Rhodes, or would the world have evolved to its present state—more or less—if the war had not occurred.
  • Which of these events and effects of World War II is the most important, in your view?
  • Technological advances such as radar, jet engines, penicillin, blood transfusions
  • Peace in Europe after 2,000 years of constant fighting
  • The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki
  • The Atlantic Charter leading to the creation of the United Nations and other global organizations

4. Rhodes discusses the Battle of Britain as an event that saved the world from authoritarianism. In his novel Infinite Stakes, his protagonist Eleanor describes some of the possible effects of a German victory, including the proposition that Nazi Germany would have developed the first nuclear bomb as well as the first ballistic missiles.

Can you offer other examples of the result of a Nazi victory?

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