Why don't we learn from history?

B. H. Liddell Hart (1895-1970)


If there is any value in such a personal view as I can offer, it is due largely to the fortune of personal circumstances. While in common with the great majority I have had to earn a living, I have had the rare good luck of being able to earn it by trying to discover the truth of events instead of to cover it up, as so many are compelled, against their inclination, by the conditions of their job.

Writing history is a very tough job—and one of the most exhausting. More than any other kind of writing it requires what Sinclair Lewis, in answer to a young man's question, aptly defined as the secret of success—to “make the seat of your pants adhere to the seat of your chair for long enough.”

Writing history is also the most exasperating of pursuits. Just as you think you have unraveled a knotty string of evidence, it coils up in a fresh tangle. Moreover you can so easily get caught up or tripped up on some awkward and immovable fact just as you seem to be reaching an irresistible conclusion.

What are the compensations? First, it is a pursuit that has a continual interest and excitement—like an unending detective story in which you are a partaker and not merely a reader.

Secondly, such constant exercise is the best corrective to mental arthritis—the occupational disease of more stereotyped jobs.

Third, and above all, it is the least cramping of occupations in a most vital respect.

One more point about the writing of history: It should be written in manuscript. Not dictated. It is important always to keep in sight what you have said in the paragraphs before—both for balance and for relationship. And, in each case, both for matter and for style.

I would emphasize a basic value of history to the individual. As Burckhardt said, our deeper hope from experience is that it should “make us, not shrewder (for next time), but wiser (for ever).” History teaches us personal philosophy.

Over two thousand years ago, Polybius, the soundest of ancient historians, began his History with the remark that “the most instructive, indeed the only method of learning to bear with dignity the vicissitude of fortune, is to recall the catastrophes of others.” History is the best help, being a record of how things usually go wrong.

A long historical view not only helps us to keep calm in a “time of trouble” but reminds us that there is an end to the longest tunnel. Even if we can see no good hope ahead, an historical interest as to what will happen is a help in carrying on. For a thinking man, it can be the strongest check on a suicidal feeling.

I would add that the only hope for humanity, now, is that my particular field of study, warfare, will become purely a subject of antiquarian interest. For with the advent of atomic weapons we have come either to the last page of war, at any rate on the major international scale we have known in the past, or to the last page of history.

Next: Part I: History and truth
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Copyright (c) 1971 by Lady Kathleen Sullivan Liddell Hart

URL: http://www.nmt.edu/~shipman/reading/liddell/foreword.html