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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: "On se trompe presque tout le temps"

by Marc Ferro

On Our Blindness in the Face of History

Translated Sunday 19 February 2012, by Isabelle Métral and reviewed by Henry Crapo

Invited by the Friends of l’Humanité to one of their Saturday talks at the Maison de la Poésie in Paris once more to speak about history, 87-year-old historian Marc Ferro shows how all too often history makes sudden surprising about-turns that take us unawares, defeat our conceptions of the world and frustrate our future plans for society.

I am not sure the link with Jaurès will be very clear today, but when I explained what I wanted to talk about I was told that yes, it might have something to do with Jean Jaurès. In fact, I’d like to talk of our blindness in front of history. History very often takes us by surprise, and more often than we’d like. I am not alluding to the fact that quite recently Alain Juppé said he had been surprised at what happened in Tunisia, or that Barack Obama was surprised at the events in Egypt. Not at all! If I stand back from all this, I realize that all those learned people, all those experts, all our categorical politicians never thought of a multitude of historical facts and events in our generation. Those are the things I would like to make clear: how is such blindness possible?

Let’s first draw up a list of those events. The Arab spring, the financial crisis in 2007, the attack on the World Trade Centre in 2001, the Chinese economy outstripping Japan’s, the fall of the Berlin wall and the Soviet block from 1989 onwards, the Islamist revolution in Iran in 1979, the May 1968 uprising, the 1929 crisis, who had foreseen all those? Remember how on the eve of Black Thursday Hoover was saying that a new era of prosperity was beginning. Lastly, neither fascism nor Nazism were foreseen by anyone. Léon Blum said it was some minor, ephemeral crisis. André Tardieu, a right-winger, had said the same. Ernst Thälmann, a German communist, thought it was a trifle. So people make terrible mistakes, often, and nearly always.

But mistakes have been made about isolated events too, the consequences of which have been no less important. The attack on Pearl Harbor, for instance, which was thought more likely to be in the Philippines or somewhere else. Stalin, who, when informed by the spy Sorge that Germany would attack the Soviet Union on the 20th of June 1941, refused to believe him, or Lenin who, a few days before the February revolution, told Swiss workers he would never see a revolution in Russia in his lifetime even though he had been working actively for it for thirty years.

All this goes to prove that the succession of mistakes we make, the false prognoses, the great and minor events that we fail to predict are a real problem that keeps cropping up all the time. Fortunately there are also other events that we do foresee: for instance, the First World War. Homage must be paid to Jean Jaurès for announcing the ineluctable war when other European social-democrats were explaining that the great powers would not make war against one another because they had gorged themselves on their colonies and would not want to lose money.

But it’s not just the great men that make mistakes. We, simple citizens, are also blind sometimes. This is understandable because we do not live in history. Many people somehow do not take part in history: they live their lives and their lives are all they are concerned about. They are no doubt insured against fire, and theft, they may have a life-insurance, but they are not insured against history! They do not see the connection between their lives and history. And so, when history takes them in its grip, they are quite at a loss.

Let’s take the example of British private Hamp during WWI: he did not understand what was taking place around him. As he was in one of the Flemish trenches in 1917, he and his companions were bombed. Once the bombing was over, and left him stunned, he realized that all those around him were dead. He decided to climb out of the trench to know what the orders were. An officer passed by him and asked what he was doing there, for military regulations forbade soldiers to climb out of trenches. The officer decided to have him summoned before a military court. During the trial, everybody knew that soldier had been bravely fighting since 1915 and it was clear he would be cleared. Yet, when he was asked why he had volunteered, in order to prove how absurd a conviction would be, instead of answering: “For my country and Queen!”, he explained it was to show his mother-in-law, who called him an idiot, that he was a man. He was eventually sentenced to death.

This shows how helpless some people can be in the face of history. Others are quite as blind even though they find themselves caught up in the historical process. They might understand it but instead they are blind , sometimes because they are militants, as in the case of those Soviet dignitaries in the early days of the revolution who did not see Stalin’s rise to power and did not foresee their approaching fall.There are also far more terrible cases, like the one of that German doctor, Doctor Meineke, who was in charge of implementing the eugenic prescriptions of Nazi laws to kill mental patients and Jews. Meineke wrote to his wife who had just given birth: “My dear little Mum, it is 17.45, and my day’s work is over. I have filled 95 files today. And everything went off very smoothly… We had lentil soup with bacon this morning, a dessert and a pancake…” and ended his letter like this: “Give me your little mouth for a short good-night kiss and give me your little ass for a slap and sleep fast.” He was sentenced to death in 1946. He had had 2,500 people executed."

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