Does History Really Repeat Itself?

Written by Twumasi Duah-Mensah

Of course, history doesn’t repeat itself exactly. It’s very, very unlikely that a tragedy like the Holocaust will repeat itself exactly like it first did. But current events and trends often do rhyme with events that happened many, many years ago. If you’ve ever dove into the genre of “self-help,” you may have seen a lot of discussions on dealing with fake, inauthentic people, guides on how to combat motivation struggles, and the importance of daily journaling. No disrespect to modern psychologists’ contributions to the self-help genre, but Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius did it first and, arguably, better.

Human nature is like a huge boulder rooted to the ground: push it as much as you want, but it’s not gonna budge much. Humans’ obsession with defining success is a great example. There will always be successful humans, and there will always be self-centered humans who are only interested in a human’s success and not the human as, um, a human. There will always be humans who envy what a successful person has. There will always be humans who refuse to share their success or use it for societal benefit, because they yearn to preserve what they have. We like to think we’re above those who submit to these vices because we have “morals,” but deep down, we know we are also flawed—we just sometimes don’t know how we’re flawed.

 Not understanding our flaws is precisely why answering the question of if history repeats itself is so easy—the answer is yes—but answering the question of why it does isn’t so easy. Our process to preventing atrocities like the racist attitudes that promoted American slavery or genocides like the Holocaust is pretty simple: they can’t ever happen again if we learn how horrible they were. Let’s focus on the Holocaust a little more. If we know the tragic results of such evil, then why are we seeing the same trends that defined Nazi Germany, be it rising antisemitism in the United States or a Muslim minority group in China, the Uighurs, being jailed in concentration camps en masse?

And what about human rights, the world’s response to preventing Holocaust-like atrocities from happening again? According to the United Nations in 1946, if we all were to abide by these values, we’d never see another Holocaust again. Even better: anything that defined Nazi Germany’s hatred for the Jewish people would be eviscerated if every person in the world abid by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. No one is born to pray for genocide, yet hatred persists in today’s world. Why?

To understand why human rights fail, we need to understand the motivations behind Nazi Germany during the Holocaust, American white nationalists and antisemitism, and the Chinese government as it sends Uighur Muslims to concentration camps. The motivations aren’t always the same, but they are united by a staple in human nature.

Original Sin

Genocides weren’t a new concept to the world before the Holocaust, but none are as entrenched in our minds as the extermination of six million Jews by the Nazis. We’re all too familiar with the tragic outcome of Nazi Germany’s deep hatred for the Jews, but we don’t often investigate the anatomy of said hatred. It doesn’t make much sense to neglect an indispensable part to figuring out why the bad history we don’t want repeating itself repeats itself anyway, so let’s fix that now: why did Hitler hate the Jews?

Well, antisemitism, like genocide, wasn’t anything new to the world, either. Historically, European societies didn’t think fondly of their Jewish population, relegating Jews to jobs in sectors such as finance that were seen as immoral. Their societies were built on Christian tradition, and Jews didn’t really fit that vision. Even as church and state separated in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, Jewish people and their ancestry weren’t. By then, nationalist groups in Europe were obsessed with the idea that Jews were separate from other ethnicities because of their bloodline. And that’s where Hitler comes in.

After suffering defeat in World War I, infuriated German nationalists needed someone to blame. Their scapegoat of choice? The Jews, who, in their eyes, were never fully German and betrayed the motherland during the war. Hitler took it a step further. All that communism stuff Germans were hearing? A Jewish conspiracy. And the people twisting capitalism for their own means? Jews. If Germany was to become strong again, according to Hitler, it had to detoxify itself. And the toxins weakening Germany? The Jewish people.

Behind the Nazis’ misplaced hatred (to say the least) for the Jewish was, ironically, a deep passion and love for the German people. It’s textbook nationalism: pride for your blood, hatred for those who appear to oppose it. If the Germans had won World War I, would they have gone after the Jews as viscerally as they eventually did? Don’t get it twisted: the Jewish people wouldn’t have been in totally good graces given the “not fully German” issue, but their original sin, according to German nationalists, was “betraying the motherland” in the war. If they didn’t love the motherland, the nationalists wouldn’t care so much.

This article isn’t about the origins of hate, though. It’s about why history repeats itself. So is the mentality of 20th-century German nationalists the mentality that repeats itself today? Yeah, mostly.

Rising Anti-Semitism in the United States

Far on the right of the political spectrum, white nationalists warn of excessive Jewish influence in the American government. They point to organizations like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a political lobbyist group from which both Republicans and Democrats seek approval. They point to the $3.8 billion a year the US grants in military assistance to Israel. Past accusing the US of cheating on the American people and having an affair with Israel, white nationalists’ have many other conspiracies of American Jews’ secret hold on the country and the world that this article simply cannot cover. 

However twisted you perceive white nationalists’ “love” for America to be, their animosity wouldn’t be as explicit and their proposed actions as drastic if they weren’t so zealous about their idea of what America should be. They don’t exist out of hatred for everyone who doesn’t fit their definition of American; they exist because they believe in that definition in the first place. And as a result, history appears to repeat itself.

Chinese Abuse of Uighur Muslims

A good chunk of China’s Muslims, responsible for 2.8% of the population, are concentrated in the Chinese region of Xinjiang. There’s a predominantly Muslim ethnic group in that region: the Uighurs. There’s another special thing about Xinjiang that the Chinese government cares more about: the 21 billion tons of oil reserves begging to be exploited.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Xinjiang is both crazy rich in natural resources and China’s geographic bridge to the West. China’s also trying to draw up the Belt and Road Initiative, a $26 trillion project meant to build many, many extensive trade routes that’ll give China significant economic power. It’s basically a sequel to the Silk Road, and Xinjiang is playing a starring role. And if there’s a hint of instability in Xinjiang, you best believe China’s gonna crack down on it. 

The Uighurs, however, aren’t so excited about China’s plans. They occupied the region before the majority ethnic group in China, the Han Chinese. And when the two groups confronted each other in 2009, the results weren’t pretty. 197 people were killed as a result of the Uighur riots against Chinese rule, a huge no-no for the Chinese government. Xinjiang is their big cash cow; if they can’t exert control over the region and instability is allowed to run rampant, their claim to global dominance is screwed. So how do the Chinese aim to regain control? By sending Uighurs to “re-education” camps where they learn to appreciate Chinese culture. And just like that, history repeats itself.

So what’s the common denominator?

As established, unfettered nationalism. If human rights are to prevail and stop the cycle of history singing the same destructive notes, the nations of the world will either have to cool their pride and love for themselves or ditch it completely. Sounds simple, but if your nation is in a race to reclaim world dominance and banish the ghosts of past humiliations, as is the case with China, it’s much easier said than done. Here’s a comparison: think of your best friend. You love them deeply, even if others can’t see why. If you were told that someone was spreading false, hurtful rumors about them—even if there was no objectively good evidence provided—your hatred wouldn’t come from being born and raised to hate but a deep love for your best friend. It’s human nature, and history has shown us time and time again that human nature doesn’t change much.

Wait, that’s it? We can’t prevent all this horrible history repeating itself because “human nature doesn’t change much?” Fear not, for we can still make meaningful differences in the world, but we have to target something the masses don’t usually target. Remember when I said that white nationalists’ disdain for the Jewish people comes from their “love” for America—however twisted that “love” may be? That love needs to be redirected for history to truly become history. Usually, the threat that your culture won’t survive unless major changes to primitive thinking are made is good enough—it’s just a matter of what will scare you and when.

For the formation of the European Union, it took a few big lessons. The two World Wars taught Europe the pitfalls of overzealous nationalism, so over 20 countries across the continent banded together to form an economic union in 1958 (the union would become a political one as well in 1993 amid the messy breakup of the former Yugoslavia), the hope being that if they were dependent on each other economically, they wouldn’t break into another continental war. And their hope has been fulfilled. Even if some countries have gripes about how the setup favors the big dogs in Germany and France, the European Union has, indeed, worked well to promote peace and cooperation across Europe, ending a dark period in the continent’s history (for now).

How about an example where it didn’t take two World Wars to change? Let’s go to a village in the West African nation of Sierra Leone that recently gave up the practice of FGM. If you don’t know what FGM is, just know that it’s a human rights abuse and leave it at that. Seriously, if you’re the tiniest bit squeamish, do not look it up. If you have the misfortune of knowing what FGM is, I don’t go into any gruesome detail, so don’t fret. Back to the village: as part of initiation into Bondo society, a girl’s transition from childhood to adulthood, young girls would undergo FGM, and the town would spend a ton of money and bring a bunch of food for the ceremony. Now that the village shut FGM operations down, their extra food reserves and money is being invested into promoting girls’ education and health. And the best part? The villagers don’t feel like they’re abandoning their culture. They think a new ceremony for initiation into Bondo society could help women develop leadership skills while maintaining the social importance of the society.

But why didn’t anyone think of this sooner? You can’t really say advancements in science, because the villagers strictly mentioned the economic benefits of stopping their practice of FGM. My personal theory: as more Sierra Leoneans move to big cities en masse and find more job opportunities outside of farming, rural villages, whose economy is built on farming, are under pressure to replace and retain their agricultural workforce. Providing young girls with the foundation needed to seize opportunities in the local economy will help with replacing farmers who move to the big city, and possibly, increase their labor force. And just like that, the cycle of history comes to an end (for now).

To stop history’s not-so-pretty moments from repeating, you need to change the unchangeable: human nature. Maybe change isn’t the right word, since we’ve examined many examples showing us such. If we’re hoping for humans to quell their love for who they are—no matter how overzealous—we’re gonna wait til Kingdom come. There needs to be something in it for the other side. And that something may take a while. It took the atrocities of the Holocaust and the destruction of Europe in World War II for the continent to smarten up. It’s probably impossible to count how many young girls suffered or died from health complications as a result of FGM. But whenever the moment comes, we must be wary of how quickly the tables can turn. The United Kingdom, for example, just left the European Union in pursuit of asserting British interests and escaping the clutches of bureaucrats in Brussels, so the argument for Brexit goes. It’s why I included “for now” at the end of “the cycle of history comes to an end.” To assume we’ve found the ultimate utopian solution for humanity at any point in time and that it will last forever is to assume the hearts of man have resolved to change. And we humans should know very well that we don’t.

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