Does history repeat itself? Yes, it does. But it’s not because we remember the past. It’s because we forget. A shocking recent survey just affirmed this truth.
22 percent of millennials—and in case you’re wondering, I don’t qualify, barely—have never heard or aren’t sure if they have heard of the Holocaust. Two-thirds had never heard of the death camp of Auschwitz, where millions were slaughtered. This survey was released on Holocaust Memorial Day.
This troubles me for several reasons. First, the Holocaust is the among the most morally depraved and physically destructive act in human history. When we ask, “does history repeat itself?” we are asking ourselves whether we can prevent events like the Holocaust from happening again.
Second, we see a rise in religious and ethnic persecution growing around the world. Christians in the Middle East, Rohingya Muslims pushed out of Myanmar, Jews in France murdered in their homes—the same hateful impulse that drove the Holocaust reappears again and again.
Is it cause for utter despair? No. But neither should be naive. We need to learn, to grow, and to use the minds and hearts God gave. We need to understand why history repeats itself so we can do our best to learn its lessons.
Here are three truths, derived from the Bible and psychology, that illustrate why history repeats itself.
1. Human nature doesn’t change: We have more technology than any other generation. We have more wealth than any other era. But our brains haven’t changed.
We still form tribal alliances. We still fear the other. We still use stereotypes to make judgments. We lose ourselves to mob psychology.
The great philosophers and theologians understood this basic human nature. One of the reasons they taught us to love the stranger is because our natural impulses often tell us to fear him.
2. We forget: Since the 1980s, computer memory has been increasing exponentially. Billions of hours of video and trillions of documents are now accessible by anyone. 100 years from now, historians will have lots of memories to work with.
Yet, paradoxically, as computer memory increases, our human memory diminishes. We forget the dangers of antisemitism. We forget the pains and consequences of tyranny.
The Bible taught this lesson early on. Recall the time when the Israelites left Egypt. God freed them from 400 years of slavery. After centuries of pain and oppression, they were finally free to journey toward the Promised Land.
Yet, a few days after leaving Egypt, they start complaining about the uncertainties of life in the wilderness. They yearn for the foods and predictability of Egypt. It seems as if they have forgotten the whole experience of slavery.
Now, of course, they hadn’t forgotten slavery. But they had forgotten its pain. They had become so focused on the present that they rewrote the past.
Now we are all guilty of doing this rewriting.
Just recently, for example, my wife Ari and I were talking about a family trip with our two kids. I said what a wonderful time we had and how fantastic the kids were.
With an incredulous look, she asked me if I remember when our three-year-old woke up five times during the night. Or if I’ve forgotten when our five-year-old refused for half an hour to get out of the swimming pool. “Really?” I replied, “I don’t remember that part.”
These kinds of forgetting are harmless. But when we forget the tragedies of history, we risk their recurrence.
3. We think too highly of ourselves: Many generations believed they stood at the pinnacle of human history. They believed it was no longer necessary to ask “Does history repeat itself?”
In the nineteenth century, for example, European intellectual progressives believed they were on the brink of an era of human brotherhood and peace. Those illusions were shattered with the outbreak of the First World War.
In the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union, some philosophers declared we had reached the “end of history.” They did not literally mean we had reached the end of time.
Rather, they suggested the ideological tensions—Socialism vs. Capitalism, Dictatorship vs. Democracy and so forth—no longer mattered.
The outbreak of genocide in Bosnia and the Middle East, the rise of radical Islam, ongoing human rights suppression in China, and the power of a virtual dictator in Russia quashed that naive hope.
The answer to the question, “Does History Repeat Itself,” is yes. But the emotional response need not be despair. Rather, we can draw from our faith and our sacred texts improve our memory; to restrain our worst impulses; and to follow the biblical imperative to love our neighbor as ourselves.
These are not naive pursuits. They are the foundation of our faith and of what God expects us to do. On Holocaust Memorial Day, we can do no less.
Do You Think History Repeats Itself?