A Year of History

The year is coming at an end. It seems as if the corona pandemic has been going around for ages now. That’s why I have a double feeling about this year. It went by immensely fast, but it also couldn’t have ended sooner. At the end of the year, it is always the custom of reflecting back at your year and see if you have made progress as a human being. This year has been a rollercoaster once more, but I can honestly with pride say that I’ve grown as a person during 2021. I have come to new philosophical insights, new insights into life and I’ve finally managed to move out of my parents’ house. So far so good.

            Last year, I decided I wanted to dive a bit into becoming a polymath. Being a polymath is kind of being a jack of all trades. You know more than the average person about most topics, but you don’t know as much as the experts. During my studies in philosophy, I have learned what I can about existentialism, ancient philosophy, psychoanalysis and so on. Even though there is a lot more to learn about philosophy (which is what makes it so interesting), there are also many other subjects that deserve our attention. With philosophy in particular, I believe it is important that we give attention to the other academic subjects which are being taught. You can be an expert in philosophy all you want, if you can’t link it with other subjects, I believe it isn’t worth as much as it could potentially be.

            So, this year I wanted to dive a bit deeper into history, particularly history surrounding World War II. The second world war is something that has piqued my interest for years now. How was it possible that the fascist ideology came to power? And how was it possible that people went along with killing 6 million Jews in the process? But the same questions can be asked about the USSR and how it was possible that Stalin created gulags where people were sent there as slaves to perform labor in harsh climate?

Erich Fromm gave me a better understanding of Nazi psychology with his book The Fear of Freedom. Here, he analyzes from a psychoanalytic perspective the way the psychology of Nazism works. The sadism and masochism that gave rise to the horrid cruelties of the 20th century. Combine this with Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem and you understand that many of the atrocities came from a bureaucratic mindset with an overly rational view. Rationality without emotion results in immoral actions. Eichmann, reports Arendt, was just a small, aging man who follows orders and adhered to the categorical imperative of Kant in his own opinion. He didn’t think about the many lives he destroyed by bringing them to the slaughter. This was Hannah Arendt’s concept of the Banality of Evil. Another book which shows that every ordinary person would be an Auschwitz guard because of the social context is Ordinary Men by Christopher Brown. This book showed how ordinary men were recruited for the police force of Germany because Germany wasn’t allowed to have an official army. The psychological methods the Nazis used to make people commit heinous acts are explained in immense detail.

The question of evil is one of the main questions of history in my opinion. Another book which made this question urgent to my mind was The Rape of Nanking by Iris Chang. This book explained the atrocities the Japanese committed against the Chinese in Nanking when they invaded the country. How was it possible for humans to literally rape someone every minute of the day and when they were done kill them in cold blood. Not only that, but they also put the bodies in the river and the number was so great the river started to stop flowing. The put the bodies of raped women on poles to show the citizens what they would do to them. To make things even more confusing, the person who saved the most people in Nanking was a Nazi officer. It seemed like the acts of people couldn’t just be prescribed to an ideology.

The totalitarian regimes of the 20th century were in my opinion a psychological experiment in the sense that they showed what humans were capable of when given the power to do so. From every side of the political spectrum. Imperialism with liberalism, the gulags with communism and the holocaust with fascism. The totalitarian regimes were studied by Hannah Arendt in her phenomenal book The Origins of Totalitarianism. Where dictatorships tried to control every aspect of the public sphere, totalitarian regimes were different. As the name implies, they also wanted to control the private sphere, crushing any form of intolerance towards the system from the inside out. 1984 by George Orwell isn’t even the worst of what could potentially be. To understand the political situation of the 20th century, reading Hannah Arendt is obligatory in my opinion.

To further understand the psychology of the many reprehensive people and regimes, I have dived deeper into psychoanalysis. As I have already said, Erich Fromm brings a new and thorough analysis of the psychology of the many repressive aspects of Nazism, communism, and liberalism. Linking these ideas with Jung’s insights of the Shadow in our psyche, presented with new insights and new fears for the future. But even though the horrid time of the 20th century burned in my brain, I felt like I couldn’t neglect some other aspects of history.

            That brought me to one of the darkest periods of history of my own country of Belgium. The colonization of Congo and whatever happened after the Belgian government returned Congo as an autonomous state. With this however, some decolonization literature was never to be too distant. Franz Fanon, Aimé Césaire and Mbembe all gave critique to colonization and imperialism from a black perspective. These writers and philosophers gave a deeper understanding of the racism that pervaded the colonization ages. But more importantly it gave me some better understanding of the psychology of how black people envisioned themselves during the age of colonization and imperialism. I even tried giving critical race theory a go. Even though I don’t agree with most of the points they make, I can now put forward some sympathy for the theory and the problems that they courageously try to solve.

            I also felt like I needed some more broad views of history. I read A Brief History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson, where he gives a concise overview of how most of the sciences advanced like geology for example. This was more a book for some random facts spitting than really one that gave some deeper understanding. The Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan, for me, destroyed the myth that globalization has only been in effect since the 70’s of last century. The world has always been connected through many different trade roads. Ideas and technology were shared, and we wouldn’t be where we are today if we hadn’t shared our knowledge and technology, even though through history this mostly didn’t happen in a humane way. It might be something we need to pay attention to in the future.

            I love history and it will always be a subject that I want to learn more about. There are still some history books that I need to read which will be for next year. However, next year I want a new subject to focus on. I read Capital in the 21st Century by Thomas Piketty this year as well and it really made me want to go deeper into economics. How do markets work? Why is there so much inequality? Are there other ways to arrange our economy? These are some next questions on my mind. I have already investigated many of the Marxist critiques of the economy but as might be clear I don’t really find them satisfying. So, I’ll be trying to find better ones. I believe 2022 to be a very interesting year.

By elenchusphilosophy

Philosophy student from Ghent, Belgium. I write about what I find interesting which is about nearly anything. Though my guiding question in life is how to be a good person.

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