National Observer: Australia and World Affairs, No. 85, 2012

Lessons of history?

by Geoffrey Partington


Many historians have been confident that history provides clear and unambiguous lessons, and that the main purpose of teaching history is to impart to students general laws that compare as closely as possible with those of the sciences.

The historian H.T. Buckle wrote during the 1850s, in his History of Civilization in England: “In regard to nature, event apparently the most irregular and capricious have been explained and have shown to be in accordance with fixed rules.… If human events were subjected to a similar treatment, we have every right to expect similar results…” German-born, American-domiciled philosopher Carl Hempel similarly argued that historical explanation “aims at showing that the event in question was not a ‘matter of chance’, but was to be expected in view of certain antecedents or simultaneous conditions”. Yet another English-based historian, Sir Lewis Namier, had both fears and hopes. He said: “Possibly there is no more sense in human history than in the changes of the seasons or the movements of the stars; or if sense there be, it escapes our perception. But the historian, when watching strands interlace and entwine and their patterns intersect, seeks for the logic of situations and the rhythm of events which invest them at least with a determinist meaning.”


Candidates for general laws

Once we try to list general laws derived from history that are not truisms known already to us all, whether or not we have ever studied any history, difficulties soon arise. It proves very hard to find generalisations that cannot be challenged. Below are a few that have been advanced by reputable thinkers.



“Arms races lead to war”

A lesson many took from pre-1914 Europe, looking back on it from after 1918, was that arms races and building alliances, far from averting war, make it inevitable. Others concluded that in the late 1930s war had been made inevitable because of British and French appeasement of Hitler and tardiness in rearming. The nuclear arms race between the Soviet Union and NATO escalated from the 1950s to the 1980s, but has had, so far, a peaceful outcome.

Strategic lessons

The Austro-Prussian War of 1866 and the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 were wars of rapid movement that ended swiftly and decisively. Therefore military experts anticipated similar speed of victory or defeat in 1914 (“Home by Christmas!”); but soon the conflict on the Western front became a war of attrition. A repeat of grinding trench warfare was therefore expected in 1939, but the German panzers and Luftwaffe broke through enemy lines with amazing rapidity.

Democracies are more peaceable than despotisms or aristocracies

No Greek city was pacific in policy. Herodotus wrote:

“With the Greeks, as with the Egyptians, Thracians, Scythians, Persians, Lydians, and almost all non-Greeks, those who learn a craft and the children of those who learn a craft are held in less esteem than the rest of the citizens. The noble are those who have escaped the yoke of manual labour. The highest honour is devoted to those who devote themselves to war.”

There were differences, however, among Greek cities in levels of aggression. Sparta was militaristic and authoritarian, but did not seek imperial expansion: Spartans gave first priority to controlling their helots. Thucydides, an Athenian but usually reliable, wrote:

“The helots were invited by a proclamation to pick out those of their number who claimed to have most distinguished themselves against the enemy, in order that they might receive their freedom; the object being to test them, as it was thought that the first to claim their freedom would be the most high-spirited and the most apt to rebel. As many as two thousand were selected accordingly, who crowned themselves and went around the temples, rejoicing in their new freedom. The Spartans, however, soon did away with them, and no one ever knew how each of them perished.”

Relatively democratic Athens was ambitious for conquests in Hellas and overseas, and ruthless in their pursuit. When the aristocratic party in Mytilene revolted against subordination to Athens, the Athenian Assembly voted for the execution of all adult males and the enslavement of women and children. The next day the Assembly changed its mind and a fast ship overtook the first one. The punishment was reduced to the death of only a thousand ringleaders and the distribution of all land on the island to Athenians.

Another city, Melos, was not subject to Athens and tried to stay neutral between Athens and Sparta. The words Thucydides put into the mouth of the Athenian legate when the Melians refused Athens’ terms include:

“Of the gods we believe, and of men we know, that by a necessary law of their nature they rule wherever they can … and everybody else, having the same power as we have, would do the same as we do.”

All the adult Melian males were put to death. The Melian women and children were enslaved.

Not all militarists are aggressive. The chief enthusiasm of that remarkable militarist Frederick William I of Prussia (who reigned from 1713 till his death in 1740) was an army which was not only large, well-armed and highly disciplined, but also which contained as many of the tallest men in Europe as  he could recruit. He treasured his tall soldiers so much that he rarely exposed them to enemy fire.

Modern democracies vary in participation in wars. Sweden — once the home of ferocious Vikings, and much later, during the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, of great warrior kings such as Gustavus Adolphus, Charles X and Charles XII — has become, together with Denmark and Norway, the European state least engaged in wars. Britain, through overseas expansion, and the United States, first through westwards expansion by land, have frequently been at war.

The greater responsiveness of democracies to public opinion may sometimes have made war more rather than less likely, but the autocratic empires were little different. In 1914 just before the outbreak of hostilities, crowds in nearly every capital city of the potential belligerents called for war, not peace. However, during the 1930s the majority of the French and British pressed their governments for a peaceful settlement with Germany. The great democratic majority were ”appeasers”.

“History is written by the victors”

Exceptions to this “lesson” include the Peloponnesian Wars. There, the Spartans were the victors, but the history was written by Athenians, such as Thucydides. The Children of Israel lost more battles and wars than they won, but it is their viewpoint we know about, not that of their enemies. Most of the Crusades to Palestine were failures, but Crusaders wrote more accounts of them than did the Muslims.

“My enemy’s enemy is my friend”

The enemy of one’s enemy is often one’s friend, even if only briefly. This sometimes took the form of odds against evens. The “auld alliance” between France and Scotland was based on a common hostility towards England. Prussian, then German, rulers often co-operated with Russia against the Polish state  and, when no Polish state existed, to suppress Polish nationalism. James II was unfortunate in 1688: although fighting for the restoration of the Roman Catholic Church in England, he was opposed by Pope Innocent XI, who was in conflict with Louis XIV and supported William of Orange as the enemy of his French enemy. Patterns are not invariable: to date there have been no alliances between Mexico and Canada against the United States.

Sometimes it is hard to decide who one’s most dangerous enemy is. Decisions are often a difficult choice between two evils. Many Western statesmen in the late 1930s found it hard to assess the relative dangers presented by Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Russia. In the 1980s Western statesmen were unsure whether Saddam Hussein’s Iraq or theocratic Iran posed the greater threat to them.

If once you’ve paid him the Danegeld, you’ll never get rid of the Dane”

Rudyard Kipling was right in respect of Ethelred and the Danish invaders. The Danes did come back for more tribute money and finished up as rulers of the whole country. However, buying a breathing space enabled some ransom-payers to fight with greater advantage another day, as with the tribute paid by Princes of Muscovy during the Middle Ages to Tartars and Mongols. Warriors on horseback needed pasturage, and moved on quickly after sacking cities and extracting tribute; some, like the Huns, suffered defeat in other lands or engaged in internal struggles and never returned. Most of the Hurricanes and Spitfires that won the Battle of Britain in 1940 “were built in the eleven months of peace bought by Neville Chamberlain at Munich”, as Andrew Roberts recently reminded us.


Economic lessons

“The mode of production of material life determines the general character of the social, political and spiritual processes of life.” Thus Marx maintained, writing in 1859.

Do similar “modes of production” determine the “general character of the social, political and spiritual processes of life”? Is this true of peasants as a whole, factory workers, merchant bankers and so on?

You can’t have too much education

Overall, there is positive correlation between educational levels and national wealth, but it is not very high. Many pioneers of mass education and majority entry into higher education used to scoff at sceptics who asked, “Who will do the dirty jobs?”; but many advanced states, including Britain, have surpluses of arts and social science graduates, coexisting with a shortage of skilled tradespeople, while the “dirty jobs” are carried out mainly by immigrants.

Aristotle held “that there are branches of learning and education which we must study with a view to the enjoyment of leisure and that these are to be enjoyed for their own sake” (The Politics, Book VIII), whereas some activities were banausic: “We call those arts vulgar which tend to deform the body, and likewise all paid employment, for these absorb and degrade the mind” (Ibid.). This view was widely and long held by the educated: for example, Spain in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries had massive university expansion, but very few graduates would even consider commerce or industry. The law, the army, the church and the service of the state were the only honourable callings.

Revolutions are caused by poverty and misery

David Hume considered — in his History of England, completed in 1762 — that during the 1630s “the grievances under which the English laboured, when considered in themselves, without regard to the constitution, scarcely deserve the name.” Taxation was historically low during the “personal rule” of Charles I. Taxes were also low, and prosperity was widespread, in Britain’s thirteen mainland American colonies before revolution broke out in 1775-6. The hated tea tax was lower than in the past. Perhaps the end of the French wars meant that the Americans no longer needed a British army or navy? Perhaps the attempt of the British government in 1763 to block western expansion by a “Proclamation Line” was more important than any tax issue.

Before the French Revolution of 1789, were peasants poorer, richer or about the same compared with earlier decades? Was the government of Louis XVI more oppressive than that of his royal predecessors? The English Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 took place when living standards were relatively high, and broke out in the comparatively wealthy counties of Kent and Essex. As the French political thinker and historian Alexis de Tocqueville observed in his book, The Old Regime and the French Revolution (1856), “The regime which is destroyed by a revolution is almost always an improvement on its immediate predecessor, and experience teaches that the most critical moment for bad governments is the one which witnesses their first steps toward reform.”

“The ruling ideas are those of the ruling class”

In one narrow sense this is self-evidently true, in that rulers believe they have the right to rule, and that idea is a ruling one. Rulers often convinced their subjects that their rule was blessed by higher powers. Descent was sometimes claimed from heroes of the past, such as Heracles, or even from gods, such as Zeus, Jupiter and Wotan. Subjects sometimes believed that the help of a divine ruler was needed to secure them happiness in an afterlife.

Many states were ruled by warriors, “men on horseback”, whose specialty was not in ideas and who were often illiterate. Although Plato wished it otherwise, philosophers have rarely been part of a ruling class. In the Western world today, the dominant ideas in the universities and media seem very different from those held by the intelligentsia to be the ruling class. Few Hollywood films or London plays project the ideas of the supposed ruling class.

“All history is the history of class struggles”

There is ample evidence of class struggles at many places and times. In most Greek city-states, for example, internal class struggles were even more violent and bloody than wars between states. Some peoples hated their rulers so much that they welcomed invaders: there were, for instance, pro-Sparta factions in Athens. Many Christians who were regarded as heretics preferred the Arab Muslim invaders to the Byzantine Empire. Several peoples under Aztec rule gave invaluable support to Cortez and his conquistadores.

However, slaves and serfs often feared invaders too much to want to overthrow their rulers. Actual life was often different and better than legal status suggested. If the serf was “tied to the soil”, then equally the soil was tied to the serf. Under medieval English law a serf owned “only his stomach”, but in practice local custom was powerful, and anything more than customary dues was resisted in manorial courts, often successfully. Sometimes conquerors tried to gain support from the conquered by claiming continuity with the past: the Norman kings in England claimed to observe the laws of Edward the Confessor; the Plantagenets claimed unlikely descent from the legendary king Arthur.

Left-wing parties frequently aim at “working-class unity” in class conflict, whereas right-wing parties aimed at national or racial solidarity. Sometimes the two converge or change places: after the end of Yugoslavia, many Serbian politicians who had spoken in the name of the working-class spoke instead in the name of the Serbian people: former communist leaders became nationalist leaders. This has happened, too, in several states that were part of the Soviet Union. In several advanced industrial states, working-class suburbs that once voted left — whether communist, social democratic or labour — became strongholds of fascism, National Socialism, or ultra-nationalist parties. We should investigate how important class antagonisms were in particular places at particular times, rather than start by assuming that a uniform pattern prevails.

“Successful civilisations develop in moderate climates”

Why did not more peoples “cross the ditch” from hunter-gathering to agriculture, urban life and the formation of states? Scottish philosophers of the eighteenth century, such as Francis Hutchinson, Adam Ferguson, John Millar, Adam Smith and the aforementioned David Hume, held that climate played a large part: the climate in some zones was too severe, but in others food and shelter were so prodigal that no incentive existed to change ways of life. More recently Fernand Braudel argued:

“The mountains are as a rule a world apart from civilisations, which are an urban and lowland achievement. Their history is to have none, to remain almost always on the fringe of the great waves of civilisation.…”

Most civilisations did develop in moderate climates, but the Indian, Mexican and Peruvian civilisations seem to be exceptions. The Swiss also provide a counter-example to Braudel’s theory: Wordsworth claimed the mountains and the seas are the mightiest voices of freedom.

“Free trade” and “laissez-faire” are vital for prosperity

Adam Smith held that greater wealth and happiness follow when people can carry out their activities with minimum governmental control, although he also believed that a structure of law and order was needed to ensure that contracts were honoured and people protected against fraud or force. Britain and the Netherlands had begun to prosper in Smith’s time through freer trade and reduced government intervention in trade and industry; but in the nineteenth century the most successful capitalist states, Germany and the United States, expanded their industries behind tariff barriers. China, South Korea and to some extent Japan have become major industrial and mercantile powers under command economies. On the other hand, the Soviet Union and “Peoples’ Democracies” in Eastern Europe did not prosper under command economies.

Civilisations became possible because food surpluses were created by cultivation in fertile river valleys great rivers. Cultivation depended upon irrigation systems that needed central planning to set up and to maintain. It is unlikely that individual enterprise could have done this. Many great human achievements took place within these “hydraulic” states, and many of them were long-lasting. The market would have been unlikely to manage famine as well as Joseph, in the Old Testament, is said to have done.

“Freedom follows trade”

In Western Europe the mediaeval expansion of trade and towns led to increases in freedom and the withering of slavery and serfdom. Few towns had continuity from Roman times, but when traders and craftsmen from the eleventh century onwards did gather together in manorial villages, sooner or later they sought rights to hold markets, and form guilds and “bodies corporate”. In England a year’s life in a town gave a villein emancipation. Mercantile cities such as Genoa, Venice and Barcelona led the way in religious toleration and civic liberty.

Yet during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the great expansion of grain exports from Russia and Eastern Europe encouraged landowners to force free peasants into serfdom. The prosperity of the sugar, tobacco and cotton trades in the Americas drove the expansion of slavery, most rapidly after Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin.


Lessons from religion

Religions cause wars

Contemporary secularists such as Christopher Hitchens claim that conflicting religious beliefs are the root cause of many wars, whereas Marx’s “historical materialism” placed religion in a “superstructure” determined by economic and social relationships. Many wars have arisen almost exclusively from religious differences, but in even more wars religion played a negligible role, and often none at all. Christian heroes such as El Cid fought for both Christian and Muslim rulers. Islam was born in warfare, but Muslims killed more of their fellow-Muslims than non-Muslims. The Greek cities constantly fought each other, despite sharing the same deities; the Roman Catholic rulers of mediaeval Europe fought each other more frequently than they fought Muslims and animists.



Hereditary succession is the best way to change rulers

Hereditary succession, especially primogeniture, became the most common way of changing rulers, because, if observed strictly, it provided a definite successor, and avoided succession wars. Its main disadvantage was that a hereditary successor might be physically or mentally weak, especially if there was in-breeding and even prescribed incest, to keep power within the family, as in Ptolemaic Egypt and among the Aztecs. Other problems concerned legality of marriages and certainty of paternity.

A second system, practised in some of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, was that the most able of the dead ruler’s family should succeed, but there was frequent strife as to who was the most able, and the decision often depended on civil war. In the Ottoman Empire, attempts to avoid conflicts between the numerous sons of the harem included locking all, except one, in a tower and then burning it. A third method was election: Poland, Denmark in Hamlet’s time, and the Holy Roman Empire were elective monarchies; but royal authority was often traded for votes and political weakness usually followed.

Nations and races stay the same

Jules Michelet, the eminent nineteenth-century French historian, claimed that the French had stayed the same over history: “The homeland, my homeland, can alone save the world [La patrie, ma patrie, peut seule sauver le monde].” Slightly earlier, the Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz told his compatriots that they alone were “from first to last faithful to the God of their fathers”. Engels, however, wrote: “The Poles have never done anything in history except play at brave, quarrelsome stupidity. And one cannot point to a single instance in which Poland represented progress successfully even only in relation to Russia.”

One of the principal figures in German philosophy, Johann Fichte (who died in 1814), told his fellow Germans that they “carry most clearly the germ of human perfection… should this perish in you, all hope of humanity for salvation is lost”; but Lord Vansittart, Permanent Secretary at the British Foreign Office between 1933 and 1939, described Germany as “the butcher bird” of Europe”. He held that “this bird of prey is no sudden apparition. It is a species. Hitler is no accident. He is the natural and continuous product of a breed which since the dawn of history has been predatory and bellicose.” Vansittart would have been astonished at the post-1945 history of Germany.

Surveying nineteenth-century Italy, Mazzini saw continuity where few others did. He asked, “Why should not a new Rome, the Rome of the Italian people… arise to create a third and still vaster unity; to link together and harmonise earth and heaven, right and duty?”

The seventeenth-century poet John Milton, the eighteenth-century poet James Thomson (now largely forgotten except for having written the words of Rule Britannia) and William Blake all thought that history showed that the English had become the new chosen race; Michelet attributed to the English a “vast and profound vice” of pride, “a cruel malady but one which is nevertheless the principle of their life, the explanation of their contradictions and the secret of their acts.” As Milton well knew, in the late seventeenth century the English were notorious for political instability. Thomas Hobbes thought the only hope for civil peace was rule by a state with irresistible power: Charles I had been executed only two years before Leviathan was written; Charles’s grandmother, Mary Queen of Scots, had also been executed, as were two non-regnant queens of Tudor England. Civil wars convulsed England, Scotland and Ireland. Yet, within less than a century, Britain became an exemplar of stable constitutional government, in which changes of leadership could take place without bloodshed.

The boundaries of governments should coincide in the main with those of nationalities

In 1861 John Stuart Mill wrote, “It is in general a necessary condition of free institutions that the boundaries of governments should coincide in the main with those of nationalities.” That was the creed of nineteenth-century nationalism in Europe. The French Revolution proclaimed “A republic one and indivisible” and containing all the French. Johann Herder, the philosopher who worked in Germany before, during and after the French Revolution, regarded the culture of each folk, or Volk, as a metaphysical entity arising from its essential spirit and entirely distinct from every other culture. He claimed that a shared language was fundamental to the cultural integrity of each folk, so all Germans should be united in one country. As Herder’s successor as the apostle of German culture, Fichte, put it:

“Those who speak the same language are linked together, before human intervention takes a hand, by mere nature with a host of invisible ties: they understand each other and are capable of communicating more and more closely with one another, they belong together, they are by nature one indivisible whole.”

The counter-revolutionary Joseph de Maistre agreed: “There is no human being in the world. In my life, I have seen Frenchmen, Italians, Russians, etc.… But as far as the human being is concerned, I declare that I have never in my life encountered one.”

At the Conference of Versailles in 1919, American President Woodrow Wilson tried to reshape the frontiers of Europe along such national, mainly linguistic, lines. Unfortunately, races, ethnicities, and speakers of the same language overlapped each other by the millions. Mill’s solution could only be achieved by ethnic cleansing.

Arbitrary rule creates sovereign risk

Risk of arbitrary seizure or confiscation of property and other wealth reduces incentives to improve land and buildings and deters investment from abroad. Under both tsars and commissars, Russians — nobles as well as serfs — were vulnerable to arbitrary confiscation of all they had. This has been true of many absolutist states, but arbitrary seizures may also be carried out in the name of the people by democracies, or perhaps they should be called populist states.

“Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely”

In this dictum Lord Acton followed Pitt the Elder, who had told the House of Lords in 1770 that “unlimited power is apt to corrupt the minds of those who possess it”. But both men included important qualifiers in the words “tends” and “is apt”. Some leaders, such as Solon, Cincinnatus and George Washington, seem to have resisted corruption by power. Impotence, too, can corrupt and destroy, as Hobbes maintained.


Lessons in psychology

The child is father to the man”

Psycho-historians hold that childhood experiences provide the best explanation of adult actions. Unfortunately, little is known about the childhood of many people who later became famous but were born in ordinary circumstances. A key problem is how to test the claim: some psycho-historians claim that adults behave very much as their parents did, but others that children react sharply against their upbringing. There are doubtless some of each sort, but we knew that without help from psychologists.

From English history a possible example of the first is Edward the Black Prince, who tried hard to follow in the footsteps of his warrior father Edward III; a possible example of the second is Edward II who dreaded the idea of becoming a warrior king like his father, Edward I. A puzzling one is Frederick II (“The Great’”) of Prussia: his father Frederick William I, whom we have already met, was obsessed with his army, but the son as a teenager loved music and the theatre, and hated drill and military exercises. Yet, as king, Frederick became the leading general in Europe. Intriguing cases among women are Mary I and Elizabeth I, with the same father but two very different mothers. Unfortunately, we usually know even less about girlhoods than boyhoods.

People act in their own interests

This is often the circular argument that any voluntary act, however altruistic it may appear, is what people want to do and they are therefore acting in their own interests. Yet there are abundant examples of people who consciously acted against their own interests. There are far more who did not act only in their own interests. Few of us can successfully serve the interests of others unless we know what is in our own interests.

Unforeseen effects

The real clincher against claims to derive general laws from history is the unpredictability of events;. Despite the claims of the French Annales school of historians (of whom Braudel was the best-known representative), this applies to long-term movements as well.

When in the eleventh century Pope Gregory VII (Hildebrand) succeeded in outlawing marriage for Roman Catholic clergy, his motives did not include increasing educational opportunity, but that was one of its effects: although some clerics had illegitimate offspring, their progeny was quite insufficient to fill the church’s need for literate successors, so that more schools were needed. A negative result, but one that could have been anticipated, was that clerical celibacy deprived countries of those clerical children who after the Reformation made so many important contributions to science, literature and the arts.

British colonisation of Australia had among other unforeseen results, including the creation of a sense of shared Aboriginality among indigenous peoples who previously had little knowledge of each other and could not speak each other’s languages. Another was the emergence of constitutional democracies in six colonial states and then in a federal Commonwealth. None in 1788 expected this future for a convict colony, but in retrospect we can understand how and why it came about. Although England had a very harsh penal code, the jury system and Habeas Corpus provided better safeguards for legal defence in English-founded territories than anywhere else. Convicts were tried under strict judicial requirements, could petition the governor, and give evidence in court against masters to whom they had been assigned; masters could not legally physically punish convict servants. Nearly all the convicts, including many with life sentences, gained their freedom. Some became wealthy and prominent in colonial life. As early as 1820 the main worry in Westminster about New South Wales was that convict conditions were so easy that transportation was no longer much of a deterrent to crime.

Experts seem no better at predicting the future through knowledge of the past than the rest of us. Which Kremlinologists forecast the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellites? Which economists and financial tipsters anticipated the recent global financial crisis? In 1910 Sir Norman Angell wrote The Great Illusion, which explained that a European war was impossible, because the links in commerce, finance and transport between the possible belligerents were such that they would have to remain at peace. Weather-forecasts cannot predict next month’s weather accurately, but some savants confidently prophesy massive global warming unless we all change our ways and repent. Three decades ago, the danger warned against was a mini-ice age.



The point of studying history is not to learn general laws that they can readily be applied to new problems. What history can provide is a range of examples of how and why people acted in particular ways in various situations and what resulted from what they did. The “lessons of history” should be seen as hypotheses in relevant situations. Yet, although historical knowledge does not deliver a set of general laws, it extends and deepens judgment of what human beings do in a variety of circumstances and often suggests what they might have done instead.


About the author

Dr Geoffrey Partington was born in Lancashire and currently lives in Melbourne. He has academic degrees in history, sociology and education; has taught history in secondary schools; and has lectured on education at Flinders University and overseas. He has twice been awarded the George Watson Prize for the best essay on a political subject published in Australia.



National Observer: Australia and World Affairs, No. 85, 2012