History Matters, and So Does the National History Center
Stanley M. Katz, April 2008
History matters. The incontestable truth encapsulated in this phrase was once again brought home to me quite forcefully by a brilliant and eloquent lecture delivered recently at a Council of Foreign Relations (CFR) meeting in New York by Fritz Stern, university professor emeritus at Columbia University, and a distinguished historian of Germany, whose most recent book is the best-selling autobiographical memoir, Five Germanys I Have Known.
The lecture—the second in a series on foreign policy history sponsored by the National History Center in collaboration with the CFR—was entitled "Fear and Hitler's Instant Subversion of Freedom." In his presentation, Stern, who had himself barely managed to escape the tyrannical terrors of the Nazi regime by emigrating to the United States with his family when he was still a child, explained how the Nazis manipulated national-security issues to increase and consolidate their power. Although other factors—the long, failed political education of the German people and the failures of leadership on the part of the German ruling class, for instance—also contributed to the rise to power of the Nazis, it was the fear of the "enemy" within (the Jews) that they exploited to devastating effect. This produced, according to Stern, a "silent and jubilant submission" of the German people.
There was a long and spirited discussion following the talk, during which it became clear that the audience was making connections between the dangers and failures of the 1930s and those of the contemporary world (a video recording of the talk and the following discussion can be seen at www.cfr.org/issue/138/foreign_policy_history.html). When asked what he most feared today, Stern replied "the Singapore model"—authoritarianism and economic development. Which, of course, is one way to describe the Nazi experiment.
History does indeed matter, Stern's lecture seemed to stress anew, echoing in more ways than one, the sentiments expressed in the pages of this magazine a year ago by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. In an article on the National History Center published in the April 2007 issue of Perspectives just after his death, Schlesinger had pointed out how:
History is the best antidote to delusions of omnipotence and omniscience. Self-knowledge is the indispensable prerequisite to self-control, for the nation as well as for the individual, and history should forever remind us of the limits of our transient perspectives. It should lead us to acknowledge our profound and chastening frailty as human beings—to recognize that the future will outwit all our certitudes, so often and so sadly displayed, and that the possibilities of the future are more various that the human intellect is designed to conceive.
"A nation informed by a vivid understanding of the ironies of history is, I believe, best equipped to live with the temptations and tragedy of military power," Schlesinger added, and declared, "Let us not bully our way through life, but let a growing sensitivity to history temper and civilize our use of that power."
It is because he fervently believed in the redemptive and corrective power of history that Schlesinger ardently supported the work of the National History Center, which is destined, he wrote, "to carry forward the purpose of history for the sake of history itself and for the public debate on the relevance of history to contemporary issues" (emphasis added).
The National History Center, an initiative of the American Historical Association, has, in fact been pursuing these very aims with increasing vitality and zeal. The center grew out of an idea proposed many years ago by J. Franklin Jameson when he was the Librarian of Congress, and resurrected by my former Princeton colleague James Banner several years ago. The idea became reality when the distinguished University of Texas historian Wm. Roger Louis adopted it as his own when he was elected the president of the American Historical Association, and inspired and enthused many other historians (including myself) to make it real. Our goal was to create a new organization within the AHA—and closely bound to it through an interlocking board of trustees—which would, from the nation's capital, undertake a variety of roles related to promoting the importance of history and its relevance in American and international public life. The National History Center thus came into being in 2002, and almost from the beginning set out to realize many of its multifaceted aims, though in inevitably small and measured steps.
Among the many projects that the Center has undertaken even with its necessarily modest resources (buttressed by the donations of time and money by its many founding members, contributors, and well-wishers) have been a series of summer seminars (funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation) for recent PhDs investigating various aspects of the historically significant phenomenon of decolonization in the 20th century; summer institutes (funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities) for community-college history teachers on rethinking American history in a global context; exploration of issues relating to history education policy; a publication series on historiography with the Oxford University Press; congressional briefings on the historical understanding of contemporary public-policy issues; and the above-mentioned new series of lectures on the history of foreign policy in collaboration with the CFR. The underlying ideas in all these are both that historians have obligations to the public that extend beyond ordinary teaching and research, and that if the public is to support the work that historians do, it must understand better what it is that professional historians do.
To support its existing activities and to enable it to realize its important goals, the National History Center must develop its financial resources. To this end the Center, in conjunction with the AHA, hopes to launch a fundraising campaign in the near future. But those interested in supporting the work of the National History Center need not wait for us to call on them. They can visit the Center's web site at www.nationalhistorycenter.org, learn more about it, and discover how easily they can become founders or contributors at www.nationalhistorycenter.org/becomeFound.html.
—Stanley Katz, a founding member of the National History Center, is the director of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. He was president of the American Council of Learned Societies, the Organization of American Historians, and the Society for Legal History, and served as vice president of the AHA's Research Division. This essay has been adapted and expanded from a post dated March 5, 2008, on the Chronicle [of Higher Education] Review blog, Brainstorm: Lives of the Mind, to which Stan Katz frequently contributes. The original blog can be read at http://chronicle.com/review/brainstorm/katz/history-matters.