Context does matter
Observations of a News Editor
By Dustin White
A few days ago I happened to overhear a mother and son having a historical conversation. It wasn’t a conversation I wanted to listen to, but since I was stuck in line, I had nowhere else to go. So there I was, trying to ignore the individuals behind me, but unable to as they were just too loud.
The conversation this mother and son were having is one I generally would not think should be discussed loudly in public. They were trying to delve into the reason why Hitler targeted Jews for extermination, and seemed to come to the conclusion that it was because Jews were financially better off than everyone else.
This is a position I have heard numerous times before. Yet, I think it is misguided. While financial troubles were definitely a problem in Germany, a possibly larger issue was rampant anti-semitism throughout Europe.
When many think of the Holocaust, the idea that they get is that the Nazi party in Germany were a lone group of individuals who hated Jews. The reality of the matter was that a large portion of the population, throughout Europe, hated Jews. During this period of time, Jews were a heavily persecuted minority.
So in a historical context, it is not really a surprise that Hitler would target the Jewish people, as they were already considered to be inferior individuals. Even here in the United States, there was a wide hatred among people in regards to Jews. Germany was not unique in this regard, and were responding to centuries of rampant anti-semitism that was the norm.
This was not the only topic that this mother and son tried to tackle though. With Russia being a hot subject, they also tried to boil down that situation as well. As can easily happen in such a discussion, Russia was equated with Nazi Germany, and later so was the United States.
While the United States is not perfectly innocent, I do think there is a problem with equating it with Nazi Germany. The problem is the same one lying at the heart of the discussion this woman and son had; a lack of historical context.
Trying to understand the reasoning behind the actions of another group can near impossible without having some knowledge of their culture, and their history. Someone who was unaware of the Christmas tradition of cutting down a tree, and decorating it inside one’s home may think the individual doing such is crazy. The tradition, without some sort of historical and cultural context to place it in, seems like the actions of a mad person.
Considering that decorating a Christmas tree is a minor tradition, it is no wonder that more complicated cultural norms can be quite confusing without the proper background. So I don’t think it is surprising that as time passes by, and we are further removed from the time and place of events, the manner in which many see historical subjects can become distorted or faulty.
That is not to say that because of cultural norms that were present at certain times, that atrocities are justified. Just because the norm during the early 1900s was to see Jews as an inferior group, who should be marginalized, does not mean that such a view was correct or justified. It does help make sense as to why individuals and groups acted in certain manners though.
There is also another problem that the conversation between this mother and son faced. While historical events may be done and over, and will not change, perspectives in regards to those events do change, and sometimes drastically. Historians are often discovering new material for their research. At the same time, general thinking also changes.
A wonderful example of this is the manner in which Native American history has been viewed in the United States. For decades, it was taught through a European perspective. While detailing the history of America, it was through the point of view of European settlers. This makes sense as it was largely Europeans who were writing this history.
Relatively recently though, historians have realized that there is a problem with this method. That problem being that there is another view that is being ignored. That view is that of Native Americans, who did not experience the history of America in the same manner that Europeans did.
Such a revelation, that a variety of perspectives must be pursued, has greatly changed historical understanding of many events. What many of our parents were taught in school, or even what we were taught in school, is no longer considered accurate.
So, here we are now, trying to tackle these mounting problems with the hope of possibly seeing into the past, which can be a difficult task. I’m not fully certain how the issue can be solved, without requiring every individual to do continuos intensive studies to fully understand history. But maybe, it is just as good to understand that we may be looking at events from the wrong perspective, or that there may be multiple perspectives to deal with. I think such a view would have added greatly to this mother and son’s conversation.