Learning the wrong lessons from history

We all seek to learn from our own experience and from history. But what happens when we draw the wrong lessons?

Harvard historian Charles Maier, in lecture 2 of his course World War and Society in the 20th Century: World War II (website), explores how people tried to apply the lessons of The Great War (1914-1918), and thereby stumbled into World War II.

A couple of examples:

1. French military strategists learned the folly of the offensive infantry charge in the trenches of World War I, and thus decided to build an impregnable defensive position, namely the Maginot Line.

2. Some policymakers and intellectuals concluded that the pre-World War I arms race had paved the way for war. So they worked for disarmament which they felt would make the world safer. Instead it left many countries vulnerable to a re-armed Germany under Adolf Hitler.

Maier’s course is part of Harvard Extension’s new Open Learning Initiative. According to the fall 2008 course syllabus, the course seeks to present World War II in its broad historical context, including the origins of the war and its aftermath It also examines the war’s impact on societies and families, on soldiers, and on victims; and it tries to share the experiences and memories of those whom the war transformed. I have listened to the first five lectures, and so far find that the course is living up to its billing.  Maier is a thoughtful lecturer who works hard to make the study of the past relevant to the present.

Unfortunately, you cannot easily download these lectures. You can either view them online or record them for later listening (see: How to record a streaming lecture).

History of the International System

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