Dort wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man auch am Ende Menschen.
(In a place where books are burnt, eventually people are also burnt.)
Heinrich Heine, the German poet, wrote these words in 1821 based on the Spanish inquisition. More than a century later, as the Nazis rose to power in the 1933, they held bonfires of books across Germany. By the end of that decade, they were burning people in concentration camps.
Current events often have a historical precedent. We often see the similarities between Damocles’ sword, Socrates’s trial or Nazism’s infamous rise to power to events that transpire across the world today.
Nevertheless, today’s world is a radically different place. The average person from the time of Damocles or Socrates would struggle to cope with current times. Even if somebody from the 1940’s leaped forward in time, they would be shocked out of their wits. Despite clear differences between eras, how does history still manage to repeat itself?
History reveals those tenets of human nature that are timeless. We study history to understand whatever has survived despite everything else changing around it. It is little wonder that books like Sapiens, which explain human nature, can also double up as history textbooks.
We study history to better understand ourselves.