Years from now, when society looks back at everything that has happened in the year 2020, it will have to rely in large part on what is written about the times we're living through right now. How we keep the records of current events will shape how the history of our time is written, as well as the lessons we learn, and those we don't, as WUWF commentator Carl Wernicke explains in this weeks' essay.
It’s said that journalism is the first draft of history. But over time journalism also helps fill in the blank pages of history and develop our understanding of it. And I’m a firm believer in letting history remind us of what we should not forget. Man has a terrible habit of learning lessons, only to forget them in a historically short period of time.
Today, World War II recedes ever more into forgetfulness with each passing death of the individuals of the generation that lived it. Many are dying of complications of Covid-19, which understandably dominates our thinking right now. But the power of history lies in reminding us that some things are worse than even a pandemic. Nature wreaks its destruction impartially, amorally, without evil intent. To the virus, we are just a biological imperative, the host it requires to spread. That’s the logic behind social distancing, quarantines and the search for a vaccine, to break that chain. And yes, there is a horror in that. But the virus doesn’t deliberately pick or choose us based on race, religion, ethnicity or political affiliation.
If it is more deadly to the old, or the residents of densely packed communities, or the sick, it’s all just biological happenstance to the virus. But over the course of history, man’s destruction of his fellow man has always reflected a conscious choice. That is a much greater horror. I was reminded of this again by a recent article in The New York Times about the culmination of a story long in the making. In 1940, Nazi Germany invaded the Netherlands, which quickly crumbled. The government fled to exile in London. As in many other countries, the Nazis began targeting Jews and others for labor camps and extermination, often with the help of willing Dutch collaborators. Others resisted; most people sought just to survive. In March 1944, the education minister urged the Dutch people in a radio broadcast to preserve their diaries and letters. He said that “only if we succeed in bringing this simple, daily material together in overwhelming quantity, only then will the scene of this struggle for freedom be painted in full depth and shine.”
Among those taking this message to heart was Anne Frank, who with many of her fellow Dutch expanded her efforts to write and preserve her struggle. When the war ended in 1945 more than 2,000 diaries were collected, mostly to disappear into the archives. But the Dutch have rediscovered these documents and are now transcribing them. They reveal a wide range of daily activities, personal feelings, conversations, family life and photos. A particularly striking image, taken from a roof in the Hague, shows German parachutists floating to earth. The diaries also record the roundup of Jews, Frank among them, amidst people who were their friends and neighbors. One researcher, immersed in these personal reflections, noted that “The best diaries are the ones with courage.” That’s the kind of lesson history preserves for times like these.