A Look Into Historical Empathy

The other week, after ethics class, a friend and I had a detailed discussion over whether or not history should be judged by the standards of their time. It is essentially a morality question, one of which I’ve grown to become passionate in answering. I’ve always personally believed in the heart of the villain: that people are byproducts of their surroundings and circumstances. Hence, in my answer, I would like to say that history – even in future tenses –should always factor in a time period. We should reserve judgement upon a person until we know all of the story, circumstances, and external factors.

History has a significant impact on our everyday lives because the actions that those who preceded us once took set a basis of all worldly concepts in our surroundings and are a major influence as to our virtues and beliefs. After all, history is composed of conflicts and solutions, and the winners of said conflicts then write a chapter to add onto this massive, two sided book that is our past. However, the purpose of history is to reveal the absolute truth of the events that occurred, and this fulfillment will always be hindered if we continuously apply our own beliefs onto the events of the past. Often in modern day, nations of students are taught to castigate the people in our shared history that takes an action or promotes an ideal different than what they deem is “right.” But to truly understand history, we must impose historical empathy upon past figures. One main component essential to feeling historical empathy would be to recreate the standards of the past at which the event being studied is judged. This would eliminate the bias, integrate a deeper connection between the historical figure and the individual, act as a control when compared to history with integrated bias, and demonstrate the advancement we have made as a society since the studied event.

In a more solid application, let’s take the actions of Adolf Hitler. The more well-known story would be that he was a Satan-like figure, responsible for the worse genocide in all of history. However, from 1919 to the early 1930s, Germany was vulnerable and still suffering the setbacks from the Treaty of Versailles. As a result, eventual chancellor Adolf Hitler came into power legally when the economy of the country was in turmoil. It fell into recessions and depressions numerous times. Any traces of bureaucracy were strictly limited, and the common public was suffering the effects of humiliation both financially and politically. Hitler promised to bring back the pride and power that came with being a German, and to an extent, he did. He seized back land successfully and quickly built up the Nazi party into a strong military. He made the economy much more stabilized. As an artist, his propaganda even brought forth a new wave of nationalism. Hitler had represented a type of hope for the German people at their most desperate times. His killing of the people was essential to strengthen a necessary country.

From removing a previous bias and using diction to create a new one, can it now be said that Hitler’s actions were justified? And if I were to add that Hitler himself did not ultimately take the physical action to kill most the victims in the Holocaust, would that strengthen the fact that he himself was not a “Satan-like figure?”

Had an individual had no knowledge of this this man beforehand, this individual would now most likely agree with the fact that Adolf Hitler was a great man who saved Germany from the plunges of destruction. This simple model demonstrates how easy it is to add bias into context, and how it can be a catastrophe when studying history. Thus, it should be a universal agreement that bias should be left out when passing judgment, and this is best done in history if we recreate the scene and conditions of the event studied. That way, the individual would understand the conditions that may have prompted dictator Adolf Hitler to take the actions he did, but not necessarily hold him to the heroic position that the individual previously held him up to.

On a contrasting note, one might argue that without the bias, there will be no definite measurement as to the advancement of society as a whole. Thus, to understand the mistakes made in the past and to track the development of our ethics, it is crucial to apply modern day beliefs to past events. This theory is now modernly known as historical presentism. It is officially defined by Merriam- Webster as “an attitude toward the past dominated by present day attitudes and experiences.”

Ethics, an area of knowledge, is the study of right and wrong in human actions, or the method by which we determine our values and pursue them. Those for historical presentism would argue that traditional ethics and standards are not sufficient in modern day, when the purpose of our study of history is to discover ourselves and extract why past mistakes were made. As we are a rapidly evolving society, our morals evolve, and we should teach the future generations to be dependent upon the evolved ethics that they will carry on.

For example, the context as to why Hitler’s actions were at least a little bit more justified is insignificant in comparison to the lesson that his actions were ruthless and unnecessary. Wouldn’t this lesson be more significant as a derivation of history than understanding motivation that led to an action taken?

While this evaluation is valid, it defeats the intended purpose of history, which is to search for the absolute truth. The advancement of society is based on what we, as the present generation, carry on but also as to why we decide to carry those ethics on. This answer can be found in the two sided book of history.

This article may seem more and more like a historical paper at this point, but at this crucial time frame in the pendulum that is also our own historical timeline, I personally begin to question whether or not the future generations will look back and scorn the present for our actions as well. It is interesting to see how ethics and morality are redefined over time, and history is a simpler model to demonstrate such a change. So perhaps this may not be your typical Monday read, but question it yourself. What makes a judgement valid? What makes something right? What makes something… moral? Answer it in your shoes, then go back a century and answer it again. You’ll be surprised by the answers you give yourself.

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