#8220;It happened, therefore it can happen again.” The words are those of the brilliant and prolific Italian writer and Holocaust survivor Primo Levi, who died in 1987. Though Levi was specifically referring to atrocities committed during World War II, the thought also represents a seamless definition of why history must never be neglected. Whereas the combination of circumstances that led to World War II will most likely never be repeated, the persistent recurrence of phenomena such as populism demonstrate the enduring appeal of certain social dynamics. These dynamics tend to return cyclically.
History does repeat itself, and the circumstances that led to the widespread introduction of authoritarianism during the 20th century — a period dubbed by British historian Eric Hobsbawm as the “Age of Extremes” — require constant pondering and intellectual vigilance so that they’re never repeated.
As an educator for the Model United Nations (MUN) program in Italy – a real-world simulation in which students can learn about diplomacy and international relations — I typically use Levi’s quote to open my classes on human rights and history of the United Nations. For some middle students and high school students in the program, the idea that in order to learn about the system and procedures of the United Nations they must also need to take history classes often clashes with their expectations. This is partly because MUN is an extra-curricular activity and most of the students expect to be doing something “different” from their daily school studies.
Yet they soon realize that only an in-depth study of history can help make sense of the contemporary life. Our world of international and supranational organizations arose precisely because nations understood the imperative need to create agreed-upon mechanisms that could guarantee collective security for all nations, regardless of their size or status. The appalling reality of exasperated nationalism and ghastly authoritarianism – which, let’s not forget, enjoyed wide popular consensus – was so vivid in post-war eyes that specific measures were taken to ensure, through collective collaboration, that the circumstances that led to the ultimate horror of world war would never be reproduced. With luck, the mechanism will hold.
As an educator, I try to fill the gap between the perception of international organizations as institutions — often taken for granted today — and that older moment in history in which collective security was no more than a philosophical idea. Between the moment in which humanity was crying for a universal recognition of the rights of every human being and the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. History provides an understanding of how those assurances came to exist.
Some students know more than others. They’re the ones who choose to know. The presence of highly-prepared and analytically capable students is always a breath of fresh air to me.
Populism is expanding at an alarming pace. That alone is nothing new. Populists have always flourished in times of economic crisis, when passion and anger are best manipulated. The techniques used by populist leaders are in that sense always the same: They inevitably appeal to emotion instead of reason and provide simple answers to complex questions. They regularly use hate speech, creating a scapegoat for social and political problems, and promise prosperity once a society rids itself of whatever “evil” ails the society at hand. In Britain, for example, supporters of Brexit repeatedly portrayed EU membership as a sinister burden. Worse still, ugly episodes of racial abuse against foreigners were reported after Britain’s vote to leave the EU.
So yes, history repeats itself, which means the most effective way of avoiding its pitfalls is to know what came before. Only through education can society protect itself from the influence of unscrupulous, irresponsible politicians that place their leadership ambitions ahead of the future of their nations. Education does not stop at school. Society and mass media have an enormous responsibility in the way information is emphasized and spread. Let’s never neglect history. It’s the only tool we have to avoid historic recurrences of the worst kind.