Learning the Lessons of War

By Peter van den Dungen

How can we learn from history to build a peaceful future?

Airing books containing the names of atomic bomb victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park [© Asahi Shimbun/Getty Images]

Hegel's "We learn from history that we do not learn from history" is a well-known saying. Given the continuing prevalence of war, it can also be said that we certainly do not seem to learn from war, such a pervasive feature of history. However, Immanuel Kant, another great German philosopher and one of the most profound thinkers on war and peace, argued in the late 18th century that humankind learns from history and war, but only the hard way.

After the Napoleonic Wars (of which Kant witnessed the beginning), the main European powers instituted a "concert" system to prevent a similar violent disruption of the established international order. A century later, the horrors of World War I resulted in the creation of the League of Nations, the first organization of its kind, which was meant to limit the recourse to war. It also established agencies and the Permanent Court of International Justice in order to address issues that otherwise might result in war. These new institutions proved too weak to prevent another world conflagration, which occurred a mere two decades after the first one. During World War II, plans were laid for a successor world organization. The onset of the Cold War, the antagonism between the main powers since then and inherent weaknesses have made the United Nations a rather ineffective instrument for keeping the peace. At the same time, it cannot be denied that it pioneered new techniques (not even foreseen in the Charter) to limit or prevent war, such as UN peacekeeping operations.

The end of World War II also saw the beginnings in Europe (where France and Germany had been fighting each other in three wars since 1870) of a process of economic and social cooperation that resulted in a new political entity, the European Union. The need for this, as the surest way to abolish war and poverty, was urged by the organized peace movement in the 19th century, and similar ideas had been put forward in peace plans formulated by visionaries in earlier centuries. Victor Hugo's prophetic presidential address at the Second General Peace Congress, held in Paris in 1849, proclaimed the coming of a United States of Europe from which war and poverty had been banished. Ridiculed at the time, it still makes for inspiring reading today. Europe, or at least many of its countries, got there in the end, but at what cost? The European Union's success in forging peace and prosperity through regional cooperation stimulated the creation of similar, but far less successful, organizations in other parts of the world.

World War II had other profound consequences, particularly for the two countries that were widely regarded as responsible for it--Germany and Japan. Apart from the terrible loss of civilian life and destruction of their cities, Germany was divided and Japan became the victim of the use of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Both countries adopted peace constitutions with self-denying ordinances regarding their military capabilities and intentions. But in other respects, Germany learned lessons and pursued policies with the aim of achieving peace and reconciliation with its erstwhile adversaries, which have largely been lacking in Japan. They involve elements of apology, compensation, repair and restitution--expressed in moral, material and symbolical terms. Without such a deliberate and sincere strategy on the part of Germany, the project of European unification (of which the country has been the main pillar, together with France) would have been impossible.

If Japan has learned lessons from the atrocities and crimes committed in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the same cannot be said of the world as a whole. In his stimulating reflections on the change in the character of war and in people's attitude toward it, Arnold Toynbee writes (in his autobiography, Experiences) that he had been jolted out of the traditional accepting attitude to war by the slaughter of half of his friends in World War I. The same revulsion against war was widespread in its aftermath. He noted that such revulsion "ought [to] have been total and universal from the moment . . . the world entered the Atomic Age." He found that the American people, victorious in two world wars, had succumbed instead to militarism. Toynbee wrote this during the Vietnam War. Since then, the trauma of that war has been overshadowed by the events of 9/11, and militarism has become even more pervasive in American society.

The Role of Peace Museums

The mere fact that leading politicians and historians argue that what happened in August 1914 could be repeated today--for instance, in Asia, or Europe, where conflicts involving major powers could easily erupt into full-scale war--seems prima facie evidence of the truth of Hegel's maxim. States continue to threaten each other with force (now including nuclear weapons), notwithstanding prohibitions enshrined in the UN Charter and international law and despite the availability of institutions and mechanisms for peaceful conflict resolution. Then, as now, voices cautioning reason, moderation, compromise and nonviolence are ignored or belittled. In this connection, it is interesting to observe the nature of the commemorations of the centenary of World War I that are presently taking place in many countries around the world. They provide us with an extensive case study of what lessons, if any, are being drawn from that catastrophe.

Jay Winter, one of the leading authorities in the field of war remembrance, has argued that "commemorating the Great War necessarily has a pacifist character." However, in practice this seems to be largely confined to the expression of pious sentiment. For instance, we do not hear the complaint of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon: "The world is over-armed and peace is under-funded." Yet, this goes a long way to explain not only the danger the world is in today, but also what is vital to turn a corner.

An appropriate, meaningful and fruitful remembrance would amount to the initiation of nothing less than a worldwide program of peace education as part of the development of a comprehensive culture of peace. Only this would provide any possibility of overcoming the culture of violence that remains pervasive in societies around the world. That peace is possible--indeed, that it is imperative for human survival--should be taught and learned in schools and universities and through peace museums.

In the modern world, museums are preeminent institutions, widely regarded as guardians of high culture that fulfill a major role in public education. It is telling that, whereas war and military museums are widespread (with hundreds of such museums in the US and UK alone) and often well-funded, peace museums are hard to find, with the singular exception of Japan. Likewise, war monuments abound, whereas antiwar and peace monuments are far less numerous. History textbooks have traditionally been dominated by war and its pretended heroes, with opponents of war and advocates of peace at best relegated to footnotes. The "invisibility" of peace in education, institutions and public life generally is a great hindrance to learning about peace and working toward it. In particular, museums honoring peacemakers of the past and present would inspire and encourage visitors to believe in peace and recognize their role in helping bring it about. In this way, perhaps, Hegel's somber maxim may yet prove to be wrong.

Peter van den Dungen has been at the Department of Peace Studies at the University of Bradford, UK, since 1976. A peace historian, he is founder and general coordinator of the International Network of Museums for Peace.