Quote of the Day: History Is Not a Moral Lesson

 

The full quote below is from the author Ben Macintyre, two of whose books I’ve read: Operation Mincemeat, and The Spy and the Traitor. They’re both excellent reads. I downloaded his Double Cross yesterday and will start reading it today.

The quote is from an interview in the January 2021 issue of Military History magazine. He’s written a new book (Agent Sonya), which I’ve not yet read, about a little-known female WWII and Cold War spy, Ursula Kuczynski. She was a German-born Jew who spied for the Soviet Union against the Nazis, and then for the Soviets against the West during the Cold War. Macintyre’s interview ends with his summary of how we should remember her, because, as he says, she was not an easy person to like in many ways.

“We tend to look back on history as if it was some kind of moral lesson. There are good people, and there are bad people. The villains always lose, and the heroes always win. Of course, life isn’t like that, and neither is history. History is composed of fascinating shades of gray. We don’t need to pass moral judgment on it. We just need to to try to get to grips with it, and then we start to learn from it.”

What do you think about his view of history? I know it’s one that today’s often-unhinged left would never adopt.

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  1. iWe Coolidge
    iWe
    @iWe

    Real life is sticky, that is for sure. Good guys have bad attributes, bad guys have good attributes. Every decision has an opportunity cost.

    • #1
  2. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    OldPhil: He’s written a new book (Agent Sonya), which I’ve not yet read, about a little-known female WW II and Cold War spy, Ursula Kuczynski.

    Reviewed by me, here.

    • #2
  3. Hoyacon Member
    Hoyacon
    @Hoyacon

     The idea of history being “shades of grey” is, I think, a view held by most knowledgeable people, and there are certainly moral lessons to be learned.

    The problem arises when a minority make moral judgments based on uninformed opinions. We have plenty of that going on today with historical figures being cancelled without regard for the fact that their lives and times were more nuanced.
     

    • #3
  4. PHCheese Inactive
    PHCheese
    @PHCheese

    The winner is always morally right because they write the history.

    • #4
  5. OldPhil Coolidge
    OldPhil
    @OldPhil

    Seawriter (View Comment):

    OldPhil: He’s written a new book (Agent Sonya), which I’ve not yet read, about a little-known female WW II and Cold War spy, Ursula Kuczynski.

    Reviewed by me, here.

    Well, how about that? Thanks!

    • #5
  6. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    OldPhil (View Comment):

    Seawriter (View Comment):

    OldPhil: He’s written a new book (Agent Sonya), which I’ve not yet read, about a little-known female WW II and Cold War spy, Ursula Kuczynski.

    Reviewed by me, here.

    Well, how about that? Thanks!

    I also reviewed The Spy and the Traitor, but since you already read it I decided to be lazy and not look up the link.

    • #6
  7. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    There are some moral lessons that we need to learn in terms of the time period; other lessons transcend the limitations of time. Hitler was evil; I suspect Ursula was not, given her situation.

    The popular exercise to judge people according to our current morals (which have been totally distorted by the Left) is a despicable act. Those judgments are rarely simple. Washington was a slave owner, and at times did not treat his slaves well. But he decided to release his slaves upon his death (although Martha did not comply with his wishes.) 

    The key is to look at these issues from multiple perspectives and use good judgment and wisdom to decide where we stand. As human beings, that’s the best we can do.

    • #7
  8. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    Susan Quinn (View Comment):
    Hitler was evil; I suspect Ursula was not, given her situation.

    In my judgement Ursula was evil, and supported evil. She may have been less evil that Hitler, but that is a low bar to clear. She supported Stalin wholeheartedly and was nostalgic for the old Honecker regime after it fell. Read Agent Sonya, and you will see what I mean.

    • #8
  9. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    Seawriter (View Comment):

    Susan Quinn (View Comment):
    Hitler was evil; I suspect Ursula was not, given her situation.

    In my judgement Ursula was evil, and supported evil. She may have been less evil that Hitler, but that is a low bar to clear. She supported Stalin wholeheartedly and was nostalgic for the old Honecker regime after it fell. Read Agent Sonya, and you will see what I mean.

    Since I haven’t read the book, Seawriter, that was a poor assessment for me to make. 

    • #9
  10. Aaron Miller Member
    Aaron Miller
    @AaronMiller

    History is a form of storytelling — not an unfiltered, unordered list of data. By selecting what to include and what to exclude (by relevance, quality, quantity, etc), some moral significance is implied even before the explication begins.

    We should indeed strive for the truth even when it hurts or fails to support our wants. A good historian clearly distinguishes between the facts and one’s interpretation of the data. But at no point is it necessary or advisable to relay truth as if from a cold computer with no interests of its own.

    • #10
  11. OldPhil Coolidge
    OldPhil
    @OldPhil

    To provide some additional context, here’s the rest of Macintyre’s quote just prior to the QOTD above:

    I don’t want readers to love Ursula, though some actually may end up doing so. I don’t even want them to like her, although many certainly will. I would be much more content if they understand her and get a sense of the world she came out of. 

    • #11
  12. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    OldPhil: What do you think about his view of history?

    Every well-educated Southron knows that. 😉


    This is the Quote of the Day. Our sign-up sheet for December is here and still has three openings starting with Christmas. (Surely somebody here has a time machine, right?) Or for those without time machines, as soon as tomorrow. We welcome new participants and new members to Ricochet to share their favorite quotations.

    Another ongoing project to encourage new voices is our Group Writing Project. December’s theme is ‘Tis the Season. If you’re looking to share your own thoughts rather than those of others and have some ideas about the holiday(s) season we are entering, why not sign up there?

    • #12
  13. Rōnin Coolidge
    Rōnin
    @Ronin

    One of the problems we seem to have with the study of history is its over romanticizing. When we become too emotionally wrapped up with our past, we lose prospective on the who, what, where, when, why and how of historical events. We begin to make narratives up and fictionalize events to come up with a better story to explain the past (see The Crown-Netflix). Then this passes into legend, and we end up with pseudo historical characters like King Arthur or Robin Hood, who we can’t even prove if they existed or not because the legend now obscures the facts. Lord Byron once said that “Truth is always strange, stranger than fiction.” and it would seem that when we seek out the truth of an historical event or person we find that the reality isn’t what it seems.

    • #13
  14. Gumby Mark (R-Meth Lab of Democracy) Thatcher
    Gumby Mark (R-Meth Lab of Democracy)
    @GumbyMark

    PHCheese (View Comment):

    The winner is always morally right because they write the history.

    In some cases. But I think this more accurate:

    Rather than the often repeated adage that the victors write the history of an event, the story of anything is actually determined by the unswerving adoption of one version of it, and the telling of that version by a determined cadre of writers. In time, the version with the most persistent adherents becomes the “truth.” – David & Jeanne Heidler in Henry Clay: The Essential American (2010)

    • #14
  15. RushBabe49 Thatcher
    RushBabe49
    @RushBabe49

    From back in April:

    https://ricochet.com/746973/for-who-will-record-the-truth/

     

    • #15
  16. MiMac Thatcher
    MiMac
    @MiMac

    Susan Quinn (View Comment):

    There are some moral lessons that we need to learn in terms of the time period; other lessons transcend the limitations of time. Hitler was evil; I suspect Ursula was not, given her situation.

    The popular exercise to judge people according to our current morals (which have been totally distorted by the Left) is a despicable act. Those judgments are rarely simple. Washington was a slave owner, and at times did not treat his slaves well. But he decided to release his slaves upon his death (although Martha did not comply with his wishes.)

    The key is to look at these issues from multiple perspectives and use good judgment and wisdom to decide where we stand. As human beings, that’s the best we can do.

    Not exactly accurate- Washington wrote his will very carefully to ensure the slaves would be emancipated. He could not emancipate them until after Martha’s death b/c many of the slaves were from her estate not his- plus liquidating assets before her death might make her finances perilous. His will was written to ensure that the slaves could not be sold off after his death (thereby thwarting his intentions) and set up funds to educate them.

    • #16