Before I was a historian, I was a history teacher. Before teaching history, I read Mein Kampf. My German teacher at the time—I was in the eighth grade—was far less thrilled than I was about this particular choice of book. Not only was the German far above my level, but it was also known as a badly written book—written by arguably the biggest perpetrator of crimes against humanity. Mein Kampf, to the detriment or hesitated excitement of every history teacher, shows how a two-volume “popular history of the Franco-German War of 1870-71” became his favourite reading. History was his favourite subject. It is in history classes where he ‘became nationalist” and “learned to understand and comprehend the meaning of history.”
While the Putin-Hitler comparison is a minefield, their love for and reliance on history is hardly contested. Russianists were baffled and amused by the increasing involvement of Putin and his Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the rewriting of history. Long speeches, even longer papers, and tweeting wars all made it seem as if Putin himself was running his own history institute. While his article “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians” went under the radar in April 2021, Putin’s hours-long speech on February 22, 2022, signalled to many that an invasion was immanent. It was a speech about history.
Since the war began, the dictator-cum-armchair-historian only expanded his sphere of interest. A Zoom meeting between the President and a group of children served as a venue for rejecting the the “Normanist Controversy,” which students may recall as fundamental to the history of early Rus’. Vladimir Putin, like many Russian nationalists, rejects the central role of Scandinavians within the establishment of the first Russian state. Peacetime mediations on history seemed innocuous. Now, Twitter commentators are right to ask whether such an odd encounter actually prepares the ground for attacking Scandinavian countries. Soothing voices armed with realist judgements against a Russian invasion to Finland, Sweden, or Poland are hardly trustworthy. Very few believed that beneath Putin’s historical revisionism lied an unhinged willingness to deploy his army.
Rereading Mein Kampf makes me think of young Putin. We did not need Putin to know that “the study [of history] forms the worldview of young people,” as he noted in a speech at the Worldwide Congress of History Schoolteachers last October. Historians have written dense tomes on the way history teachers served nation-building efforts. Even without delving into this dense body of literature, following national news in the United States unravels a preoccupation of the general public and its elected officials with what students learn in their history classrooms. Until Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ recent obsession with the spectre of Critical Race Theory haunting elementary-school mathematics, the attention paid to history stood second only, perhaps, to sexual education.
Wight Martindale Jr., a middle-school history teacher, wrote recently in defence of teaching “what’s real” instead of succumbing to “issues” like Critical Race Theory. “There is too much to learn about our past,” he argued. “[A]bout railroads, settling the West, the destruction of the buffalo, the Civil War and Reconstruction, the men and women who shaped the country.” But all of these topics bear no meaning without interpretation. It is highly doubtful that the “generation with little consciousness of or interest in the past” would benefit from or show interest in such a fact-by-fact survey. Hitler and Putin were clearly not there for a fact-by-fact introduction to German and Russian histories, respectively. This generation, which I actually find incredibly conscious of the past, is well aware of how Mr. Martindale’s list of topics shadows topics of immediate urgency to them.
Normally, I would have spent my afternoons thinking about how the history classroom can be used for social improvement. I belong to a school of scholars and teachers who believe that history’s role in nation-building should be superseded. Its replacement, as Stanford’s History Education Group has argued for quite some time, could be skill-building. Their empirical results are impressive. By making history less about stories and more about analytical challenges, students can become better at identifying fake news. They can become aware of the complexities in writing historical narratives and making judgements about our world—past and present—using the inherently imperfect data that we have. This is what I have brought to my classroom ever since I began teaching history, nearly a decade ago. History, to my students, was not about transmitting national truths. It was about becoming sophisticated and precise in our daily struggle to make sense of the world.
But there is no making sense of Bucha or Mariupol’. There is no making sense of wives permitting their husbands to rape Ukrainian women as long as they use a condom or making specific orders for looting. There is no making sense of shooting at citizens in mutually agreed humanitarian corridors. It does not sit well with Putin’s promises of liberation or with basic humanitarianism. Even Hannah Arendt would agree that the problems here are greater than Adolf Eichmann who failed to think. But among this unfathomable pyramid of horrors, one must think about young Putin. Young Putin, like young Hitler, sat by a desk in someone’s classroom and took notes. Young Putin, like young Hitler, devoured books and consumed histories written by historians. We can calm ourselves by agreeing that history education was far from a sufficient condition for becoming Putin, but it does not help for very long.
The challenges Putin’s history-fuelled militancy pose can be answered with optimism or despair. I think, for example, about my many colleagues whose studies of nationalism completely upend common wisdoms transmitted in classrooms. As we now know, the conventional narrative that reifies nations and flattens the difficulties of cultivating national identities in otherwise deeply unnational people has been disseminated by teachers as a way to cultivate national identities in otherwise deeply unnational people. But what if they are no longer unnational? A friend recently remarked cynically that it is Hollywood, and not us, who teach history. Is our role now to fight harder than ever to make academic knowledge the mainstream knowledge? Do we recognize the Sisyphean nature of the task? Would Putin have not invaded Ukraine had the new wave of imperial historians been born and published earlier and with greater public visibility?
It is hard to maintain optimism even by sidelining narratives and replacing them with skills. The danger in post-truth has never been the death of truth. The danger in post-truth is how the very crisis allows people to claim that their truth is true regardless of evidence and beyond all polemics. Post-truth has taught us that everyone is always lying, but it hasn’t made the vast majority of people more careful. Instead, they made political camps cling to their ‘truth,’ make it empirically impossible to challenge, and fight those who suggest otherwise. Any evidence to the contrary is manufactured, propagated by evil forces, the result of a larger scheme to deprive the world of light and subjugate it to darkness. The very tools developed to fight lies and detect truth are turned against truth, which makes skill-based teaching seem insidious. If not insidious, then at least, once more, Sisyphean. Are the antidotes we teach effective if they are used to make more dangerous toxins that are harder to detect and eliminate?
That this crisis is so unexplainable undermines the optimism innate to teaching. It is impossible to believe that comments on Facebook regarding the “non-existent Ukrainian nation” influence Russian soldiers to rape and loot. The previously held narrative of “brotherly nations” did not do much to inhibit their behaviour, too. But history is important. As a public intellectual working mainly in Hebrew, I have long fought for avoiding historical argumentation where it is not needed. Some arguments about contemporary issues are best made with present-day arguments and up-to-date data. And yet history always returns. Hatred and love always appear in reference to the past. As do policy suggestions. Is the only solution, then, to acknowledge the narrowish stratum of genuinely undecided people whom we can feed with “true history”? Is that the most we can do?
Part of what makes history so compelling is how powerful it is. It is everywhere. So many of our sentiments and opinions are shaped by historical narratives, true or false. What drew me to the history classroom (I also taught AP Comparative Government and AP Literature and Composition) was more than just teaching amazing stories that really happened. What drew me was knowing that my students’ entire worldview—as the unhinged Putin said—is hinged upon their understanding of history. This is also why February 24 made me so pessimistic, at least temporarily. We all know to blame the nationalist rubbish Hitler once read (the “popular history” of the Franco-Prussian War) and his history teacher. But could a better history teacher undo this damage? Did Putin really invade Ukraine because of history? What in this war became permitted or thinkable because of history? How many deaths could a better history teacher prevent between the train station and the river in Bucha?
Orel Beilinson is a PhD candidate in Modern Eurasian History at Yale University. His dissertation, “Tomorrow Belongs to Me: Coming-of-Age in the Other Europe, 1890-1968,” is a history of young adults amidst industrialization and authoritarianism.