Quotations about   history

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Perhaps the most useful lesson the student of history can learn is to avoid oversimplification, and to accept the notion of multiple causation or to resign himself to the fact that as yet we do not know enough to explain the causes of things. To yearn for a single, and usually simple, explanation of the chaotic materials of the past, to search for a single thread in the most tangled of all skeins, is a sign of immaturity.

Henry Steele Commager (1902-1998) American historian, writer, activist
The Nature and the Study of History, ch. 5 (1965)
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If a quick glance back over world history shows us anything, it shows us that war was one of our most universal joys from our earliest beginnings, savored at every possible opportunity and even some quite incomprehensible ones, like the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, whomever he may have been.

Barbara Holland (1933-2010) American author
“War,” Wasn’t the Grass Greener? (1999)
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First appeared in Smithsonian (Jun 1992).
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It is typical for fascist politicians to represent a country’s actual history in conspiratorial terms, as a narrative concocted by liberal elites and cosmopolitans to victimize the people of the true “nation.”

Jason Stanley (b. 1969) American philosopher, epistemologist, academic
How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them, ch. 1 (2018)
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History is a jangle of accidents, blunders, surprises and absurdities, and so is our knowledge of it, but if we are to report it at all we must impose some order upon it.

Henry Steele Commager (1902-1998) American historian, writer, activist
The Nature and the Study of History, ch. 5 (1965)
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Too many wars are fought almost as if by rote. Too many wars are fought out of sloganry, out of battle hymns, out of aged, musty appeals to patriotism that went out with knighthood and moats. Love your country because it is eminently worthy of your affection. Respect it because it deserves your respect. Be loyal to it because it cannot survive without your loyalty. But do not accept the shedding of blood as a natural function or a prescribed way of history, even if history points this up by its repetition. That men die for causes does not necessarily sanctify that cause. And that men are maimed and torn to pieces every fifteen and twenty years does not immortalize or deify the act of war.

Rod Serling (1924-1975) American screenwriter, playwright, television producer, narrator
Commencement Address, Binghamton Central High School, Binghamton, New York (28 Jan 1968)
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This was unwise, but if autocrats always acted wisely they would not furnish history with moral lessons.

Tuchman - If autocrats always acted wisely they would not furnish history with moral lessons - wist.info quote

Barbara W. Tuchman (1912-1989) American historian and author
A Distant Mirror, ch. 21 “The Fiction Cracks” (1978)
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On young King Richard II's giving substantial offices and lands to his friend and mentor, the Earl of Oxford, in so doing making an enemy of the Duke of Gloucester.
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Memory, as we all know, is fitful and phantasmagoric. History is organized memory, and the organization is all-important.

Henry Steele Commager (1902-1998) American historian, writer, activist
The Nature and the Study of History, ch. 1 (1965)
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To arrive at a just estimate of a renowned man’s character one must judge it by the standards of his time, not ours. Judged by the standards of one century, the noblest characters of an earlier one lose much of their luster; judged by the standards of today, there is probably no illustrious man of four or five centuries ago whose character could meet the test at all points.

Mark Twain (1835-1910) American writer [pseud. of Samuel Clemens]
Joan of Arc, “Translator’s Preface” (1860)
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All the Dachaus must remain standing. The Dachaus, the Belsens, the Buchenwalds, the Auschwitzes — all of them. They must remain standing because they are a monument to a moment in time when some men decided to turn the Earth into a graveyard. Into it they shoveled all of their reason, their logic, their knowledge, but worst of all, their conscience. And the moment we forget this, the moment we cease to be haunted by its remembrance, then we become the gravediggers.

Rod Serling (1924-1975) American screenwriter, playwright, television producer, narrator
The Twilight Zone, 3×09 “Deaths-Head Revisited,” Epilogue (10 Nov 1961)
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We should not forget that our tradition is one of protest and revolt, and it is stultifying to celebrate the rebels of the past — Jefferson and Paine, Emerson and Thoreau — while we silence the rebels of the present.

Henry Steele Commager (1902-1998) American historian, writer, activist
“Who Is Loyal to America?” Harper’s Magazine #1168 (Sep 1947)
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Reprinted in Freedom, Loyalty, Dissent (1954).
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Even here
Worth wins her due, and there are tears to flow,
And human hearts to feel for human woe.

[Sunt hic etiam sua praemia laudi,
Sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt.]

Virgil (70-19 BC) Roman poet [b. Publius Vergilius Maro; also Vergil]
Aeneid [Ænē̆is], Book 1, l. 461ff (1.461-462) (29-19 BC) [tr. Taylor (1907), st. 61, l. 543ff]
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Aeneas, on seeing murals of the Trojan Wars in Carthage. (Source (Latin)). Alternate translations:

Ev'n the mute walls relate the warrior's fame,
And Trojan griefs the Tyrians' pity claim.
[tr. Dryden (1697)]

Even here praiseworthy deeds meet with due reward: here are tears for misfortunes, and the breasts are touched with human woes.
[tr. Davidson/Buckley (1854)]

Aye, praise waits on worth
E'en in this corner of the earth;
E'en here the tear of pity springs,
And hearts are touched by human things.
[tr. Conington (1866)]

Worthy deeds e'en here are praised.
And mortal sufferings move their thoughts and tears.
[tr. Cranch (1872), l. 601ff]

Here too is the meed of honour, here mortal estate touches the soul to tears.
[tr. Mackail (1885)]

And even here belike deed hath its own reward.
Lo here are tears for piteous things that touch men's hearts anigh.
[tr. Morris (1900)]

Virtue's wage is given --
O even here! Here also there be tears
for what men bear, and mortal creatures feel
each other's sorrow.
[tr. Williams (1910)]

Here, too, virtue has its due rewards; here, too, there are tears for misfortune and mortal sorrows touch the heart.
[tr. Fairclough (1916)]

Look! even here there are rewards for praise,
There are tears for things, and what men suffer touches
The human heart.
[tr. Humphries (1951)]

Here too we find virtue somehow rewarded.
Tears in the nature of things, hearts touched by human transience.
[tr. Day Lewis (1952)]

Here, too, the honorable finds its due
and there are tears for passing things; here, too,
things mortal touch the mind.
[tr. Mandelbaum (1971), l. 654ff]

Even so far away
Great valor has due honor; they weep here
For how the world goes, and our life that passes
Touches their hearts.
[tr. Fitzgerald (1981), l. 627ff]

Here too there is just reward for merit, there are tears for suffering and men's hearts are touched by what man has to bear.
[tr. West (1990)]

Here, too, honor matters;
Here are the tears of the ages, and minds touched
By human suffering.
[tr. Lombardo (2005)]

Even here, merit will have its true reward ...
even here, the world is a world of tears
and the burdens of mortality touch the heart.
[tr. Fagles (2006)]

Here too, glory has its rewards; the world weeps, and mortal matters move the heart.
[tr. Bartsch (2021)]

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The average man will bristle if you say his father was dishonest, but he will brag a little if he discovers that his great-grandfather was a pirate.

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Bernard J. "Bern" Williams (1913-2004) American columnist radio host, aphorist
(Attributed)
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This is what the prophets discovered. History is a nightmare. There are more scandals, more acts of corruption, than are dreamed of in philosophy. It would be blasphemous to believe that what we witness is the end of God’s creation. It is an act of evil to accept the state of evil as either inevitable or final. Others may be satisfied with improvement, the prophets insist upon redemption. The way man acts is a disgrace, and it must not go on forever.

Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972) Polish-American rabbi, theologian, philosopher
The Prophets, Vol. 1 (1962)
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There really are broad patterns in history, and the search for them is as fascinating as it is productive.

Jared Diamond
Jared Diamond (b. 1937) American geographer, historian, ornithologist, author
Guns, Germs and Steel, Introduction (1997)
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Representing the voices of all those whose existence has shaped and formed the world in which we live provides an essential protection against the fascist myth.

Jason Stanley (b. 1969) American philosopher, epistemologist, academic
How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them, ch. 4 (2018)
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History never repeats itself, but the Kaleidoscopic combinations of the pictured present often seem to be constructed of the broken fragments of antique legends.

Mark Twain (1835-1910) American writer [pseud. of Samuel Clemens]
The Gilded Age: A Tale of To-Day, ch. 47 (1874) [with Charles Dudley Warner]
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Probably the source of the Twain misquote "History does not repeat itself, but it rhymes" (which does not appear prior to 1970).

More discussion of this quotation: History Does Not Repeat Itself, But It Rhymes – Quote Investigator
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Drink, the social glue of the human race. Probably in the beginning we could explain ourselves to our close family members with grunts, muttered syllables, gestures, slaps, and punches. Then when the neighbors started dropping in to help harvest, stomp, stir, and drink the bounty of the land, after we’d softened our natural suspicious hostility with a few stiff ones, we had to think up some more nuanced communications, like words. From there it was a short step to grammar, civil law, religion, history, and “The Whiffenpoof Song.”

Barbara Holland (1933-2010) American author
The Joy of Drinking (2007)
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Popular art is normally decried as vulgar by the cultivated people of its time; then it loses favour with its original audience as a new generation grows up; then it begins to merge into the softer lighting of “quaint” and cultivated people become interested in it, and finally it begins to take on the archaic dignity of the primitive.

Northrop Frye (1912-1991) Canadian literary critic and literary theorist
Anatomy of Criticism, “Mythical Phase: Symbol as Archetype” (1957)
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The strategic aim of these hierarchical constructions of history is to displace truth, and the invention of a glorious past includes the erasure of inconvenient realities.

Jason Stanley (b. 1969) American philosopher, epistemologist, academic
How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them, ch. 1 (2018)
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There are two cinemas: the films we have actually seen and the memories we have of them. The gap between the two widens over the years.

Molly Haskell
Molly Haskell (b. 1939) American feminist film critic and author.
From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies (3rd ed, 2016; orig 1973)
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History, we know, is apt to repeat herself, and to foist very old incidents upon us with only a slight change of costume.

George Eliot (1819-1880) English novelist [pseud. of Mary Ann Evans]
Janet’s Repentance, ch. 10 (1859)
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At the moment, for example, in 1984 (if it was 1984), Oceania was at war with Eurasia and in alliance with Eastasia. In no public or private utterance was it ever admitted that the three powers had at any time been grouped along different lines. Actually, as Winston well knew, it was only four years since Oceania had been at war with Eastasia and in alliance with Eurasia. But that was merely a piece of furtive knowledge which he happened to possess because his memory was not satisfactorily under control. Officially, the change of partners had never happened. Oceania was at war with Eurasia: therefore Oceania had always been at war with Eurasia. The enemy of the moment always represented absolute evil, and it followed that any past or future agreement with him was impossible.

George Orwell (1903-1950) English writer [pseud. of Eric Arthur Blair]
Nineteen Eighty-Four, ch. 3 (1949)
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History, indeed, is like a picture gallery in which there are few originals and many copies.

[On voit que l’histoire est une galerie de tableaux où il y a peu d’originaux et beaucoup de copies.]

Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) French writer, diplomat, politician
The Old Regime and the Revolution [L’Ancien régime et la Révolution], Book 2, ch. 6 (1856) [tr. Gilbert (1955)]
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Alternate translations:

History, it is easily perceived, is a picture-gallery containing a host of copies and very few originals.
[tr. Bonner (1856)]

One sees that history is an art gallery where there are few originals and many copies.
[tr. Kahan]

History is a gallery of pictures in which there are many copies and few originals.

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Nothing I accept about myself can be used against me to diminish me.

Audre Lorde (1934-1992) American writer, feminist, civil rights activist
“Eye to Eye: Black Women, Hatred, and Anger,” Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (1984)
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Historians can sometimes explain, or at any rate discuss the immediate causes of some great event. Beyond that they can do little more than arrive at the platitude that every generation is, to some extent, responsible for what happened afterwards. In this way, we can finally reach the preposterous conclusion that the ancient Romans were responsible for the First World War, when they failed to civilize the Germans. This is sometimes called learning from history.

A. J. P. Taylor (1906-1990) British historian, journalist, broadcaster [Alan John Percivale Taylor]
“What Else Indeed?” New York Review of Books (5 Aug 1965)
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In the popular imagination, the belief persists that history involves little more than reconstruction, a retelling of the past “as it actually was.” But historical understanding involves far more than mere empiricism; it demands a readiness to draw back from the facts to reflect on their significance and their interconnection.

Peter E Gordon
Peter E, Gordon (b. 1966) American intellectual historian
“Why Historical Analogy Matters,” New York Review of Books (7 Jan 2020)
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The past exudes legend: one can’t make pure clay of time’s mud. There is no life that can be recaptured wholly; as it was. Which is to say that all biography is ultimately fiction.

Bernard Malamud
Bernard Malamud (1914-1986) American author
Dubin’s Lives, ch. 1 (1977)
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Contumely always falls upon those who break through some custom or convention. Such men, in fact, are called criminals. Everyone who overthrows an existing law is, at the start, regarded as a wicket man. Long afterward, when it is found that this law was bad and so cannot be re-established, the epithet is changed. All history treats almost exclusively of wicked men who, in the course of time, have come to be looked upon as good men. All progress is the result of successful crimes.

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) German philosopher and poet
The Dawn [Morgenröte], sec. 20 (1881) [Mencken (1907)]
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Alternate translations:

We have to make good a great deal of the contumely which has fallen on all those who, by their actions, have broken through the conventionality of some custom -- such people generally have been called criminals. Everybody who overthrew the existing moral law has hitherto, at least in the beginning, been considered a wicked man; but when afterwards, as sometimes happened, the old law could not be re-established and had to be abandoned, the epithet was gradually changed. History almost exclusively treats of such wicked men who, in the course of time, have been declared good men.
[tr. Volz (1903)]

One has to take back much of the defamation which people have cast upon all those who broke through the spell of a custom by means of a deed -- in general, they are called criminals. Whoever has overthrown an existing law of custom has hitherto always first been accounted a bad man: but when, as did happen the laws could not afterwards be reinstated and this fact was accepted, the predicate gradually changed -- history treats almost exclusively of these bad men who subsequently became good men!
[tr. Hollingdale (1997)]

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The nation faces forward. It is made and remade every day. If we believe that the nation resides in the orderly recitations of history given to us by our leaders, then our story is over.

Timothy Snyder (b. 1969) American historian, author
The Red Prince, “Orange: European Revolutions” (2008)
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History is not a catalogue but a version of events … a convincing version of events. If an historian is any good, he is convinced by his own version of events and then tries to put this conviction across.

A. J. P. Taylor (1906-1990) British historian, journalist, broadcaster [Alan John Percivale Taylor]
“The view from Twisden Rd.”, interview by Duncan Fallowell, The Spectator (28 May 1983)
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The past, which as always did not know the future, acted in ways that ask to be imagined before they are condemned. Or even simplified.

Paul Fussell (1924-2012) American cultural and literary historian, author, academic
“Thank God for the Atom Bomb,” The New Republic (26 Aug 1981)
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Reprinted in Thank God for the Atom Bomb and Other Essays (1988).
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All citizens do have a measure of control, at least in democracies where their votes are counted, of how they belong to their nations. Perhaps they will have more confidence in unconventional choices if they see that each nation’s founders were disobedient and unpredictable, men and women of imagination and ambition. The steel of every national monument was once molten.

Timothy Snyder (b. 1969) American historian, author
The Red Prince, “Orange: European Revolutions” (2008)
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Like common law, the moral imagination works by precedent and example. We are all equipped with an inherited archive of historical events that serves as the background for everything that occurs. Especially when we are confronted with new events that test the limits of moral comprehension, we call upon what is most familiar in historical memory to regain our sense of moral orientation. We require this archive not only for political judgment, but as the necessary horizon for human experience.

Peter E Gordon
Peter E, Gordon (b. 1966) American intellectual historian
“Why Historical Analogy Matters,” New York Review of Books (7 Jan 2020)
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Our task as historians is to make past conflicts live again; not to lament the verdict or to wish for a different one. It bewildered me when my old master A. F. Pribram, a very great historian, said in the nineteen-thirties: “It is still not decided whether the Habsburg monarchy could have found a solution for its national problems.” How can we decide about something that did not happen? Heaven knows, we have difficulty enough in deciding what did happen. Events decided that the Habsburgs had not found a solution for their national problems; that is all we know or need to know. Whenever I read the phrase: “whether so-and-so acted rightly must be left for historians to decide,” I close the book; the writer has moved from history to make-believe.

A. J. P. Taylor (1906-1990) British historian, journalist, broadcaster [Alan John Percivale Taylor]
Trouble Makers: Dissent Over Foreign Policy 1792-1939 (1957)
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Yet if states were destroyed, local institutions corrupted, and economic incentives directed towards murder, few of us would behave well. There is little reason to think that we are ethically superior to the Europeans of the 1930s and 1940s, or for that matter less vulnerable to the kind of ideas that Hitler so successfully promulgated and realized.

Timothy Snyder (b. 1969) American historian, author
Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning, “Conclusion” (2015)
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Men write history for the same reason they write poetry, study the properties of numbers, or play football — for the joy of creation; men read history for the same reason they listen to music or watch cricket — for the joy of appreciation.

A. J. P. Taylor (1906-1990) British historian, journalist, broadcaster [Alan John Percivale Taylor]
“The Historian,” Manchester Guardian (5 Aug 1938)
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Once abandon that firm ground, once plead that history has a “message” or that history has a “social responsibility” (to produce good Marxists or good Imperialists or good citizens) there is no logical escape from the censor and the Index, the OGPU and the Gestapo.

A. J. P. Taylor (1906-1990) British historian, journalist, broadcaster [Alan John Percivale Taylor]
“The Historian,” Manchester Guardian (5 Aug 1938)
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Freedom does not always win. This is one of the bitterest lessons of history.

A. J. P. Taylor (1906-1990) British historian, journalist, broadcaster [Alan John Percivale Taylor]
(Attributed)
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Now, every time I witness a strong person, I want to know: What darkness did you conquer in your story? Mountains do not rise without earthquakes.

Katherine MacKennett
Katherine MacKenett (b. c. 1984) American writer, editor
(Attributed)
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Hence it is that, though in every age everybody knows that up to his own time progressive improvement has been taking place, nobody seems to reckon on any improvement during the next generation. We cannot absolutely prove that those are in error who tell us that society has reached a turning point, that we have seen our best days. But so said all before us, and with just as much apparent reason.

Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-1859) English writer and politician
“Southey’s Colloquies on Society,” Edinburgh Review (1830)
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Review of Robert Southey, Sir Thomas More; or, Colloquies on the Progress and Prospects of Society (1829).
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The great armies, accumulated to provide security and preserve the peace, carried the nations to war by their own weight.

A. J. P. Taylor (1906-1990) British historian, journalist, broadcaster [Alan John Percivale Taylor]
The First World War: A Illustrated History, ch. 1 (1963)
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All the livid steeds of the Apocalypse have stormed through my life — revolution and famine, inflation and terror, epidemics and emigration. I have seen the great mass ideologies grow and spread before my eyes — Fascism in Italy, National Socialism in Germany, Bolshevism in Russia, and above all else that arch-plague nationalism which has poisoned the flower of our European culture.

Stefan Zweig (1881-1942) Austrian novelist, playwright, journalist, biographer
The World of Yesterday [Die Welt von Gestern], Preface (1942)
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Alternate translation [Sonnenfeld]:

All the pale horses of the apocalypse have stormed through my life, revolution, starvation, devaluation of currency and terror, epidemics, emigration; I have seen the great ideologies of the masses grow and spread out before my eyes. Fascism in Italy, National Socialism in Germany, Bolshevism in Russia, and, above all, that arch-pestilence, nationalism, which poisoned our flourishing European culture.
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“Inevitability” is a magic word with which to mesmerize the unwary. Only death is inevitable. Short of that, nothing is inevitable until it happens, and everything is inevitable once it has happened. The historian deals with past events and therefore to him all history is inevitable. But these past events were once in the future, and then they were not inevitable.

A. J. P. Taylor (1906-1990) British historian, journalist, broadcaster [Alan John Percivale Taylor]
“War by Time-Table,” War by Time-Table: How the First World War Began (1969)
    (Source)

See also Taylor.
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No war is inevitable until it breaks out.

A. J. P. Taylor (1906-1990) British historian, journalist, broadcaster [Alan John Percivale Taylor]
The Struggle for Mastery in Europe 1848-1918, ch. 22 (1954)
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Added on 12-Jul-21 | Last updated 12-Jul-21
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It is tempting to say that a Nazi murderer is beyond the pale of understanding. […] Yet to deny a human being his human character is to render ethics impossible. To yield to this temptation, to find other people inhuman, is to take a step toward, not away from, the Nazi position. To find other people incomprehensible is to abandon the search for understanding, and thus to abandon history.

Timothy Snyder (b. 1969) American historian, author
Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, “Conclusion” (2010)
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In my opinion, most of the great men of the past were only there for the beer — the wealth, prestige and grandeur that went with the power.

A. J. P. Taylor (1906-1990) British historian, journalist, broadcaster [Alan John Percivale Taylor]
“Fiction in History,” Times Literary Supplement (23 Mar 1973)

Reprinted in his Essays in English History (1976).
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It is important to remember that events now long in the past were once in the future.

F. W. Maitland (1850-1906) English legal historian and jurist [Frederic William Maitland]
(Attributed)

A favorite saying of A. J. P. Taylor's which he used repeatedly in his writings, attributing it to Maitland. It is sometimes erroneously attributed to Taylor. Variant: "It is very had to remember that events now long in the past were once in the future"
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People think that stories are shaped by people. In fact, it’s the other way around.

Terry Pratchett (1948-2015) English author
Witches Abroad (1991)
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Added on 15-Jun-21 | Last updated 15-Jun-21
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History is not another name for the past, as many people imply. It is the name for stories about the past.

A. J. P. Taylor (1906-1990) British historian, journalist, broadcaster [Alan John Percivale Taylor]
(Attributed)
Added on 14-Jun-21 | Last updated 14-Jun-21
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In retrospect, though many were guilty, none was innocent. The purpose of political activity is to provide peace and prosperity; and in this every statesman failed, for whatever reason. This is a story without heroes, and perhaps even without villains.

A. J. P. Taylor (1906-1990) British historian, journalist, broadcaster [Alan John Percivale Taylor]
The Origins of the Second World War, ch. 1 (1961)
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The present enables us to understand the past, not the other way round.

A. J. P. Taylor (1906-1990) British historian, journalist, broadcaster [Alan John Percivale Taylor]
“The Radical Tradition: Fox, Paine, and Cobbett,” The Trouble Makers: Dissent over Foreign Policy, 1792-1939 (1969)
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Added on 24-May-21 | Last updated 24-May-21
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In my opinion we learn nothing from history except the infinite variety of men’s behaviour. We study it, as we listen to music or read poetry, for pleasure, not for instruction.

A. J. P. Taylor (1906-1990) British historian, journalist, broadcaster [Alan John Percivale Taylor]
“The Radical Tradition: Fox, Paine, and Cobbett,” The Trouble Makers: Dissent over Foreign Policy, 1792–1939 (1969)
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Added on 17-May-21 | Last updated 17-May-21
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The truth isn’t easily pinned to a page. In the bathtub of history the truth is harder to hold than the soap and much more difficult to find.

Terry Pratchett (1948-2015) English author
Sourcery (1988)
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Throughout our nervous history, we have constructed pyramidic towers of evil, ofttimes in the name of good. Our greed, fear and lasciviousness have enabled us to murder our poets, who are ourselves, to castigate our priests, who are ourselves. The lists of our subversions of the good stretch from before recorded history to this moment. We drop our eyes at the mention of the bloody, torturous Inquisition. Our shoulders sag at the thoughts of African slaves lying spoon-­fashion in the filthy hatches of slave-ships, and the subsequent auction blocks upon which were built great fortunes in our country. We turn our heads in bitter shame at the remembrance of Dachau and the other gas ovens, where millions of ourselves were murdered by millions of ourselves. As soon as we are reminded of our actions, more often than not we spend incredible energy trying to forget what we’ve just been reminded of.

Maya Angelou (1928-2014) American poet, memoirist, activist [b. Marguerite Ann Johnson]
“Facing Evil,” Interview by Bill Moyers (1982)
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Added on 30-Apr-21 | Last updated 30-Apr-21
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It is the victor who writes the history and counts the dead, and to the vanquished in such a struggle there only remains the dull memory of an unnumbered and unwritten sorrow.

William Butler (1838-1910) Irish British Army officer, writer, adventurer
Charles George Gordon, ch. 1 (1891)
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Added on 30-Apr-21 | Last updated 30-Apr-21
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