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When Will We Ever Learn?

The eightieth anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War

by Brian Radcliffe

Suitable for Whole School (Sec)


To explore our understanding of how we can learn from history.

Preparation and materials

  • You will need a leader and four readers.

  • Optional: you may wish to notify the history department that you will be conducting this assembly, in case students wish to discuss any of the points made.


Leader: Do you enjoy history?

Reader 1: I find it quite hard to relate to people who lived in such different circumstances. It feels long ago and far away.

Reader 2: Still, I can recognize many ways in which those same people reacted in similar ways to the ways we react today.

Reader 3: I enjoy the way that history can be like an epic story. I sometimes can’t tell the difference between real history and dramas like Game of Thrones.

Reader 4: I think Id enjoy history more if I could concentrate on the story rather than having to learn lists of names and dates. I’d prefer to concentrate on getting the overall picture.

Leader: Maybe Ive been a little unfair in that selection of opinions. Lets try to take this further by looking at one particular period in history.

September 2019 marks the eightieth anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War. We can argue about whether its necessary to celebrate it, but its still worth remembering. My question is: why did that war break out?

Well, it was a complex business that involved many countries, but there are certain important factors. For example, during the 1920s and 1930s, before war broke out, Germany nursed a deep resentment at the way it had been treated at the end of the First World War. Despite the complex web of circumstances that had led to that war, Germany had been made to take the full blame for it. The result of this blame and the ensuing punishment was that Germany experienced harsh poverty and unemployment for at least a decade. German people suffered.

Adolf Hitler exploited the nationalistic atmosphere, building alliances with the surrounding Germanic peoples in Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland. Finally, vacillating politicians in Britain and France gave in to Hitlers demands for the Germanic nations to be unified (whether they wanted it or not) rather than standing up to his bullying tactics. Eventually, war became inevitable as everything went too far.

Time for reflection

Jesus regularly looked back through the history of the Jewish people. He often reminded his followers of what the prophets had said and what the kings had done, especially King David. In this, he was behaving like most of his contemporaries. Many of the annual Jewish festivals were linked with events in the nations history. For instance, Passover remembered the escape from Egypt; Purim looked back to the story of Queen Esther; and Shavuot was about the giving of the Torah, the book of the Law, on Mount Sinai. The point for Jesus and his contemporaries was that the past could teach them about how to live in the present. The past reminded them of how their predecessors had made mistakes, of how God had rescued them time after time, only for people to repeat the same mistakes. History helped them to understand the right way for a nation to behave. Whether they always took notice of this insight is a matter of debate.

The same is true for us, individually and as a society. History helps us to consider the most appropriate ways to live today. So, on the eightieth anniversary of the start of the Second World War, what might we learn from studying its causes?

We might learn that its not a good idea to judge or punish someone too harshly, even when they are definitely guilty. Its important to give them the chance to turn themselves around, to rebuild their life, as well as enforcing an appropriate punishment.

Its also important to take a good look at ourselves, to recognize that we, too, might bear some responsibility, or to admit that were also capable of doing wrong.

In addition, we could learn something about standing up to bullies by considering the ways in which the politicians of the day acted towards Adolf Hitler. Putting off a confrontation indefinitely isnt an option. Standing together with others is important. Otherwise, the bullying can continue, with the consequences growing daily.

In reality, situations are far more complicated than this, but the idea is important. The mistakes of the twentieth century can teach us how we might choose to live in the twenty-first.

It is worth considering that we are all part of history. The actions that we take today can and do affect the lives of those around us. I wonder how people will remember us in years to come.

Dear Lord,
Thank you for the lessons of history.
Help us to relate them to our situations and to learn lessons.
May we not repeat the mistakes of the past.

Publication date: September 2019   (Vol.21 No.9)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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