Why History Matters: Life and Thought

By Biggs, Lindy | National Forum, Summer 1997 | Go to article overview

Why History Matters: Life and Thought


Biggs, Lindy, National Forum


GERDA LERNER. Why History Matters: Life and Thought. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.249 pages. $30.00.

History matters because it tells us who we are and where we have been. History matters because it reminds us of what we have won and lost. History matters because it teaches us, and if we listen to its lessons, it helps us to correct injustice. History matters because without it only the rich and powerful have an identity and the status that goes along with it. If history were not so important, why would conquerors destroy the history of the conquered, why would men have written only the history of men, and why would there be such emotional debate surrounding a museum exhibit? These are the messages of Gerda Lerner's powerful essays in Why History Matters: Life and Thought. The essays are the reflections of a mature scholar about the history she has written and about her own life as an Austrian Jew under Hitler, as an immigrant to the United States who spoke no English, as an outsider, as a writer, and finally as a historian. In each essay Lerner uses her personal and scholarly experiences to show us why history is so important, why it is more than just an intellectual pursuit, why it is a vital part of the human experience.

History is our collective memory, and Lerner challenges us to use it, to amend it, to protect it, and above all, not to turn away from it. But as she urges us to remember our past, she also reminds us that "history is more than just collective memory; it is memory formed and shaped so as to have meaning." Therefore, we also must pay attention to who the historians have been and consider what the historians have left out.

In several of the essays, Lerner illustrates what happens to people who are left out of history. "In the Footsteps of the Cathars" describes historical markers in France and Germany that designate sites of Nazi atrocities but never say that the victims were Jews. They were French, Polish, German, women, men, and children, but never Jews. By denying that the victims were Jews, and that they were killed only because they were Jews, the local historians allow themselves to forget that Hitler was attempting genocide, says Lerner, and perhaps to forget any role they might have had. …

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