Tag Archives: power

European history

Wilfried’s able leadership of our tour of Germany last month whetted my appetite for more of the story of how things got to be the way they are. In short, the history of Germany.

I found a book at the library called The Concise History of Germany which was ok but filled with a lot of big words. I’ve got nothing against big words except when they are used to obfuscate. When I started swimming in sentences 20 or more words long, I gave up on it.

Again at the library: European History for Dummies. OK, better. Not so many big words plus short sentences. I’ve made it through almost to the end. Honestly, it’s pretty depressing. I get that the history of human affairs is largely about control of one group by another and that that is usually accomplished by violence. The Dummies brand of books is designed to go over a subject in a breezy, often humorous, tone. It’s exactly what I was looking for, actually.

But having such a litany of violent things set in front of you in such a lighthearted way is weird. I’ve had the book at my breakfast table and thus read it in 15 or 20 minute chunks. Sometimes, I stay at the table for a few extra minutes but more often I have to just walk away from it. Will we never learn?

I’m sure there are many books out there about this subject – repeating the cycle of violence, not history per se – so I’m not sitting here thinking I’m going to find some solution. Humans are pissers, whether it’s driving on the highway or running a company. When I start to think about larger organizations of humans, I find myself in dangerous shoals of definitions: what is a country? What is influence? What is power? When a ‘country’ ‘takes over’ a city, what does that really mean? The Dummies book throws those words around a lot but I believe it’s worth asking what their core meaning is.

To me, it comes down to power. How does one person have ‘power’ over another? There is always an exchange, although it is not always balanced. I agree to go to work of a person or organization in exchange for money. I can use that money to get other people to do things for me: supply me with food, clothing and shelter. If my ‘boss’ at work asks me to do something for him/her, I will accede to that request because it is within the realm of what i have agreed to do in exchange for that money.

But what if it isn’t? What if my ‘boss’ asks (or tells) me to do something that will injure another person? Or myself? Presumably, this is something that is not part of what was originally agreed to in the definition of this job. Suddenly, money is not the exchange medium. It becomes more elemental. How does my value of self preservation compare to my ethical value of not wanting to hurt another person? Perhaps I can make myself safer at the expense of another person coming into danger.

I believe it is this transaction writ large which has driven human history. Some humans are able to rationalize this transaction and others can’t. And some humans have a need to dominate while others don’t.

The whole family went to England in 2000 for two weeks. We really had a very nice time. We walked across Abbey Road and among the stones at Stonehenge. We walked along the Thames and on the cliffs of Dover. We went to museums and castles. Perhaps too many castles. Because by the end, I felt about history as I do now: why is it all about killing? Someone wants ‘power’ and is willing to step on other humans to get it.