Knowledge of the past comes from the proper study of facts, not OE jaunts

Some weeks ago, Labour MP Megan Woods apologised to the Government for likening their assets sales to Hitler. That was ridiculous. If an excessive analogy, the fact is Hitler would have supported the exercise.

With the approach of the war Himmler proposed nationalising armament manufacturers. Hitler scoffed at this, asking why does it matter who owns the factories? What's important is that they make what is wanted. He was correct and it's this argument the Government should have raised with the asset sales brouhaha, were it true to its private ownership beliefs.

But let's face it, Megan Woods' real crime was mentioning Hitler's name. I do not make light of Hitler's appalling atrocities, but as has often been pointed out by historians, the number of deaths he was responsible for does not compare with Genghis Khan, who killed an estimated 50 million for sheer sport, or Pol Pot on a pro-rata population basis, or Mao Zedong and Stalin, whose brutal policies both killed many more. Yet how many times over the years have leftish MPs accused their opposite numbers of being to the right of Genghis Khan and induced simply a yawn?

So, too, the political right in days gone by, accusing Labour of Stalinist policies and no offence is taken, this being part of the cut and thrust of adversarial politics. But mention Hitler's name and all hell breaks out.


The obsession with Hitler is weird. In the late 1990s the British University History Teachers' Association devoted one of their annual conferences to this oddity. Their concern was that so many students wanted to write their doctoral theses on him.

But then again, why be surprised? After all, last year some British educationalists floated a proposal to stop teaching history altogether. Is it any wonder so many people have no idea about our past? The knowledge decline in failing to study history is constantly evidenced, such as by the doctoral students' easy Hitler subject.

A few years ago my eldest son was in my library talking about his first year at university, studying history. He had the gall to ask if I'd heard of the Euphrates civilisations. I pulled out my 3rd form history book and showed him what in New Zealand state schools we were taught at the age of 13.

The text book, then used nationally, is titled The March of Civilisation and the opening chapter is on the Euphrates civilisations. Also present was my 17-year-old French grand-daughter, soon to start university. She had deviously conned a car out of me and I was giving her a garage code number. "You will have no problem remembering it," I said. "Just think of the Battle of Waterloo date." She'd never heard of Waterloo and she's French, for God's sake.

So, too, when my 17-year-old daughter turned up recently to argue she should no longer have to stay at her private school for the remainder of the year, having now sufficient grades to start university next year.

"What have you studied this year," I asked. "The Russian revolution," she replied. "What year was it?"

Puzzlement! The checkout counter beckons.

Worse still, her mother rang me last year about the younger sister, saying, "You will be pleased to know Lauren has decided to study the classics next year."

"I certainly am," I replied.

"Good; it will cost you $8000."

"$8000 for some text books; that's ridiculous!"

"No; so she can go on a school trip to Rome, Crete and Greece."

So, staring at rubble like dumb tourists has now replaced studying Plato, Socrates, The Republic etc as classical studies. It gets worse. Brace yourselves and prepare to weep. Her mid-year term report says inter alia re this recently completed jaunt, "she has applied her knowledge to how it has influenced modern popular films".

On the same day newspapers reported Megan Woods' nonsense, they ran an Associated Press story announcing the renaming of Big Ben in honour of the Queen.

The article trotted out the oft-repeated wrong claim that the name Big Ben arose from its first massive bell. In fact, it was nicknamed after Ben Caunt, the giant bare-knuckle English boxing champion of the time. In the 1880s a debate arose when some sources attributed it to the massive mid-century parliamentarian Sir Benjamin Hall, following his speech in the Commons on the clock.

The matter was put to rest on the tower's centennial by historian Alan Phillips, who was commissioned by the British Government in 1958 to research its history. He found newspaper items referring to it being nicknamed after Caunt immediately following its completion and years before Hall's speech. But 54 years later, promoted ignorance now rewrites history. Who can be surprised?

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