What we remember we can avoid; what we forget, we can repeat

April 3, 2009
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Broadcast on BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day, 3rd April 2009

We're coming close to Pesach - Passover - the Jewish festival of memory and freedom. Next week Jews will be sitting round the table, as families, telling the story of how, 33 centuries ago, our ancestors were slaves. Then God, the supreme power, intervened to free the powerless. It's an ancient ritual, one of the oldest in the world.

3300 years is a long time, and I sometimes used to wonder: do we really need to remember events that happened long ago? Then, quite recently, I read J.K. Galbraith's classic work on the Great Crash of 1929. Could it happen again? he asked. Yes it could, he said, but the memory of that disaster would probably protect us, because those who lived through it had vowed, Never again.

That book was first published in 1954, just 25 years after the events it describes. And with a tremor, I realised that the Great Crash through which we are living took place almost 80 years later, at more or less exactly the point at which the events of 1929 passed out of living memory for all but a few. What we remember, we can avoid. What we forget, we can repeat. And so it happened. It is uncanny how similar events are now to those of 80 years ago.

We've become a society with very little memory. History, especially British history, is being taught less and less. And as for memory in general, who needs it any more? Our computers do our remembering for us. Forget something, and all you have to do is key in the right words and the search engine will tell you the answer within microseconds. So we've learned to live in a kind of continuous present, with very little sense of the past.

But that is a dangerous thing, because the events of 1929 didn't end in 1929. Financial collapse led to recession which led to unemployment which led to national, then international unrest, and ten years later the world was at war.

And what we need from the G20 leaders who are today making their way home is not just intelligence but wisdom, not just a sense of the immediate but also historical imagination. We tend to forget that Churchill, one of the greatest statesmen of the twentieth century, was also a Nobel Prize-winning historian.

What we forget we can repeat, but what we remember we can avoid. As the Jewish festival of memory approaches, let's remember the past so that together we can write a different and more hopeful future.