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  • Writer's pictureSophie Marijn

Déjà-vu, history has been in this place before

"Those that fail to learn from history, are doomed to repeat it," declared Winston Churchill to the House of Commons in 1948. He was paraphrasing philosopher George Santayana, though the same sentiment had been expressed countless times before. So, to raise the much-debated question: are there patterns in history?


Personally, I do not believe in specific patterns of history, though there may be global patterns that scholars have identified. Take the way civilizations are created and ruined, an example historian Arnold Toynbee used in his work A Study of History. However, in response to this work, the Dutch historian Pieter Geyl argued that each historical event is embedded in its own specific circumstances. We may find similarities to another event that happened previously, but the historical context will always remain unique.


This fundamental difference makes it difficult to accurately compare historical events with each other, or ‘learn lessons from the past’ to prevent a similar misfortune in the future. Furthermore, because of the unique historical context, it is easier to identify such patterns in hindsight than it is to see it coming. Another quote may therefore be better suited to describe the didactic potential of history. To quote poet Robert Penn Warren, "History cannot give us a program for the future, but it can give us a fuller understanding of ourselves, and of our common humanity, so that we can better face the future."

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