A Helpful Reminder That Everything You Were Taught is Wrong

Matt Yglesias had a good post this morning about the sort of dumbed down cause -> effect common wisdom that gets tossed around at all levels of education and historical analysis.  In this case, he takes aim at the old chestnut we all learned in high school about the poor Germans in the Weimar Republic running around with wheelbarrows full of paper marks to buy a loaf of bread and how that hyperinflation made all the Germans toss up their hands and say “hey, why don’t we give this Hitler guy a try?”

I understand that this is an accurate recounting of German folk history, but I wish people recounting it would note that Germans sort of misremember what happened. The hyperinflation of 1919-1923 was bad, but there’s a reason charts of it end in 1923, namely that the democratic government of Germany managed to tame the problem and in 1924 a new and perfectly stable currency, the Reichsmark was introduced. The Weimar Republic had its problems, but from 1924 on it was one of the very best places in the world to live in terms of economic prosperity and political freedom. Then came The Great Depression and a certain political party’s rise to power.

Click through to see some of Magical Matt’s awesome graphs to that point. (Ya can’t stop the man from graphing!)  I distinctly remember being told this as part of my high school world history class as another one of those elegantly reductionist formulas to be memorized and regurgitated for my dark lord, the AP test.  While I do find value in the study of history for root causes and charting their effects, I’m constantly frustrated by how reductionist it all was.  Teaching to the test and teaching to every level of interest/comprehension/attention-span takes an axe to the network of events to serve up little slices of official truth, sometimes bearing little resemblance to actual events.  My post-schooling education has largely been a matter of a pulling at these neatly arranged strings of events to see which connections hold up and where those severed links trail back to.

Wired‘s June 22 Today-in-History note about a 1783 volcanic eruption that dealt death and disruption across the Northern Hemisphere hit my brain in a similar way.

1783 was the year of the Treaty of Paris that ended the American Revolutionary War.  The traditional line trotted out to American school kids is that we kicked so much British ass due to our guerrilla warfare against the line marching, fife-playing Redcoats of the King’s Army.  The French eventually became our our allies, sending troops and supplies towards the end of the war after we proved our mettle in battle.  Then, the story goes, the French absorbed our gnarly revolutionary spirit, decided they didn’t like getting taxed by a be-wigged, high-living royal dandy either and had themselves an even crazier revolution.

One facet I don’t recall getting much discussion in the classroom is the scale of French aid to the Americans.  The French spent 1.3 billion livres in their efforts to stymie the British, outspending even the Americans.  For a country that was already sinking deeply into debt, this was a risky move.  Having a volcano erupt at that point was not what Louis XVI needed.  Europe was blanketed with a poisonous haze followed by crop failures from a long, severe winter.  Death and debt naturally followed.

Why don’t they teach this?  Well, it raises a lot of uncomfortable points: humanity’s susceptibility to natural catastrophe, the high costs of foreign intervention and the uncertainty of the future.   Much more comforting for future Excel spreadsheet operators and fast food counter-wipers to have some dots to connect that spell out “America! Fuck yeah!”.

So in short, history is all one big Connections episode, with the backbeat of Method Man’s sage advice that Cash Rules Everything Around Me.  Cash and Volcanoes.  And if nothing else, at least we can get a Simpson’s reference out of the deal.  “Slavery it is, sir!”

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