From Athens to Auschwitz

In From Athens to Auschwitz: The Uses of History, originally delivered as the Krupp Lectures in 2000-2001, the German historian Christian Meier claims that European history followed a “special path” in comparison to the civilizations of Asia, the Middle East, and the Americas, a special path that transformed the world in profound ways beginning around 1500. Its origins were in ancient Greece, particularly in fifth century B.C. Athens. Evolving out of the polis or city-state ruled not by monarchies or established theocracies but by independent citizens, the Greeks explored the natural world through reason and rationality, asking what it means to be human, thus giving birth to philosophy, politics, history writing, and drama. Perfect it was not, and Meier acknowledges the slavery and discrimination against women in the classical world, but something new began with the Greeks.

Its Meier's contention that Europe, and possibly the United States, no longer believes in the relevance of history because of previously unimaginable events such as Auschwitz and Hiroshima and the accelerated changes experienced in the twentieth century, and that history seemingly has little to tell us about our immediate world. Academic historians have largely abandoned the general reader, and popular histories often focus upon specific events that ignore the broad sweep of history, its causes and consequences.

However, Meier warns that Europe's uniqueness is now in danger of being lost, as reflected in the frequently ineffective role of political institutions in a world of globalization, as well as the loss of faith in progress. In discussing Auschwitz, Meier argues that it must be understood as part of history, not as an inexplicable and unfathomable event, and that history is not the record of inevitable progress, at least not moral progress. In summary, we are the product of history even though we might try to ignore that reality.