So You Say You Hate History?

While watching the (highly entertaining) movie The Da Vinci Code, despite its many (many) historical inaccuracies and fictional portrayals of organizations and Christian origins, one line struck me as overly important–probably the most important and most valuable line in the whole movie–is when Langdon looks at Sophie and says, “Nobody hates history. They hate their own histories.”  Such a powerful line, while so flippantly stated in the film, that deserves more attention.

People don’t hate history, they hate unsensational versions of history.

I thought to myself, immediately upon hearing it, “Man, that’s true.”  And I haven’t yet seen the quote proven wrong.

Recently, I was having a discussion with a friend about ancestry and how looking into your family history is so valuable and important.  I remarked that I had some fantastic information about a family line that I had tracked back to the 1730’s and how awesome it had been to discover.  Her expression was one of interest, but she didn’t agree; for her, family history was not interesting at all.  When I asked her why she felt that way, she looked at me funny for a moment and then said, “Well, my ancestors were Nazis, so….”  I took pause.  A shocking revelation, to be sure, but I reminded my friend that she was clearly not her ancestors (she is one of the nicest, least judgmental person I know).  She then went on to tell me the tale of how her grandfather had been living in Germany at the time during World War II and had fought for the Nazis; after the war he had escaped execution at the hands of the Russians and traveled to the United States.  It was a fascinating story; it was a tragic one as well.

There are few people in this country who want to have such an intimate association with a Nazi (former or otherwise).  It’s tough in those situations to really appreciate where you come from–because in a way you don’t want to learn about any more (knowing you have a Nazi in the family is enough knowledge sometimes).  But I don’t think that our shame should stop us from digging further.  And here is where I have to explain things delicately so I’m not misunderstood.

It is easy to forget, with all the atrocities committed in contemporary memory, that Germany existed for hundreds of years as its own country prior to WWII and its culture goes back to the Roman Empire, over 2,000 years ago.

In no way would I ever want to diminish the absolute travesty, the inhumanity, of the Nazi party during the second World War.  6 million Jews were brutally murdered during the Holocaust, millions more were scarred for life.  The Nazis also murdered those individuals with differing political ideals, Catholics, missionaries, and so on.  If you did not fit into the mould fashioned by the Nazi Party, then you were likely sent away and never seen again.

The second part of this tragedy is the short amount of time in which these murders took place.   So many were slain in so short a time, it is absolutely unforgivable.   For many who lived in Germany at the time, sociological and psychological factors played into their lives and dominated their existence.  It is impossible to know what factors played into the mind of normal, everyday citizens of Germany during the rise of Hitler and his thugs (though countless studies have been done).  I say this with the knowledge that my Ukrainian side suffered at the hands of the Nazis–one of my great aunts was sent to a concentration camp along with all of her Jewish neighbors (she was Catholic).

It must also be remembered that there weren’t always Nazis in Germany (the Nazi party only gained power in the 1930’s, during only one generation of her family tree)–so what did her family do, who were they, before the rise of Hitler?  Where did her lineage divide?  Did she descend from a family of land barons during the 1700’s?  Did any of her ancestors fight in the Crusades?  Did she have any family member fight in World War 1?  How far back does her line go?  These are important questions.  We must not overlook our family history because of a single generation; children should not be punished for the actions of their parents–but neither should an entire lineage be ignored because of the atrocities committed by a single generation.

Every single person who has dedicated themselves to studying their ancestry has come across an unsavory character–some ill-gotten news.   It happens.  One of my great-great uncles was thrown in prison.  I don’t know for what action and I do not know how long he remained in jail.  Others (not in my line) from my area have ancestors who owned slaves.  Every family has a closet full of skeletons.  The most difficult part is looking beyond them.

BiffTannen

I would hate to belong to this family though; not going to lie.

And this is where I think Robert Langon’s quote (really, it’s Dan Brown’s quote) is so extremely important.  If one cannot get past their own family demons, how can they discover more about their line?  They may live a lifetime never knowing the true potential of their heritage.  And this is quite personal for me.  I didn’t always have the best appreciation for my immediately family.  There have been times when I felt that my grandparents made some unforgivable mistakes.  For a long time I did not want to associate with the name because of it.  But seldom are mistakes so horrible that they are unforgivable.   I got over it and now I have a good relationship with them.  For a time, however, I neglected to do any research and now I kick myself for not discovering more about my family line sooner.  There is a lot to be proud of, including my grandparents–whose accomplishments are impressive given their humble beginnings–and that trumps any of the minor mistakes they might have made.

Now, it may not be as easy for someone like my friend, whose family history contains a swastika.  I can appreciate that she is hesitant to want to look any further.  But hating the actions of a member of your family should not stop anyone from discovering from whence they came.  We are, after all, individuals.  In my humble opinion, I accept that we make our own choices in life, decide our own path, and follow it, or we don’t and remain indecisive (which is, itself, a choice).  But those choices are what define the individual, not the group as a whole.  And I think that is what makes history–including family history–so important a subject to respect.  Because we cannot know where we are without knowing from whence we came.

If we all forgo learning about the past, aren’t we then doomed to repeat the mistakes of our ancestors?  Isn’t that ignorance kind of dangerous?  I tend to think it is.  What do you think, dear reader?

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3 responses to “So You Say You Hate History?

  1. For as many skeletons in the closet, there are amazing stories as well. In researching my own genealogy, I’ve come across things I never though I would have hidden amongst the “Cannon Saints” of my bloodline. Mental illness, stories uncharacteristically progressive for the era, scandal, charity, family feuds, community building, illegal immigration, unbeknownst shared hobbies — da woiks. 🙂

    Even things that may never be known: I found a Bulova Watch box that used to belong to my late Grandfather who fought in WWII, and upon opening it, a fist-full of Nazi-era coins (from Germany, France, and Luxembourg) fell out — which is of no surprise he was the last great numismatist in our family, and he picked up the hobby over in Europe. He worked at a field hospital as a medic, so there were people from all over — friendly and enemy, young and old — coming to be treated there.

    However, among this set of coins was a single, unused bullet that seems to have been saved immaculately for some ominous purpose. Since my Grandfather is no longer with us, he can’t tell that story.

    There is one major thread throughout all of this, though: For every individual piece of unpleasant surprise I’ve come across, there tends to be three or four amazing and inspiring stories. In that sense, you have pretty good odds of finding something to be proud about, and something to frame your own family legacy with into the future.

    • Absolutely, Steve. Absolutely. And that is the message I am trying to get out there. I appreciate you sharing your story with us! Family trees, unattended, will rot and whither away. We can’t let that happen.

  2. Pingback: How Ancestry Research Can Make You A Better Person |·

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