(1) The current fascination for people's personal histories can be narcissistic. (2) How much time should human beings spend gazing at themselves, after all? But it also comes from the desire to know more about what made people who they are and what made the world in which they happen to live. If people can stand back and see their own histories in a wider perspective, then they can see how they are the products not just of particular individuals but of whole societies and cultures.
Members of certain ethnic groups may find that they have inherited views on other ethnic groups, and may also find that others regard them in particular ways. History has shaped humans' values, their fears, their aspirations, their loves, and their hatreds. When we start to realize that, we begin to understand something of the power of the past.
Even when people think they are striking out in new directions, their models often come from the past. How often have we seen revolutionaries, committed to building new worlds, slip back unconsciously into the habits and ways of those they have replaced? Napoleon came to power as the result of the French Revolution, but the court he set up was modeled on that of the displaced Bourbons. The top Soviet Communists lived within the walls of the Kremlin, as the czars had once done. Stalin looked back to Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great as his predecessors. The Chinese Communists scorned China's traditional society, but their top leaders chose to live right at the heart of Beijing, where the imperial court had once been. Mao Zedong himself withdrew into mysterious seclusion, much as the emperors had done over the centuries.
"Men make their own history," said Karl Marx, "but they do not make it as they please: they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past."
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