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Those Who Ignore History are Bound to Repeat It (including genealogists)

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By James L. Tanner

The actual quote, which I have used before in posts, is “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” See George Santayana 16 December 1863 in Madrid, Spain. Here is the entire quote:

Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

As usual, this particular topic was suggested by comments and circumstances in course of teaching or helping people with their genealogical research. Older people in the United States may have had one or two classes on history in high school and a smattering of history in grade school. Younger people have been deprived of almost any formal education about history. They now have “social studies” which consists primarily of polemic on social issues such as racial and gender equality. This lack of formal, historical education results in a dismal inability to put genealogical research into context.

One of the many lamentable instances of historical blindness was illustrated by a pedigree that I reviewed this past week where the individuals were shown as having been born in Austria during the latter part of the 1800s. Lack of historical context is confounded by a lack of geographic awareness. Here is a short explanation of the Austro-Hungarian Empire from the Wikipedia: Austria-Hungary:

Austria-Hungary, often referred to as the Austro-Hungarian Empire in English-language sources, was a constitutional union of the Austrian Empire (the Kingdoms and Lands Represented in the Imperial Council, or Cisleithania) and the Kingdom of Hungary (Lands of the Crown of Saint Stephen or Transleithania) that existed from 1867 to 1918, when it collapsed as a result of defeat in World War I. The union was a result of the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867 and came into existence on 30 March 1867. Austria-Hungary consisted of two monarchies (Austria and Hungary), and one autonomous region: the Kingdom of Croatia-Slavonia under the Hungarian crown, which negotiated the Croatian–Hungarian Settlement (Nagodba) in 1868. It was ruled by the House of Habsburg, and constituted the last phase in the constitutional evolution of the Habsburg Monarchy. Following the 1867 reforms, the Austrian and the Hungarian states were co-equal. Foreign affairs and the military came under joint oversight, but all other governmental faculties were divided between respective states.

Austria-Hungary was a multinational state and one of the world’s great powers at the time. Austria-Hungary was geographically the second-largest country in Europe after the Russian Empire, at 621,538 km2 (239,977 sq mi),[5] and the third-most populous (after Russia and the German Empire). The Empire built up the fourth-largest machine building industry of the world, after the United States, Germany, and the United Kingdom.[6]Austria-Hungary also became the world’s third largest manufacturer and exporter of electric home appliances, electric industrial appliances and power generation apparatus for power plants, after the United States and the German Empire.[7][8]

After 1878, Bosnia and Herzegovina was under Austro-Hungarian military and civilian rule[9] until it was fully annexed in 1908, provoking the Bosnian crisis among the other powers.[10] Sandžak/Raška, de jure northern part of the Ottoman Sanjak of Novi Pazar (in modern-day Montenegro and Serbia), was also under de facto joint occupation during that period but the Austro-Hungarian army withdrew as part of their annexation of Bosnia.[11]The annexation of Bosnia also led to Islam being recognized as an official state religion due to Bosnia’s Muslim population.[12]

Austria-Hungary was one of the Central Powers in World War I. It was already effectively dissolved by the time the military authorities signed the armistice of Villa Giusti on 3 November 1918. The Kingdom of Hungary and the First Austrian Republic were treated as its successors de jure, whereas the independence of the West Slavs and South Slavs of the Empire as the First Czechoslovak Republic, the Second Polish Republic and the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, respectively, and most of the territorial demands of the Kingdom of Romania were also recognized by the victorious powers in 1920.

I have purposefully left in all the links and footnotes on purpose for this example. Where did these people who were listed as being born in Austria really live? That is the first and most difficult challenge faced by a genealogical researcher when confronted with an American “interpretation” of European history and politics summarized in a birth or death place.

Can we continue to pretend that genealogical research is somehow exempt from historical constraints? Breaking out of this fog of ignorance takes a great deal of time and effort. Are we really concerned with discovering our ancestry or creating a simplified fable?

If your ancestry starts in the United States (or any other country), take the time to read a book or two on the history of that country. If you are doing research in a particular state or region, study the boundary changes and other historical issues that influence where and how the records were kept. Genealogy is really a lifetime of learning and study. No one is ever really finished with their ancestral investigations.