If you like learning about the past, you have to listen to Hardcore History, a podcast made by Dan Carlin. Until I started listening, I had no idea how little I knew about:
- the Mongols (e.g. they wore coats made of hundreds of mouse skins sewn together. Gross.)
- German Anabaptist fundamentalism in the 16th century (e.g. Free Love is not a 1960's invention: charismatic cult leaders have been saying “and now God says I can have sex with everyone” for at least 400 years)
- Why the most sophisticated empire in history (Rome) fell to the medieval equivalent of biker gangs (the Goths)… i.e. because they made the same mistake as The Rolling Stones did at Altamont: hiring The Hell’s Angels to do security.
- ….and a million other things.
Carlin speaks for a few hours on each topic, in a free-wheeling lecture from loose notes, studded with quotations from eye-witness accounts and great historians of the period he’s studying. It’s passionate, funny, and mixed with whip-smart analogies to contemporary history and attitudes. I'm stunned that something this good exists. It’s a 21st century equivalent of those amazing A.J.P. Taylor lectures... ....but BETTER. Yes, I know that's sacrilege, and yes, it's justified.
The most recent episode ("Blueprint for Armageddon I") is focused on the lead-up to, and first few months of, the First World War. I usually hate military history: too much blood and guts. But Carlin avoids all that crap. His point is” “no one ever expects or wants war, and yet humans go to war all the time, despite ourselves”. There was an intellectual current in the early 20th century that said, “a big European war will never happen, because we all know it would be a total disaster for everyone”. Europe was crisscrossed with alliances and obligations to go make war in defense of other nations. Warfare was fully industrialized for the first time, meaning there was practically no limit to the causalities each belligerent could inflict on others. Everybody knew the risks. And yet… Europe did it anyway.
It’s terrifying. Because how often do we think of “war” today? Does anyone in prosperous West Europe or America consider that a massed conflict like WWI could happen again? No one does. The very idea is preposterous. “The costs would be so great! It would be insane! None of our politicians are that stupid!”
Yes they are. Because yes they WERE. And yes, they always will be.
Please listen to this podcast. It’s unbelievably fantastic.