I was lucky enough to read this famous essay in an original 1944 edition.
It starts off well: Liddell Hart gives a lot of interesting theories for why we seem not to learn from history, with a central tenet being that we aren’t very good at truthfully recording events in the first place.
He then lost me for the second half of the essay by going into some detail about the Second World War and perceived problems with the Christian church, which I’m sure would be interesting to many people, but don’t seem obviously related to the titular question.
It’s only short—58 pages in my edition—so I got my effort’s worth from it anyway.
Some quotes, almost all from the first half:
While in common with the great majority I have had to earn a living, I have had the rare good luck of being able to earn it by trying to discover the truth of events, instead of to cover it up, as so many are compelled, against their inclination, by the conditions of their job.
Nothing can deceive like a document.
After twenty years' experience of such work, pure documentary history seems to me akin to mythology. To those academic historians who still repose faith on it, I have often told a short story with a moral. When the British front was broken in March 1918, and French reinforcements came to help in filling the gap, an eminent French general arrived at a certain army corps headquarters, and there majestically dictated orders giving the line on which the troops would stand that night and start their counter-attack in the morning. After reading it, with some perplexity, the corps commander exclaimed: "But that line is behind the German front. You lost it yesterday." The great commander, with a knowing smile, thereupon remarked: "C'est pour l'histoire." It may be added that for a great part of the war he had held a high staff position where the archives on which much official history would later depend had been under his control.
If a man reads or hears a criticism of anything in which he has an interest, watch whether his first question is as to its fairness and truth. If he reacts to any such criticism with strong emotion; if he bases his complaint on the ground that it is not in "good taste," or that it will have a bad effect-in short, if he shows concern with any question except "Is it true?" he thereby reveals that his own attitude is unscientific. Likewise if in his turn he judges an idea not on its merits but with reference to the author of it; if he criticizes it as "heresy"; if he argues that authority, must be right because it is authority; if he takes a particular criticism as a general depreciation; if he confuses opinion with facts; if he claims that any expression of opinion is "unquestionable"; if he declares that something will "never" come about, or is "certain" that any view is right. The path of truth is paved with critical doubt, and lighted by the spirit of objective enquiry. To view any question subjectively is self-blinding.
Deep is the gulf between works of history as written and the truth of history.
One would like to see a political movement that would offer a really original programme-which instead of announcing to the ever-credulous voter the wonderful things it would give him if elected to power, would tell him what checks it had designed on its own abuse of power.