Last weekend while visiting family, I took my 8-year-old son, Victor, to a military history museum in Budapest, Hungary.
Like many little boys, he was fascinated by the cannons, machine guns and colorful uniforms on display.
Running up and down the aisles, he cried, “This place is great! We have to come back!”
He beamed with pride as he could identify many of the European countries on the old maps on the walls.
My father had taken me to the same museum when I was about Victor’s age.
And I recall that I was similarly enthusiastic.
By the time I was in third grade, I had become enamored with the history of World War II.
Other kids from Pittsburgh wanted to grow up to be Roberto Clemente or Terry Bradshaw.
I wanted to become a military historian.
But walking through the same museum with my son last weekend, I had a very different perspective.
We picked up a Russian machine gun on display – one of those with the famous drum magazine.
Victor was fascinated by how heavy it was.
I silently wondered how many men had died at the end of its muzzle.
Colorful propaganda posters around us proclaimed the glories of Marx and Lenin – and some now-obscure Habsburg emperors.
But as I gazed into the eyes of the now long-dead young soldiers in the photographs on exhibit, I saw none of them sharing my son’s excitement.
I realized that the young men in these photographs were innocent pawns on a political chessboard.
Like two of my great-grandfathers – who lost their lives in an anonymous muddy trench during World War I.
And they did so all in the name of a now long-forgotten and defunct ideology their TikTok-obsessed great-grandchildren could not even name.
History Rolls the Dice
History is alive in Europe in ways that are impossible for Americans to imagine.
Consider the example of my own family…
During World War II, my grandmother lived with three small children in a tiny country village in Hungary.
There was no man of the house as my grandfather was doing his third tour of duty on the Russian front.
On December 6, 1944, German officers broke into the house in the middle of the night, urging them to run for their lives. Advancing Russian soldiers had just reached the outskirts of the village.
Remember, for Hungarians during World War II, the Allied forces (including the Soviet Union) were the enemy. The Germans were their allies.
Russian soldiers were known for pillaging everything in sight. So my family left all their worldly possessions behind at a moment’s notice. They fled westward into the arms of another – albeit more humane – enemy, the Americans.
And by the standards of Eastern Europe, this was a happy ending.
My wife’s family was less fortunate. Both of her grandfathers stuck around until the end of the war.
Their reward? The Russians sent them off to the Gulag – the infamous string of labor camps – in Siberia.
Both men mysteriously turned up alive eight years after Stalin died in 1953. Both were broken and never spoke about what they had endured.
Why? The Russians threatened to take them back to the Gulag if they dared to detail their experiences.
No wonder ambitious young men like my uncle – the captain of Hungary’s Olympic track team – fled to the U.S. during the 1956 revolution against the Soviets. (Andrew Grove, a key contributor to the rise of Intel, was another such young man who fled around that time.)
My uncle was unwilling to waste his life living under the boot of a Soviet-inspired socialist dictatorship. So instead he went on to study at the Mayo Clinic and later became the medical director for the New York Yankees.
I want to think that I’d have made the same decision.
A Difference in Time Perspective
As a young man, I was often annoyed by Europeans’ obsession with the past.
Yes, I loved history.
But like most Americans, I argued Europeans should focus on the future and “get on with it.”
As I’ve learned, the reality is more complicated.
For Europeans, history isn’t a set of meaningless dates you memorize for a test.
As my family’s account suggests, it’s a set of repeated traumas profoundly affecting millions of lives.
This reality also explains Europeans’ fundamentally different relationship with time itself.
Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo calls this the “time paradox.”
Zimbardo argues that how cultures relate to time reveals much about their relative success or failure.
Americans are “future positive.” We act like hormone-drenched teenagers fueled by delusions of omnipotence.
We always look for what’s new and different – “the next big thing.” That’s why Silicon Valley is in California, not Cape Town, Casablanca or Cairo.
In contrast, a “past negative” orientation is the psychology of the clinically depressed.
And Europeans – particularly those in the East who suffered under the yoke of Soviet socialism – are just this kind of “past negative.”
But here’s what Zimbardo – a child of Italian immigrants himself – misses.
Yes, a society’s relationship to time matters.
But history matters more than Zimbardo appreciates.
It’s much easier to be “future positive” in a country where you don’t have to fear the secret police – or Russian troops – busting down your door in the middle of the night.
Five years ago, I would never have guessed my own family’s traumas would be repeated for millions of Ukrainian citizens just a few hundred miles east of where I am writing this.
And that these traumas would be inflicted by the grandsons of the Russian soldiers from whom my own family fled in 1944.
So on the one hand, I was happy to see my son fascinated by the guns, tanks and uniforms he saw in that military history museum in Budapest.
On the other, I am relieved that he is growing up in a Western democracy, free from the consequences of the actions of yet another self-indulgent strongman – and one whom, 100 years from now, history will have long forgotten.