Misusing History

April 22, 2014 Topic: History Region: United States

Misusing History

Stop ransacking the past for analogies. The lesson of history is that there usually isn't one.


THE LESSON OF HISTORY, the British scholar A. J. P. Taylor once observed, is that there is no lesson. It is not a stricture, however, that has ever enjoyed much acknowledgment, let alone acceptance. Quite the contrary. In the past few months, a fresh spasm of analogizing the past to the present has taken place as politicians and journalists, at home and abroad, draw upon a rich treasure chest of events—World War I, whose one hundredth anniversary arrives this August, the Munich agreement in 1938 or the Cold War—to explain foreign affairs. At times, the battles over the meaning of the past almost seem to eclipse in intensity the original events themselves.

In Britain, for example, Education Secretary Michael Gove created a flap in January when he came out swinging against Sir Richard Evans, Regius Professor of History at Cambridge, in the Daily Mail. “Why does the Left insist on belittling true British heroes?” Gove asked. Far from being about incompetent political and military leaders mindlessly sending millions of young lads to their deaths in the trenches on the western front, the Great War, we were told, was truly the stuff of greatness. Evans, Gove claimed, had traduced the efforts of British soldiers and “attacked the very idea of honouring their sacrifice as an exercise in ‘narrow tub-thumping jingoism.’”


If Gove pointed to World War I to inculcate British national pride in a new generation, Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe took a slightly different course. Speaking at Davos in January, he raised eyebrows among the international elite by alleging that Japan and China were in a “similar situation” to Britain and Imperial Germany on the eve of World War I and by noting that close economic ties had not prevented those European nations from going to war. Abe called for greater communication channels between the two powers to avoid misunderstandings (though he himself has gone out of his way to incite Chinese ire by espousing Japanese nationalism, as evidenced by his recent visit to the Yasukuni shrine, where the remains of soldiers, including numerous war criminals, are interred). A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, in turn, dismissed Abe’s allusion to World War I: “Such remarks by Japanese leaders are to evade the history of aggression, to confuse the audience.”

In the United States, which did not enter World War I until 1917 and, unlike Great Britain, doesn’t have an uneasy conscience about the conflict, most historical allusions have centered on World War II. To forestall complaints that she had been soft on Russia during her tenure at the State Department, Hillary Clinton said in a speech at the Boys and Girls Club of Long Beach, California, that Russian president Vladimir Putin was doing in Ukraine what “Hitler did back in the ’30s.” She added, “All the Germans that were . . . the ethnic Germans, the Germans by ancestry who were in places like Czechoslovakia and Romania and other places, Hitler kept saying they’re not being treated right. I must go and protect my people, and that’s what’s gotten everybody so nervous.” And in the Wall Street Journal, former Bush administration official Douglas J. Feith echoed Clinton:

With a victory in Ukraine under his belt, Mr. Putin might manufacture grounds for a Russian military intervention to protect the ethnic Russians in Latvia. They could be for him what Czechoslovakia’s Sudeten Germans were for Hitler in 1938: a pretext for aggression. If Mr. Putin thinks NATO is bluffing when it says it will defend the Baltic states, he may call that bluff. If he’s right, he could destroy NATO without war, the very alliance that destroyed the Soviet Union without war. Nice.

But just how much do such comparisons really elucidate about international affairs? Do they provide a reliable guide to the present? Or do they amount to an emotionally satisfying but misleading exercise in manipulating past historical figures and events as props to justify current policy stances?

Consider Hillary Clinton. After her embarrassing record of engaging in threat inflation to justify voting for the Iraq War, you might think that she, of all people, would be more cautious about drawing parallels between Putin and Hitler. Putin, after all, is acting upon traditional Russian national interests in Crimea. In preaching racial conquest, Hitler went far beyond trying to rectify what many contemporary observers saw as the injustices of the Treaty of Versailles. Hitler was a reckless gambler who launched a genocidal war unparalleled in history.

This is worlds removed from Putin. But such details have never deterred the liberal hawks and neoconservatives from routinely invoking Munich, robbing it of all meaning. The neocons in particular have a penchant for characterizing any action that can be construed as attempting to pursue diplomacy rather than a reflexive resort to force (in Iran, North Korea, Syria, Russia and so on) as truckling to the enemy, a futile and craven effort in—here we go again—appeasement. President Obama thus has to explain what his Iran policy is not before he can begin to explain what he hopes it will accomplish. As Yale historian Paul Kennedy sardonically observed in these pages in 2010, “Nothing so alarms a president or prime minister in the Western world than to be accused of pursuing policies of appeasement. Better to be accused of stealing from a nunnery, or beating one’s family.”

WHEN IT COMES TO WORLD WAR I, similar cautions may be sounded. No doubt there are some unsettling parallels between 1914 and today that should not be brushed aside. Substitute America in the position of Great Britain, China for Wilhelmine Germany and Russia for the Habsburg Empire, and either Ukraine or the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands can serve as a contemporary Balkans, where a small power enlists greater ones, creating a general catastrophe based on a series of miscalculations. Indeed, then, as today, a complex web of financial interdependence existed right before 1914, as Charles Emmerson reminds us in his excellent 1913: In Search of the World Before the Great War. And then, as today, no one really wanted a wider war or expected a protracted one.

Still, the sense of complacency that existed in prewar Europe has vanished. In 1908, President of the Board of Trade Winston Churchill could assure his Manchester constituents that London’s preeminence would never fade: “It will be the same . . . when the year 2000 has dawned upon the world.” With the Battle of the Marne, however, the belief in war as a shining crusade for liberal values disappeared in the mire and muck of the western front, which, among other reasons, is why Michael Gove’s sallies against Richard Evans and other historians for subverting Britain’s glorious role constitute an antiquarian exercise in nostalgia. As Evans himself observed, “How can you possibly claim that Britain was fighting for democracy and liberal values when the main ally was Tsarist Russia? That was a despotism that put Germany in the shade.”

Indeed, the dominant feeling after the war was one of betrayal and treachery as the reputations of the British generals, among others, suffered a brutal battering. As the novelist Ford Madox Ford, who fought in the Battle of the Somme, observed in his magnum opus Parade’s End, “All these men given into the hands of the most cynically carefree intriguers in long corridors who made plots that harrowed the hearts of the world. All these men toys, all these agonies mere occasions for picturesque phrases to be put into politicians’ speeches without heart or even intelligence.” Those very sentiments continue to resound down to the present, as Americans and Britons grapple with the fallout from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Nor is this all. There are other reasons that suggest a return to the mind-set of World War I is improbable. The old European order, based on consanguine and rickety monarchies, that Christopher Clark eloquently describes in The Sleepwalkers—“Opaque and unpredictable, feeding a pervasive mood of mutual distrust, even within the respective alliances”—is gone. Instead, integration, not disintegration, is bien-pensant Europe’s credo.

Which is why the Cold War is likely no better an analogy to the present than either of the world wars. In the New Republic, Paul Berman declares, “We do seem to be on the brink of Cold War II, which might end up being a long affair.” But this, too, represents self-indulgent nostalgia for a bygone era when intellectuals saw themselves as on the ramparts fighting for freedom. America, for one thing, cannot wage a cold war solo. A Europe intent on overcoming its bellicose past may agree to economic sanctions, but it is loath to engage in a real confrontation with Russia. Moreover, if the best Russia’s latest Vozhd’, or leader, can do is to restore a few shards of the former Soviet empire, then there’s room for skepticism about how well he is really doing. Putin presides over a sclerotic country and a move into eastern Ukraine, let alone the Baltic states, would present the prospect of a messy entanglement, complete with partisan warfare. Anyway, it’s a long march from Sevastopol to the Elbe.