Over the past few days, there have been multiple diaries and heavy commenting on the situation in Ukraine. What is notable about the arguments---apart from their intensity--is how often those commenting justify their position by reference to historical examples. One poster in particular seems to believe that Putin really is exactly like Hitler and the Ukraine/Crimea crisis is exactly like the Czechoslovakian crisis of 1938. The conclusion that this poster and others like him reach is that failure to "stop" Putin (not defined) will inevitably lead to World War III just as the Munch conference inevitably led to World War II. When this claim is questioned, the sceptics have been told to "read history". Well, speaking on behalf of History, I want to issue a cease and desist order on this line of reasoning. Why follows below the orange barbed wire
Americans, as Gore Vidal never tired of pointing out, know virtually nothing about their own history or the history of other places. As a former history teacher, I can say that history is indeed badly taught. For the most part, American history courses consist of long lists of "facts" which, once tested upon, disappear from memory. Apart from AP classes--and the pass rate for exams in American history had fallen to about 16% the last time I looked--students are almost never asked to think.
Yet historians do think. They weigh evidence like jurors in a trial, and their conclusions are usually tentative and hedged with qualifiers. "On the other hand" may be the favorite phrase of historians. So when people use historical analogies as evidence for present day action, the people doing so are almost never professional historians. Why? Because the most important thing that one learns in becoming a professional historian is that every judgement can be wrong. The more one knows, the more one is struck by how complex and the smallest issue is. Humility in making a decision, prudence and caution in drawing a conclusion--these are the virtues that really reading history convey upon the reader.
Perhaps the most perfect example of properly using history to guide one's actions lies in those fateful 13 days in October 1962. The Soviet placement of nuclear missiles in Cuba was a clear provocation, and virtually every member of the Cabinet, almost every top Presidential advisor, and every top military officer, favored an immediate air strike followed by invasion and occupation of Cuba. President Kennedy was an avid student of history, and he had just finished reading Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August, a classic study of the outbreak of World War I. Kennedy drew from that book and from his awareness of history, the lesson that in a diplomatic crisis events can easily and rapidly spiral out of control. Resisting enormous pressure to bomb and invade, Kennedy navigated a cautious path through to a diplomatic settlement. Had he failed, none of us on this planet would still be alive. The higher the stakes, the more one must resist the temptation to fall back--as most of Kennedy's advisors did--on a cheap and easy analogy (Munich, 1938 was mentioned often in the Ex-Comm discussions) to justify incautious acts.
Perhaps because of cable "history" channels, perhaps because high school history teachers have a plethora of educational movies on the origins of World War II to show, most Americans do have a vague memory of events leading to that war. To summarize the common view, Wilson failed to get the U.S. to join the League of Nations, German hyperinflation led to wheelbarrows full of money, thus Hitler (wrong, of course, but in most textbooks the money wheelbarrow picture comes on the page before the Hitler picture), and because Hitler was not "stopped" in 1938, World War II. Why was Hitler not "stopped"? Because of appeasement, meaning weakness--there are usually mysogynistic overtones as Chamberlain is believed not to be virile enough to "stop" Hitler.
This common view is wrong in nearly every part, and the "lesson" of 1938 which is then happily used to justify American military intervention over and over (Korea, Vietnam, Panama, Grenada, Iraq I, Iraq II, etc etc) is fatally flawed. Had Wilson been willing to accept a couple of minor adjustments (an explicit statement that only Congress could declare war being the main one), he could have had American membership in the League. As the history of the United Nations since 1945 proves, American membership in the League of Nations would have made no difference in keeping world peace. The hyperinflation of 1923 was a deliberate German response to the French occupation of the Ruhr, and by wiping out the burden of war debts, cleared the way for economic growth in the rest of the 20's...Germany was highly prosperous by 1929, and as a result, extremist parties of the far Right (Nazis) and Left (Communists) were politically insignificant. It was the Great Depression and the austerity measures which exacerbated it--the German governments of 1929 to 1933 were far more austerity-minded than Herbert hoover--and the resulting misery gave the opportunity that Hitler and the Nazis took. Why was Hitler not "stopped" when he began to rearm Germany? (1) Because the British felt guilty over the Treaty of Versailles which was viewed in hindsight as too harsh; (2) because the French had no desire nor intention of fighting an actual war to prevent a possible war; (3) because both the British and French viewed the revival of German power as a good thing since it counterbalanced the threat of Soviet Communism to the east. Hitler was viewed as somewhat comic, but the West genuinely feared Stalin.
And Chamberlain? What about his weakness, his lack of toughness in standing up to Hitler? Totally wrong. Chamberlain had a domineering personality, and he imposed his will on his Cabinet like no peacetime Prime Minister before him. If Chamberlain had a personality flaw, that flaw was arrogance. He believed that the European situation was tense because his predecessors had not possessed the toughness to make hard decisions and shove them down the throat of everyone concerned. He believed that he could clean up all the outstanding diplomatic issues between Britain and Germany in one fell swoop, and by doing so preserve the peace. Thus the Munich Conference and its sequel, in which Chamberlain bullied the Czechs and French into accepting the settlement. Chamberlain, too, had a historical analogy that guided him: August 1914. The lesson Chamberlain drew from that fatal summer was that if Britain had made its position clear early on, war would have been avoided. As usual for historical analogies, Chamberlain was surely mistaken, as the German war plan assumed British entry into the war.
So when we are told, as we have been told in these pages of Daily Kos in the past few days, that Putin is just like Hitler, and Obama is just like Chamberlain, and Ukraine is just like Czechoslovakia, and failure to "act" (very very rarely defined) will lead to World War III as the Russian tanks roll over the Polish border--when we are told this, I call bullshit. Yes, maybe there are things we can and should do. Fine, let's discuss those. But enough with the Munich analogy. Enough. Enough. History does not give us a road map marked like a AAA trip-tik, it gives us the solemn warning that whether we act or stand aside we may be doing the wrong thing.