The Trouble With Historical Analogies

In the wake of the flood of comparisons of Putin to Hitler because of the Ukraine, Alex Kingsbury says enough already.
Allusions to the Third Reich are legion, but the American public square is lousy with countless others — each as equally easy on the ear as they are thin on the facts. Is Kabul the next Saigon? Are we witnessing a new McCarthyism? Are voter ID laws the new Jim Crow? Is this a new Sputnik moment? Is that the new Inquisition? Are we in decline like the Roman Empire? What nonsense.

The Swiss historian Jakob Burckhardt famously bemoaned the rise of political demagogues, the “terrible simplificateurs,” those who would reduce history’s complexities to a pure, simple, and tyrannical truth. The lessons of the past, he felt, could best be understood by acknowledging and appreciating their nuance and complexity. And the enemy of nuance is the historical analogy.

We should start avoiding such comparisons like the plague.

Past events are poor indicators of the future. History never repeats itself, despite the oft-cited mantra. Events play out on fresh stages, with a unique set of players and scenes. Most importantly, says veteran intelligence analyst John McCreary, historical analogies are always imperfect — because leaders learn and adapt.
Read Kingsbury's full editorial in the Boston Globe.


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