Imperial Hubris: A German Tale

Fritz Stern in Lapham's Quarterly:

The great French historian and resistance martyr, Marc Bloch, is supposed to have said that history was like a knife: You can cut bread with it, but you could also kill. This is even more true of historical derivatives like analogies; they can provide either illumination or poisonous polemic. The first requirement for an acceptable historical analogy is plausibility; the two situations compared must have striking similarities, and the image of the historic antecedent must be as clearly understood as possible. This becomes an unlikely presupposition when the analogy is proposed by partisans working in an age of stunning historical ignorance. Nowadays, politicians and partisans use analogies instead of arguments, convenient shorthand for their defenses of dubious policies.

It was beneficial that President Kennedy was conscious of historical analogies. During the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, he remembered how easily nations had slipped into World War I in 1914, and how important it was to give an adversary a chance to back down while saving face. When the invasion of Cuba was being considered, he noted to Robert McNamara, “It seems to me we could end up bogged down. I think we should keep constantly in mind the British in the Boer War, the Russians in the last war with the Finnish, and our own experience with the North Koreans.” But it was dangerously misleading in 2003 to brandish comparison of the Allied occupations of Germany and Japan in 1945 with the American occupation of Iraq solely in order to suggest the ease of establishing democracy by force of arms.

The Devil and the good man may cite Scripture—for opposite purposes. This is true for analogies as well. Some historic moments or persons may be unique—try to find another Abraham Lincoln, for example. Even Iagos are hard to come by. It may be proper to recall Jacob Burckhardt’s warning-cum-aspiration: Our study of history will not make us clever for the next time but should make us wise forever.