Politicians Make Bad Historians

It’s like a game of spot the difference, but instead of looking for discrepancies between two almost identical pictures, it’s about identifying similarities in disparate images. But they’re so richly detailed it’s always possible to find they have something in common. This game is especially popular in wartime, when commentators and decision-makers scour the past for any event that might, somehow, resemble the present.

For the last two years, the war in Ukraine has been compared to a host of earlier conflicts: the First World War, because it too was fought in muddy trenches; the Cuban missile crisis (October 1962), which also threatened humanity with nuclear holocaust; all of the USSR’s foreign interventions (Berlin in 1953, Budapest 1956, Prague 1968 and Kabul 1979); the Iran-Iraq war, as a conflict between two neighbors (1980-88); and the war in Kosovo, which tried to break free of Serbia’s grip.

Volodymyr Zelensky and his spokespeople are past masters at such comparisons. Any historical tragedy serves as a reminder of the invasion of his country: the famine of 1933, Stalin’s Great Terror, conflicts in Afghanistan, Chechnya and Syria, and even the accident at Chernobyl. Zelensky also knows how to tailor his references to his audience. Addressing the US Congress, he mentioned the attacks on Pearl Harbor and 9/11. For Belgian parliamentarians, he evoked the Battle of Ypres; in Madrid, the Spanish Civil War and the Guernica massacre; and in the Czech Republic, the Prague Spring (1).

Garnering support

The more dramatic the event, the more powerful the analogy, and the greater its likelihood of eliciting empathy and garnering support. So naturally the second world war tops the list. Vladimir Putin’s constant point of reference is the Great Patriotic War; all his enemies are Nazis. But Putin is himself compared to Adolf Hitler, Mariupol to Stalingrad, the annexation of Crimea to that of the Sudetenland… And there’s a constant stream of references to the Munich agreement of September 1938, whereby France and Great Britain agreed to cede this region of Czechoslovakia to Nazi Germany in the hope of restraining its expansionism. Having become synonymous with cowardice and betrayal, this moment in history has since served to discredit advocates of ‘appeasement’, which is taken to mean any compromise in the face of military escalation – such as those who opposed Franco-British intervention in Suez in 1956, the Vietnam war in the 1960s, the Gulf war in 1990-91… Even De Gaulle was called a Munich traitor for signing the Evian accords in 1962, which ended the fighting in Algeria.

This avalanche of analogies doesn’t just have a rhetorical effect; the choice of comparisons can affect strategic decisions. Political scientist Yuen Foong Khong has shown how deeply the memory of Munich influenced US politicians’ thinking in the Vietnam war; not just their speeches, but also their reflections and debates, to the point where they became convinced the situation justified military intervention. Had they considered France’s experience in Indochina in the 1950s and its defeat at Dien Bien Phu, Khong suggests, they might have seen the country as impregnable, which would have led to greater caution. But ‘policymakers are poor historians’, he writes. ‘They do not know enough history,’ so they choose and apply ‘superficial and irrelevant parallels’ (2).

The relevance of references to Munich is inversely proportionate to their frequency in public debate. This is especially so in the case of Ukraine. True, both are European wars of invasion. But that apart, everything is different. First, the forces: Nazi Germany’s military power far exceeded contemporary Russia’s. Germany was able to conquer Czechoslovakia, Poland, the Netherlands, Belgium and France (among others) within months. Putin’s troops have not managed to take Kyiv after two years and it’s hard to imagine how they could open multiple fronts and attack NATO.

The strategic objectives are different too: Hitler, convinced that Nazi German lacked Lebensraum, could not, unlike Putin, have seriously claimed he was threatened by a hostile military alliance. Nothing could stop Hitler’s expansionism, as French Prime Minister Édouard Daladier knew all too well: by signing the 1938 agreement, he was mainly buying time to prepare the French army for the inevitable confrontation. It was a strategy that, prewar, almost the whole political class approved of – with the exception of Communist members of parliament, the Socialist Jean Bouhey and a rightwing deputy, Henri de Kérillis. And last, the international context is different: we live in a more interdependent world, in which the balance of power has been profoundly reshaped by the nuclear threat.

Given all these differences, it seems absurd to hark back to Munich to explain the current situation. However, when it comes to historical comparisons, dissimilarities are often overlooked. Yet, as Marc Bloch writes, ‘the perception of differences is perhaps the most important purpose – although too often the least sought – of the comparative method. For through that, we can measure the originality of social systems, we can hope, one day, to classify them and penetrate to the very depths of their nature’ (3). This is how the analogical method can bear fruit, enabling us to extricate ourselves from the particularities and discern general rules. But the method requires rigor and meticulousness, two qualities it’s best not to look for in commentators, too often over-eager to have their say in the media and lazy as historians.

Yet, by adopting this perspective and considering conflicts in their full variety, an entirely different landscape emerges in which some recurrent phenomena stand out: the dismissal of dissenting voices, who are often vindicated by history; the tendency to present every crisis as existential; the demonisation of the enemy; the ineffectiveness of sanctions.

Second World War not the rule

As the inevitable point of reference for any international crisis, the Second World War proves the exception, not the rule. It’s rare to find a conflict in which the wrongs are so unevenly shared, where one diabolically evil camp sought world domination, and whose outcome was as clear, with the total crushing of the defeated, and the suicide or execution of the main culprits. This caricature of Manicheaism makes it an excellent weapon for those who want to justify military intervention, but also a biased point of comparison.

Often, wars are the result of escalations for which the responsibility is shared, at least in part. This fact may only be accepted after decades of research, when the propaganda has died down. Germany was long held solely responsible for the First World War: it had fuelled an arms race, encouraged Austria-Hungary to attack Serbia after the assassination at Sarajevo and invaded Belgium… Yet today, no one denies that imperial Russia bears some responsibility, not least for having encouraged Serbian nationalism. As does France, which was especially ready for a confrontation as a large part of its political elite wanted revenge for the defeat of 1870 and the loss of Alsace-Lorraine. Germany ‘lit the fuse’ but it ‘did not fill the powder keg on its own’, as historian Gerd Krumeich puts it (4).

A similar situation exists in most conflicts. ‘Today we can all agree that principal responsibility for the war in Ukraine lies with the Russian government, which invaded Ukraine,’ writes political scientist Anatol Lieven. ‘But will historians of the future attribute sole responsibility to Russia, and exonerate the US and NATO member governments of all blame for trying to integrate Ukraine with the West, and thus threatening what both Russians and a long row of Western experts (including the present head of the CIA, William Burns) warned were seen in Moscow as vital Russian interests? (5)’ Not if they care about the truth…

Most of the time, wars do not end with one side being annihilated. That may be what the belligerents want but, having failed to achieve it, they eventually settle for compromise, drop some of their demands and sign unstable peace deals, to the frustration of all parties. The quest for total victory can sometimes lead to strategic dead ends when one side, heady from its initial successes, tries to press home its advantage until it meets resistance. The US, for example, embarked on the Korean War in 1950 to stop the advance of North Korean troops and drive them back above the 38th parallel.

Having achieved this with ease, they next envisaged reunification under US auspices. General MacArthur’s soldiers advanced north, crossing the demarcation line and coming close to the Chinese border. This roused Beijing, which sent 1.5 million volunteers into the field. A few weeks later, the communists retook Seoul, and the conflict became bogged down for two years, eventually reverting to the pre-war status quo. The same return to square one also characterized the Indo-Pakistani war of 1965 and the Iran-Iraq war, which resulted in eight years of fighting, a million dead and no victor.

Zelensky has seen the Russian army’s weaknesses and, with the support of Western leaders, expanded his ambitions. In chorus with Joe Biden, for whom the ‘future of freedom’ is at stake, he now speaks only of total victory. With the failure of his counteroffensive in the Donbas, Ukraine has realized it won’t easily retake this region, let alone Crimea, without a deployment of European and US troops that would plunge the whole planet into the unknown. Sooner or later, Kyiv and Moscow will have to agree to negotiate. Other states could encourage them to do so, rather than fuelling the fire – a fire that will burn for years and cost tens of thousands more lives.

Translated by George Miller.

This first appeared in Le Monde-Diplomatique.

Benoît Bréville is deputy editor of Le Monde diplomatique.