U.S. Intellectual History Blog

“The Historical Present”

During the first college level class I ever attended our professor of ancient history (it was a Greek history survey class) asked us what was the point of studying history. Before we could answer the professor shot at us: “and don’t tell me we study history to learn how not to repeat it, since we always repeat it anyway.” Once he took away our only go-to answer the class was silent. So the professor answered his own question—which was what he intended to do anyway. He told us that he thought studying history is a human need—the need to know who we are and what we’re about. Just as a person who has suffered a sudden loss of memory feels an urge to know his past, so do we seek our past in more general terms through the study of history.

As a young avid history student in his first day of college, I was very impressed by that observation. And though I no longer fully agree with it, I like to revisit the question every time I start a history class, asking my students what they think about the significance of history and in turn telling them what my thoughts are at that moment—which changes. All of this brings me to this post. I cannot but feel that the present situation both in the US and worldwide begs us to revisit this question.

I and many people I know have been observing what to many seems as a surge of traditionalist, populist, and perhaps even fascist forces both in the US and abroad with much consternation. There is a feeling of impending doom in the air, if one hangs around historians as much as I do, and as much as I assume many if not most of the readers of this blog do. Just a week ago I spoke with a friend of mine and we agreed that it seems we are heading towards a dark period. We summed up the conversation hoping it won’t be as bad as it was in the wake of the 1930s. Bleak stuff.

Thinking in this vein has also led me realize how singular this post-WWII consciousness is; how Hitler still inhabits our thoughts and fears every day; how the Holocaust is very much with us whether one is Jewish or not. If, like me, you just started watching the new series The Man in the High Castle, which paints a hypothetical dystopian world in which Nazis won the war, and you had, moreover, just taught the Holocaust to students over the last academic quarter, you might find this realization all the more credible.

Maybe our heightened historical consciousness could prevent another disaster from occurring. I guess in some sense it already did. Who is to tell what would have occurred in the world had the horrors of WWII not been our close companions these last seven odd decades. The problem however is how far do we stretch these historical lessons and how do we ensure that we heed the right ones when two contradictory conclusions can be drawn.

Let’s take for instance this hyper-symbol of WWII. During this last year, while many progressive and historically minded folks have been warning of the rise of fascist forces, others have used lessons drawn from that same war to warn us that Iran is the new Germany and Obama the incarnation of Chamberlain capitulating to Hitler in Munich. Furthermore, as a Jewish person of Israeli origin whose grandparents survived the Holocaust I have high stakes in this debate, for the tragic situation in Israel/Palestine is linked to this oppositional logic. Does the Holocaust lead Jews and others to, above all else, seek a secure country for the Jews, or does it impel us to ensure that we oppose any vestige of that hyper-tribalist logic in the first place? Do we draw what Holocaust scholars cast as the particular lesson or the universal? Is this a moment for the likes of Chamberlain or Churchill?

To be sure, in many ways invoking the Chamberlain/Churchill comparison concedes much ground to the war hawks among us. I can instead go into the particulars of the historical corollaries drawn above and suggest, for instance, that the very different web of international and economic power structures should lead us to evaluate Iran very differently than we do Nazi Germany. I could also suggest that, viewing the international role of the US world wide, it might be the closest thing we have had during these last decades to Nazi Germany in terms of pursuing world dominance and exacting high death tolls on those who sought to stand in its way. The best we can do probably is to recognize and assess the respective strengths and weaknesses of the historical corollaries we draw on.

But I feel that there is a more fundamental point that we need to heed at this point in time, which might or might not be an historical watershed. The world is a very different place than it was 80 years ago. What seems clear to me is that history features many parallels, but these usually make sense only in hindsight. When asked what my view of history is these days, I usually say that history is like a very good poem, it has an inner logic of sorts and at times rhymes, but the next line all too often eludes us, especially if we are just expecting the same words to repeat themselves. Our knowledge of the past should not overwhelm our understanding of the present. Historicism in the present, in other words, is the flip side of presentism in history; we cannot neglect it–for it is crucial to our analysis of the present–but we must always be self-conscious of it.

Currently the forces that have the most power and access to resources are not what they were during the 1930s. Let’s not forget the dangers of contemporary capitalist structures, as we conjure the specters of the past. Let’s not forget that American presidents and even French presidents only have so much power in a world dominated by international corporations. Let’s try to see things for what they are through the prism of the present. I’m not saying, like some, that historians should stick to the past—I do think that historians provide crucial commentary and insights in the present. And we should certainly pay close attention to the rise of populist nativism. I just think we need to be reminded every so often of the limitations of such an exercise—I certainly do. And in some weird way, and for reasons that I can’t fully put my finger on, I find relief in that.

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Virtually all historical analogies have to be handled with caution, imo, and any claimed or purported analogies involving Nazi Germany have to be handled with extra caution. I think invocations of the latter are, generally speaking, not useful in contemporary politics, for various reasons. And ‘the Munich analogy’ in particular has a long history of misuse, as is well known.

    Having said that, if the choice is between a tacit and perhaps only semi-conscious reliance on analogies on the one hand, and a full analysis and evaluation of analogies on the other, the latter is better. In other words, it’s better to bring analogies out into the open and subject them to critical scrutiny than to pretend they aren’t influencing decision-makers and others, when in fact they very well might be.

    An example of this from not too long ago is the debate during Obama’s first year in office about whether to increase the number of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, the so-called Afghan surge. Obama of course ended up by putting 30,000 additional U.S. soldiers into Afghanistan, in a decision announced in December ’09. The Vietnam analogy was invoked by those on both sides of the debate but particularly by opponents of the ‘surge’, and it received some critical examination. In hindsight I think Obama’s decision was probably a mistake (though given political pressures I’m not sure he could have decided otherwise); but the point is that it was better in that context for the Vietnam analogy to have been aired, discussed, criticized etc, than for it to have remained lurking silently in the background. (To go a bit further back, decisions about the U.S. role in Vietnam itself were heavily influenced by analogies, and policymakers generally used them much too uncritically.)

    To return to some of the concerns of the main post, I think that the experience of the two world wars of the twentieth century is relevant in explaining why, despite all the subsequent conflicts and genocides, there has not been another general great-power war, and Europe, with some significant exceptions (e.g., Hungary ’56, Czechoslovakia ’68, the wars in the former Yugoslavia in the ’90s, the recent conflict in Ukraine), has seen relatively little armed conflict since the end of WW2. Some people attribute this entirely to the existence of nuclear weapons and the particular form taken by the Cold War, but I think that’s only part of the reason.

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