The History Trap
NEW YORK – Speaking in Volgograd, formerly known as Stalingrad, Russian President Vladimir Putin recently evoked the horrors of World War II to justify his invasion of Ukraine. “Again and again, we have to repel the aggression of the collective West,” he said with a straight face, without mentioning that the United Kingdom and the United States were the Soviet Union’s allies during the war. Then as now, he added, Russia is threatened by German tanks, forced to defend itself against “the ideology of Nazism in its modern form.”
This is of course a malicious distortion of history, cynically delivered on the site where over a million Soviet and German soldiers died during World War II’s deadliest battle. Russia is not defending itself; it has invaded a sovereign country whose president, Volodymyr Zelensky, happens to be a Jewish man who lost relatives in the Holocaust. The suggestion that Nazi ideology is what drives Zelensky and his fellow Ukrainians to defend their country against Russia’s aggression is preposterous, even by Putin’s standards.
As for German tanks allegedly threatening Russia, the reason why German Chancellor Olaf Scholz dithered for so long before agreeing to send 14 Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine was that he did not want Germany to be seen as a military leader. Scholz came around only after US President Joe Biden reluctantly agreed to provide Ukraine with M1 Abrams tanks, after months of refusing to do so.
Like Putin, German leaders often bring up World War II, sometimes ad nauseam. But the conclusions they draw from that war are the opposite of Putin’s chauvinist militarism. A week before Putin’s speech in Volgograd, Scholz used the German parliament’s annual Holocaust commemoration as an opportunity to emphasize Germany’s historical responsibility for the murder of millions of Jewish people. Acknowledging this, he noted, has been essential to ensuring that such a crime would never be repeated. Opening the session, Bundestag President Bärbel Bas highlighted the recent surge in anti-Semitism in Germany, calling those trying to minimize the Holocaust a “disgrace for our country.”
While some observers have criticized Scholz for his reluctance to take on a more active role in supporting Ukraine, arguing that he had learned the wrong lessons from history, his aversion to military aggression reflects the postwar pacifism that shaped German leaders of his generation. Likewise, Germany’s decades-old decision to rely on Russian gas could be viewed as part of its effort to use trade and mutual dependence as a prophylactic against war. But since Russia invaded Ukraine, Germany has been pushed by its allies to rethink its pacifist foreign policy, assume a leading military role, and help defend Ukraine, a country it had treated brutally in the past.
Violence is often fueled by the memory of historic wrongs, and the Holocaust is no different. For example, right-wing Israeli politicians, led by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, constantly invoke the real trauma of the Holocaust to justify the oppression – and often violent repression – of Palestinians in the occupied territories and within the country’s pre-1967 borders.
So, does that mean that memories of the Holocaust and other historical wounds are doomed to be exploited and manipulated by political opportunists, their true significance and meaning forever clouded by bad-faith analogies? Was George Santayana right when he coined his famous dictum that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”?
Yes and no. While detecting historical parallels across different periods and contexts can offer valuable lessons and a sense of perspective, it might also encourage us to see similarities where they don’t fit, or even exist at all, leading us to the wrong conclusions.
Grotesque examples of this include former US Congresswomen Michele Bachmann comparing tax increases to the Holocaust, and sitting Republican US Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene comparing COVID-19 public-health measures to the Nazis’ persecution of Jews. While it is tempting to attribute such offensive views to cynicism and malice, the cause is often just plain ignorance.
Some purported historical parallels, though neither cynical nor malicious, are still unhelpful. For example, a recent statement by the International Auschwitz Committee compared the suffering of Holocaust survivors living in Ukraine today with the atrocities they suffered at the hands of the Nazis. But while Russia’s criminal behavior in Ukraine is undeniable, drawing parallels between Putin’s atrocities and the Holocaust risks trivializing both. Putin is bad enough – there is no need to compare him to Hitler.
There is more to learning from history than merely drawing parallels. To study history is to understand who we are, why certain things happened, and how they may still affect us. But we should also be aware that things never repeat themselves in the same way.
Contemporary policies must be judged on their merits, not only by their relation to the past. There is no reason why acknowledging their country’s responsibility for the Holocaust should prevent Germans today from sending tanks to Ukraine. Likewise, the terrible suffering of the people of the Soviet Union at the hands of Nazi Germany almost a century ago cannot possibly justify Russia’s aggression today.
As the British novelist L.P. Hartley once wrote, the past is “a foreign country: they do things differently there.” Alas, this does not mean that we necessarily do things better now. But to understand that lesson, we have to follow Santayana’s advice, and study history very carefully.
Ian Buruma is the author, most recently, of The Churchill Complex: The Curse of Being Special, From Winston and FDR to Trump and Brexit (Penguin, 2020).
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2023.
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