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opinion | Alex Kingsbury

Historical analogies fall short in Ukraine

LET’S FIRST stipulate that the seizure of Crimea and any designs Moscow may have on invading eastern Ukraine is plainly bellicose behavior that runs contrary to international law. It’s a vexing problem for the international community, and one that demands serious attention.

But 2014 isn’t 1938.

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“We’ve seen this before in history,” German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble mused recently of Russian meddling in Crimea. “Hitler took over the Sudetenland with these types of tactics,” he continued, taking a firm hold of what has rightly been a third rail for German leaders.

Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton drew the very same parallel days before. And she was hardly alone among policy makers eager for a resonant soundbite.

Russians look to the same history. The new leadership in Kiev is derided loudly by Moscow as “Banderovtsy,” an allusion to the controversial Ukrainian nationalist Stepan Bandera who in 1941 tried to ally with . . . the Nazis. Needless to say, arguments ad Hitlerum have a far different significance in a country that lost 25 million people into the maw of the Wehrmacht. The full weight of that historical touchstone might take a moment to appreciate.

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.

Past events are poor indicators of the future. Events play out on fresh stages, with a unique set of players and scenes.

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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.

Well, some of them learn anyway. The use of historical analogies by policy makers was so common and so fraught with danger that Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government has for decades offered a course now called “Reasoning from History.

The class textbook warns that the course itself is a bit like teaching junior high schoolers about sex. “Since they are bound to do what we talk about, later if not sooner, they ought to profit from a bit of forethought about ways and means,” reads the preface of “Thinking In Time: The Uses Of History For Decision Makers.

When it comes to historical analogies, there’s a strong case for abstinence education. We should all try to learn from the past, but not for fear that the past will repeat itself.

The Internet deploys Godwin’s Law as a cudgel against Nazi references. In 1990, the attorney and author Mike Godwin codified the idea that over time, invoking the Third Reich in an argument was inevitable. The idea that bears his name was meant to admonish, Godwin says, to make people think about what they’re saying and not trivialize the terrible crimes of the past. Today, the war on bad historical analogies fares about as well as the war on drugs.

Yet, perhaps the audience is growing more skeptical. The Putin-Hitler comparison has been so much in the zeitgeist that Quinnipiac University polled the country to gauge its resonance. Only 24 percent of Americans agreed with the analogy, while 51 percent said it went too far. Score one for moderation.

Alex Kingsbury is a senior associate producer for WBUR’s “Radio Boston.” Follow him on Twitter @AlexKingsbury.
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