Learning from History

3 February 2022

Learning From History

by J.R. Thomas

Not that old joke again.  “The only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history.”  It’s not much of a joke.  Most good jokes have a kernel of truth in them and that one has a whole heartwood of veracity, but all we can do is give a wry smile.  Georg Hegel, a German philosopher, came up with it (or Bertrand Russell, or Trotsky, depending on where you look); famous comedians one and all.  But it seems only too true.  We do never seem to learn from history.   

Be further warned: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  That may have been the Spanish writer George Santayana, though it could also have been Winston Churchill (as a man whose living was derived from writing and selling books on history he had good reason to say it).  It could also be Boris Johnson at some point in the relatively near future, who seems to have forgotten what made him a successful Mayor of London, to wit: appoint a first-class team and letting them get on with it. 

On the other hand, Boris will recall some history.  The threat to Ukraine reminds him perhaps of Mrs Thatcher, who knew how to respond to a trouble from a foreign power when Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands.  Mrs T dispatched what was left of the British navy and expelled the naughty Argentinians.  It was a little fillip to British self-belief and possibly a big boost to the extraordinary Conservative election victory, by a margin of 144 seats, in June 1983, a year after victory in the Falklands.  (We say “possibly” because Tory support in the polls was rising even before the Falklands invasion, and Labour had almost guaranteed they would lose by choosing Michael Foot as leader.)   

Or maybe Boris has been researching Churchillian history, in particular, appeasement of powerful states in the 1920’s and 1930’s.  Vladimir Putin, a man with surprisingly broad support, if you read comments on social media, or follow German politics, is credited with having good justification for wanting to take back control – of Ukraine.  And is widely commended for his statements that to resolve the issues around Ukraine – mainly that country’s urge to defend itself and seek help from friendly nations – is all he wants and there will be no other demands.  He did not quite say that when he invaded Crimea but many of his supporters were sure he thought that.  But historians will remember that there are European politicians who have wanted to resolve historic links and ethnic boundaries before.  Last time it ended in World War Two.  

If Boris has been reading all this up and pondering whilst on his early morning runs around Whitehall with Dilyn the Dog, he is almost certain to have read a magnificent new work on the period, The Spectre of War, by Professor Jonathan Haslam, a very distinguished international historian with residencies in Cambridge and Princeton. You may think there are already far too many books about the origins of the Second World War, but this is a much needed addition to the fleet; indeed, one of the few books on the subject that you must read.  Haslam looks at the events of 1919 to 1939 from a very different angle to most historians; it is a psychological study of leadership, indeed of fear and leadership, looking at the role of Communism and Soviet Russia in the thinking of the leaders of democratic nations of Europe, and the United States. 

Looking back to the beginning of this period, one hundred years ago, out of any living adult person’s memory now, does rather send shadows down the spine.  There are just too many parallels for comfort.  Not that the world has emerged from a great war, of course, but consider all those things that followed the First World War.  Economic dislocation, wealthy nations almost bankrupt and in many countries attempted recovery by switching on the money printing machines.  A terrible epidemic, the Great Flu epidemic, commonly called Spanish Flu (which seems to have begun not in Spain but in Kansas), which in two years spread around the world.  (Unlike our present version, there were no lockdowns, no vaccinations of course, and very little fear – it killed many many more millions than Covid19 but without the panic that has enveloped us.)  Huge political upheaval where the existing order was challenged in almost every land and the normal systems of government selection and the mechanics of change began to break down, and did, in many countries, breakdown.  No social media of course but this period saw the rise of widespread printed media, the apogee of widely read newspapers and the power of the newspaper barons, hugely and newly influential in populist politics.

Haslam identifies the rise of the far and violent Left as the key factor in the democratic West’s response to turmoil spreading from the east.  Not without reason; Soviet Russia and Weimar Germany began to move much closer to each other, Lenin thinking that Germany, because of its economic humiliation at Versailles, was ripe for a Russian style revolution, violent if necessary.  The German government wanted to avoid that, but was keen on Russian friendship to help trade recovery – Russia as a supplier of raw materials, Germany as a manufacturer.  Germany also wanted back the lands outwith her borders that were ethnically German, and Russia wanted Poland within her grasp.  This, remember, was in 1921, not 1939.  In Italy the Comintern was also provoking a Communist overturning of the floundering democratic government.  When Mussolini appeared from almost nowhere as a more gentle mild socialist alternative he was promoted to head the government within months, to general acclaim around Europe.  That was a pattern, it hardly needs saying, repeated in Hungary, and in Germany less than ten years later.  Maybe these men were not democrats but at least, so thinking ran in government and establishment circles in Paris, London, and Washington, at least they were not Bolsheviks.

It can be a mistake to see everything as a rerun of what happened before.  Anthony Eden in 1955 saw Nasser of Egypt as a second Hitler, coloured by Eden’s long resistance to appeasement, but his misreading of the events around Suez was a personal and political disaster. Putin is not Stalin.  Russia is not Bolshevik.  Italian politics may still be perplexing and her Prime Minister not elected, but Mario Draghi shows no sign of Mussolini tendencies.  The far right in Germany is negligible.   

But history does teach us that repetition of trends can occur with the danger of similar outcomes.  With a weak President in the USA and a mood there of isolationism, Europe would do well to think about precedents more closely.  Mr Putin is a much more strategic thinker than most western politicians and he no doubt can read the possible opportunities presented to a Moscow with raw materials to sell, an over-excited French president, a confused and divided USA, and a Germany with economic troubles and seemingly exhausted and fearful.   

Meanwhile, on the Ukrainian border Russian troops exercise and wait, Poland, poor plucky Poland, sounds the warnings once again, and Boris at least seems to be listening to that nervously squeezed country and to the sounds of history.  But if Mr Johnson is swept away on a flood of cheese and wine, who then will know what history teaches?     

“The Spectre of War” is by Jonathan Haslam, 500 pages hardback, published by Princeton University Press at c.£28, widely available

tile photo: by Christian Lue on Unsplash

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