History doesn’t repeat itself, especially not on the level of individual events. But amidst radical change and situations of great uncertainty we can rely on historical analogies to make sense of the present, to imagine possible futures, and to adjudicate between competing political options. Such analogies have to be structural, i.e. related to historical constellations rather than particular events. The latter are too contingent to serve as bases for the illumination of the present.
The construction of historical analogies for the purposes of political orientation requires detailed historical knowledge, a keen sense of the inevitable limitations of historical comparison, and astute political judgment. It not a scientific enterprise, but one which cannot proceed without scientific insights.
A reflexive analogy
The yardstick by which we judge our analogies is plausibility. It is perhaps most accurate to translate plausibility as “supportability”, by which I mean the degree to which an analogy can attract support among its intended audience. If analogies are geared towards a wide popular audience, they are often intuitive and palpable. If they target an audience of specialized experts, they might appear convoluted and inaccessible to a lay public.
For example, the analogy between Auschwitz and Srebrenica was intended to be spectacular, to attract mass support, and to bolster arguments for Germany’s participation in the NATO mission in Yugoslavia in the 1990s. In contrast, the analogy between 1914 and 2014 isn’t a legitimating analogy but a reflexive analogy. It serves as an analytical signpost; it aims to sharpen our attention and to render hidden risks visible. It doesn’t fish for popular support.
Analogies compare rather than equate. They highlight similarities as well as differences and help us orient ourselves. For example, the comparison between 1914 and 2014 might begin with the realization that the European political landscape looked radically different at the beginning of the 20th century than it does today – despite the fact that the Balkans have again become a center of attention. During the Balkan wars of the 1990s, it briefly seemed as if the fault lines of 1914 might re-emerge. But only for a moment: It quickly became apparent that a multitude of factors – among them the different political position of Great Britain, the influence of the United States, European institutional arrangements, and organizations from OSCE to NATO – produced a different outcome.
Lessons from 1914
The analogy had a calming effect: It illustrated that Europe had learned important political lessons. The European engagement in the Balkans – which will remain a requirement for decades to come – is supported by historical analogies. The United States would have been well-advised to draw similar analogies before invading Afghanistan: Comparisons with the Soviet invasion in the 1980s and British military campaigns in the late 19th century would have suggested that the odds for success are rather poor.
The structural analogy between 1914 and 2014 should compel us Europeans to pay more attention to the crises and conflicts at the continent’s periphery. In 1914, we failed to localize a conflict that would have been easily containable, had the right steps been taken. Today, the Balkans are only a minor problem. Bigger challenges can be found in the Caucasus region (and potentially in Ukraine) and in zone of social and political instability that stretches from Turkey through the Middle East into Northern Africa. Europe must invest to stabilize those countries and to prevent civil wars from flaring up – but it must proceed cautiously to minimize the risk of unintended consequences. That, too, is a lesson from 1914.
We can also draw an analogy between the European constellations in 1914 and today’s situation in East Asia. In this scenario, China takes on the role of imperial Germany: a country marked by rapid economic ascent, internal authoritarian structures and massive social inequalities, and fears of being surrounded by an anti-hegemonic coalition (which is held together less by common values and interests than by fears of a strong China).
History doesn’t repeat itself
Since its transformation from an agricultural to an industrial nation, China has become increasingly dependent on the naval resource trade. But the oceans are controlled by China’s big competitor: the United States. Returning to our analogy, we can say that the US now occupies the role of Britain in 1914. Both countries assumed the role of world policeman, and both found themselves in a period of relative decline. The difference to 1914 (and to the European context) is that East Asia lacks institutions that could curb the expanding sense of distrust. Regional risks are hard to calculate, and harder to contain.
History doesn’t repeat itself. But historical analogies can serve as warning signs and help to prevent the most egregious mistakes.