It should be immediately evident that far-fetched analogies don’t work: Everybody knows that Europe’s large nation-states have long since moved beyond the mutual suspicion that dominated the continent’s political landscape in 1914. Instead, they are now united in a historically unprecedented political and economic union, as well as in a globally dominant military alliance.
Nationalist passions, bellicose ambitions, and jingoist glorifications have largely been extinguished in Europe. But Germany – one of Europe’s unruly nations during the reign of the Kaiser in the early 20th century – has not turned itself into a global peace dove.
The conflict in Ukraine bears closer resemblance to thousands of little skirmishes throughout human history than it does to the eve of World War I. The conflict neither pits equal foes against one another nor is driven by attempts to secure European power monopolies through military force. Global power constellations today differ significantly from those in the 1910s.
Scariest analogies and most outrageous arguments
Seeing Ukraine as the prelude to another Cold War is even more misleading. Again, the analogy draws on familiar and bold tropes to stir popular emotions and to fan the debate without attention to factual accuracy. Maybe we can see the beginnings of a new conflict between East and West, but the Cold War was part of an entirely different historical epoch: Driven by the prospect of all-out nuclear war, which would have rendered large swaths of the earth uninhabitable, the Cold War was a period of global confrontations between two mutually exclusive political ideas. But the bipolar world order of the 20th century bears no resemblance to the world today: With the fall of the Soviet Union and the decay of state socialism a quarter-century ago, the global landscape has shifted in irreversible ways.
Misleading analogies are in vogue today because Russia’s aggressive actions have sparked collective flashbacks to the traumatic experiences of Soviet rule in Central Europe. But a bit of careful distancing helps to process the tumultuous stream of events. Writing about our relationship to history, Hannah Arendt once remarked that the greatest benefit of historical knowledge isn’t the power of memory but the ability to pass good judgment.
Judiciousness does not entail the expectation that history will repeat itself. It does not imply the need for fully-formed policy responses based on the study of the past. Rather, it speaks to the complexity of each historical constellation: Neither historical actors nor their audience can say with confidence that today’s decisions will survive tomorrow’s scrutiny. Clichéd perceptions of one’s opponent can have immensely harmful consequences. Silence can be worse than attempts to maintain a dialogue during times of crisis.
The description of current events through historical buzzwords is a dangerous simplification that threatens our judiciousness and our ability to perform level-headed analysis. Journalism doesn’t help as long as it awards its greatest attention to the scariest analogies and the most outrageous arguments.
A special responsibility
Evidently, the temptation of fifteen minutes of media fame is too strong for some pundits. For their audience, historical simplifications are also attractive because they explain chaotic events in terms of established schemas. They provide orientation and promise the overcoming of difficult challenges. In other words: Analogies jibe with human nature. Intuitively, we all compare the present to experiences from our past. We draw on memories to render the present intelligible. This cognitive strategy often remains unconscious, but it is vital for judicious decision-making and thus for self-assured actions.
But there’s a difference between the minute decisions of everyday life and a macroscopic assessment of the current conflict in Ukraine. Many people rely on journalists to provide them with information that allows for good historical and political decision-making. This implies a special responsibility: Journalists must handle historical analogies responsibly. For an historian like myself – to whom journalists turn for expertise –, sensationalism is out of the question.