Does history really repeat itself?

Does history really repeat itself?

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

It is a beautifully simple, insightful, and now famous piece of wisdom from George Santayana, an American philosopher and poet, in 1905. With those words Santayana was explaining that the first step in progress was making sure you don’t regress. His argument was simple: we must retain experience in order to build on it.

It is a wise idea, and the basis for why I believe history is important and powerful. We cannot begin to solve issues with the American criminal justice system without first understanding our nation’s history of slavery, segregation, and urban decline. We cannot begin to address problems in the Middle East without first understanding a millennium of history of the region, or more recently, the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1922 and subsequent arbitrary national boundaries drawn by the British Empire.

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

And yet, this simple quote has morphed into something similar and simpler, but arguably altogether different. “History repeats itself.” Maybe at times it is just a general comment about human nature. That despite the evolution of society, we are still remarkably similar to and influenced by our ancestors. However, I believe that most of the time, “history repeats itself,” means something fundamentally different. Instead of a wise, nuanced statement about our place in history, it is often used in an attempt to legitimize poorly constructed arguments and forced, clumsy analogies.

There is one person in particular that immediately comes to mind when I think of clumsy historical analogies: former British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, who is best-known for his failed diplomatic strategy of appeasement in an attempt to avoid war with Nazi Germany. On September 30, 1938 Chamberlain signed the Munich Agreement, which allowed Germany to annex the resource-rich area of the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia. Chamberlain called this the “prelude to a larger settlement in which all Europe may find peace.” We know now that was a historically erroneous proclamation as WWII began almost exactly a year later on September 1, 1939 with Germany’s invasion of Poland.

Before I get into the problem of this comparison to present-day politics let’s review the historical context. Although Chamberlain’s prediction was famously wrong, it wasn’t necessarily irrational for the British and other European powers to make a diplomatic agreement with Germany. Just 20 years before the Munich Agreement the British Empire suffered 1.1 million deaths and another 2 million wounded during the First World War. The British people had no appetite for another devastating war, and many politicians were more concerned with Communist Russia than Nazi Germany.

Even if Chamberlain had the benefit of hindsight it’s unlikely the British could have stopped German annexation of the Sudetenland anyway. The British military was not prepared for another war, and was not in a position to defend Czechoslovakia. It’s unlikely that war could have been prevented at that point, or that a confrontation with Hitler in 1938 would have been more advantageous for France and Britain than the outbreak of war in 1939.

However, when the memory of Chamberlain and the Munich Agreement is invoked in present-day politics, it seems unlikely that historical context or accuracy is the objective. It’s actually quite amazing how often Neville Chamberlain is used in modern American politics.

People see in Churchill and Chamberlain what they want to see. They draw parallels between the 1930s and the events of today according to their own political philosophy.Lynne Olson

In 2008 compared House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) to Neville Chamberlain for “capitulating” to Republicans on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). The same year, she was compared to Chamberlain again for not impeaching President Bush: “Nancy Pelosi is the Neville Chamberlain of this day, in this country.”

Most recently the Chamberlain comparison has been made with increasing frequency; a tortured juxtaposition of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the Iran nuclear agreement negotiated by P5+1) and the Munich Agreement.

Current House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) has been compared to Chamberlain throughout his speakership; including this month by fellow Republican Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) who said of Republican House leadership’s inability to stop the Iran deal: “the foolish cowardice of Neville Chamberlain in 1938 will pale by comparison.”

Presidential candidate Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) called Obama the “Neville Chamberlain of our time.” Not be to outdone, fellow presidential candidate and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) compared Obama to Chamberlain saying, “I believe we are hearing echoes of history.” Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) said, “President Obama is operating in the finest traditions of Neville Chamberlain.” This isn’t the first time McCain has compared Obama and Chamberlain. McCain did so in 2013 when Obama shook Cuban President Raul Castro’s hand. At that time McCain said, “Neville Chamberlain shook hands with Hitler.”

Chamberlain comparisons appear to reflect a reflexive anger in American politics rather than any meaningful historical significance. A democratic government and peaceful international politics require compromise, and yet any time a politician makes a compromise the Chamberlain comparison appears almost inevitable.

Lynne Olson, historian and former White House correspondent for the Baltimore Sun, wrote about these historical comparisons in 2007: “People see in Churchill and Chamberlain what they want to see. They draw parallels between the 1930s and the events of today according to their own political philosophy.”

Although Chamberlain is invoked generally as an argument against capitulation or compromise of any kind, the American obsession with Chamberlain seems to be most frequently cited as an argument against any international diplomatic agreement. He is a favorite historical figure of conservative hawks who attack “liberal weakness.” These hawks conveniently overlook the fact that Chamberlain was a conservative, the Prime Minister who declared war on Nazi Germany, and a member of Winston Churchill’s War Cabinet until his death in 1940. Again, historical accuracy or context seems to mean little in the politicized portrayals of Chamberlain.

Politicians who make deals with rivals are not Neville Chamberlain. International diplomacy should not be solely defined by the Munich Agreement. And in general we should stop believing the misleading expression that “history repeats itself.” History has many important lessons and can provide the foundation for understanding our world today, but “history repeats itself” causes us to look for patterns where none exist, and gives us nothing except a flawed and biased view. “History repeats itself” is cliché, and worse than useless. It is used to legitimize nonsense.

Instead, we can use history to enlighten, learn, and progress. That was George Santayana’s idea when he said: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”