Though the comparison is overused, it’s nevertheless hard to avoid comparisons between now and then. Earlier this year, speaking at the Pew Forum, Bernard Lewis remarked that to him, it feels like 1938 all over again, with the spirit of appeasement in the air. ~Rod Dreher
The comparison is overused, but I think it actually exceedingly easy to avoid comparisons between 1938 and 2006. I have managed to go the entire year so far without making one such comparison, and I feel confident that I can hold out until the end of the year. Besides the significant differences in geography, geopolitics, the relative disparity of power between the two sides, the ideology of the adversary (in this case, Hizbullah and, at a remove, Iran), the probability of the adversary annexing or conquering other countries (which at present for Hizbullah and Iran is zero), and the military-industrial capacity of the power we are “appeasing” (which, in Iran’s case, is miniscule compared to our own), there is also the reality that history is a series of unrepeatable, unique events that will never be duplicated at any other time. It cannot ever be “1938 all over again,” and it will not even be that close. The number of contingencies that would have to repeat themselves to create circumstances even remotely similar boggles the mind, and this is true even when we set the bar low enough to allow for the repetition of the pattern “nasty authoritarian regime threatens others and embarks on series of wars.” In fact, this is not making use of history at all, but the eternal replaying of the modern democratic morality play that itself caricatures history in which the besieged democracy or democracies are reluctantly dragged into conflict by yet another kooky authoritarian: Athens is forever under attack by Sparta and/or Persia. It is a powerful construct, emphasising at once vulnerability and danger from the outside and the basic nobility and superiority of our institutions and people, which is why so many people accept it and wind up following the next Pied Piper to their doom. The morality play may occasionally contain some truth (sometimes democracies are besieged by aggressive regimes, whether oligarchic, despotic or other), but it usually creates a fortress mentality among Westerners and causes them to make all sorts of dire apocalyptic pronouncements about present-day conflicts that are entirely out of proportion to the reality.
Unrepeatability is one reason why history is not a science, because its phenomena cannot be reproduced and so cannot be subjected to the scientific method. It is a common human impulse to want to see similarities and patterns, because they want to believe that we can avoid the mistakes of the past on the assumption that we know which past episode we are currently “re-living.” But we cannot avoid the mistakes of the past–for one thing, they are in the past. We can only avoid the mistakes of the present, and we do this by making sober assessments of the dangers that exist, not conjuring up spectres of threats long dead and superimposing them on new threats so as to make them seem more dangerous than they really are. Typically, those who engage in this summoning of spirits have a particular purpose in mind, and their agenda may not be the wisest course of action. Three years ago, it was also 1938 in Iraq and we had to “do something” to stop the crazy dictator, except that it turned out to be much more like “1920” instead and we found ourselves to be imperialists in the middle of a Mesopotamian rebellion. The 1938-ites were wrong then, and they are, alas, wrong again now, at least insofar as it concerns the scope and gravity of the threat, whether from Iran and Hizbullah or from another source.
Past events do give us rough guidelines, the occasional hints for how we should proceed, but they do not provide us with ready-made models or paradigms for policy, and it is likely that an excessive obsession with viewing all crises through the lens of 1938 will cause people to miscalculate and make tragic errors that need not have happened but for their own overeagerness to stop the next Hitler. The sentiments of never again have managed to bring quite a lot of unnecessary death and destruction to places as various as Yugoslavia, Iraq and perhaps also Lebanon, which is hardly what the people who first spoke them probably intended and which hardly does this sentiment much credit. For his part, Prof. Lewis should know better than to say things like this, but his biases are, I’m sorry to say, hardly a secret when it comes to the contemporary politics of the Near East.