Beware the “lessons of history” as drawn by charlatans, ignoramuses or tyrants, for they will be daft, wrong and possibly disastrous. The self-serving amateur historiography of Russian President Vladimir Putin is an example.
Last year, he invented a narrative “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” which was subsequently revealed as one of the hallucinations that made him attack Ukraine. The other day, he was at it again, comparing himself to Peter the Great, and hinting that “it seems it has fallen to us, too, to reclaim and strengthen.” That implied he might like to wage war against Sweden (as Peter did in the 18th century) and seize lands that are now part of Estonia, a member of NATO.
Oh dear. If Putin were a pub drunk, real historians would be guffawing. His overall legacy will be nothing like Peter’s — the Tsar, like Putin, was brutal and imperialistic, but also known for opening Russia toward the West and progress. Yet Putin is a dictator in possession of the launch codes for the world’s largest arsenal of nuclear weapons, so his ravings are terrifying.
That said, the inevitability that some people will draw inane conclusions from history shouldn’t prevent the rest of us from trying to be more sophisticated about it. As the Maori of New Zealand say, we walk backwards into the future with our eyes fixed on the past. We need history to make sense of the world; we need yesterday to understand today.
The trick is to be eclectic, precise and subtle. Nobody today is exactly like Hannibal, Boudica, Charlemagne, Genghis Khan, Catherine the Great or any other historical figure. But specific aspects of people and events in the past do echo down the ages. We just have to be clear about what those are in each context.
In groping for analogies to Putin’s war against Ukraine, there are lots of possibilities. I’ve compared the scenarios to the outcomes of the Korean War and the Winter War between the Soviet Union and Finland; others have looked to the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05 and beyond.
For most people, however, the most evocative comparisons are to the First and Second World War — not least, because of fears that Putin may yet escalate and hurl us into a Third one. But those two previous conflagrations were completely different, and offer diverging lessons.
Poles, Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians and other Eastern Europeans tend to view Russia’s war of aggression as comparable to Nazi Germany’s assaults on Czechoslovakia and Poland in 1938-39. Polish President Andrzeij Duda, for example, has explicitly compared Putin to Adolf Hitler.
By contrast, German and French intellectuals and politicians prefer analogies to World War I. In part, that’s because of a German taboo against comparing anything to Hitler (a sort of reverse Godwin’s Law), since that would seem to cast doubt on the historical singularity of the Fuehrer’s crimes, above all the Holocaust.
By citing World War I, these observers are also signaling concern that the West, like Europe in 1914, could accidentally stumble into a bigger disaster. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has invoked “The Sleepwalkers” by Christopher Clark. That book describes in minute detail how Europe’s statesmen (they were all men), in responding to the assassination by a Bosnian Serb of an Austro-Hungarian prince in a Balkan backwater, slid into a continental fratricide because they didn’t comprehend the automatic escalation spirals they had built into their alliance systems and mobilization schedules.
With such precedents in mind, leaders will tend to view Ukraine’s Donbas as akin to Bosnia Herzegovina in 1914 — a land where the West has interests, but also a liminal place that could be a potential trap, luring NATO countries into a shooting war against Russia, with unknowable consequences.
The World War I analogy also explains why French President Emmanuel Macron worries about outcomes that would “humiliate” Putin. The Treaty of Versailles humiliated Germany, leaving it resentful and thereby seeding the next World War.
But these comparisons miss the mark, according to Martin Schulze Wessel, a German historian of Eastern Europe. In the First World War, several leaders and powers shared responsibility for a disaster they could have prevented. In 1939, by contrast, one man launched an unprovoked attack against a weaker neighbor, as part of a pattern of irredentist, chauvinistic and imperialist aggression. This most closely fits Putin in 2022.
In that analogy, those leaders in the West who spent years trying to “appease” the tyrant — during the previous century or this one — misread the situation, the threat and the man. It also follows, as Poland’s Duda said, that negotiating with Putin — talking for the sake of talking — won’t help, unless and until the aggressor is stopped on the battlefield. This is why the Poles and Balts say bluntly what Scholz so far refuses to state: Ukraine must win.
Note that the analogy of World War II does not extend to whatever Hitler did in the years after 1939. The comparison does not imply that Putin is planning a Holocaust, nor that he must eventually commit suicide — or that Russia, like Nazi Germany, must end up occupied and dismembered. To understand how Putin’s war could end, we need to observe how this tragedy unfolds, while reaching again and again for the most appropriate lessons of the past.