A growing chorus warns that today’s autocrats are paving the way to fascism, but drawing such simple, stark lessons from the past seldom illuminates the present.
FROM THE WALL STREET JOURNAL | NOVEMBER 30, 2018
Many fear that our own era risks replaying the most devastating events of the early 20th century. As one prominent Western leader put it, “A majority of decent and well-meaning people said there was no need to confront Hitler…. When people decided not to confront fascism, they were doing the popular thing, they were doing it for good reasons, and they were good people…but they made the wrong decision.”
Those words weren’t uttered in recent months, however; they were delivered by then-U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair in 2003, when the issue was what to do about Saddam Hussein. Along with President George W. Bush and many in Congress, Mr. Blair argued that the Iraqi dictator was cut from the same cloth as Hitler and that continued appeasement of Saddam’s murderous regime would lead to the same consequences as the compromise at Munich in 1938. Instead, the result was a disastrous war of choice that plunged much of the Middle East into even deeper chaos, which we are still living with today.
It is often said that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. But identifying the history that we might be foolishly repeating is no easy task. The past is littered with people drawing superficial or incomplete parallels and making bad decisions as a result. Trying to prevent something that isn’t really happening can lead down a rabbit hole of misunderstandings and mistakes.
Today, a growing chorus of leaders and commentators warn that the dark clouds that descended over Europe in 1914 and then in the 1930s—the twin evils of nationalism and fascism—are forming world-wide. Those forces, they say, must be seen for what they are and actively resisted, before it is too late.
On Nov. 11, at a ceremony in France marking the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, French President Emmanuel Macron warned that “old demons” were “coming back to wreak chaos and death.” Earlier this year, former secretary of state Madeleine Albright published “Fascism: A Warning,” pointing to the 1920s and 1930s and the danger of “a magnetic leader exploiting widespread dissatisfaction by promising all things.” As she wrote, “When we awaken each morning, we see around the globe what appear to be Fascism’s early stirrings.” The noted Yale University historian Timothy Snyder has been early and emphatic in sounding such alarms, as in his best-selling book “On Tyranny: 20 Lessons From the 20th Century.”
What these observers have in mind are very real and troubling developments. They point to the surge of nationalist, xenophobic parties in Poland, Hungary and France and the rise of autocrats such as Vladimir Putin in Russia, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey and now Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil. And, of course, many Americans see the same disturbing inclinations in the rhetoric and actions of President Donald Trump.
We may indeed be on the brink of repeating a horrific past; aggressive nationalism and even fascism may yet undermine the relatively stable international system erected since 1945. Far worse human rights abuses and violence may lie ahead. But we also face a danger that history isn’t so much being learned from as misused.
In the 1970s and 1980s, the political scientist Richard Neustadt and the historian Ernest May taught a course at Harvard that became a book called “Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision Makers.” Their basic point was that using the past well is hard; it takes discipline to tease out useful lessons. History is best used to frame possibilities, they cautioned, not to identify precise analogies to guide us. We need to think in terms of “streams of time” to help us understand the full range of contingent outcomes. Trying to find the easy, simple past period that parallels our own is futile and frequently misguided.
So is today’s erosion of democratic and international norms best seen as a repeat of the darkest decades of the early 20th century? There are certainly similarities, but even today’s most disturbing political upheavals are taking place under radically different circumstances and with (thus far) much less awful outcomes.
In the summer of 1914, with nationalist agitation at its height, all the major European powers were armed and bristling, with millions of men in standing armies and dreadnoughts and howitzers galore, all ready to be mobilized within weeks. No one might have been expecting war, but everyone was ready to fight one.
In the 1930s, fascism arose under conditions of nearly complete economic collapse during the Depression. In continental Europe, democracy and the rule of law were nowhere deeply entrenched. The economic straits and the levels of violence aimed at internal and external enemies were simply not comparable to anything happening today.
The conviction that we are repeating a terrible past carries risks of its own. As Neustadt and May observed, it can turn issues of obvious concern into “crises” that require decisive action before time runs out. The left-wing militant movement antifa (for “antifascist”) takes this view today and seeks confrontation. But policy makers, political activists and commentators need a more subtle approach, not only to avoid rash, precipitous actions like the 2003 invasion of Iraq but to see the very different ways in which today’s threats might develop according to their own logic.
Early in the Trump presidency, the conservative writer David Frum mused in The Atlantic that our focus on the specters of the past might blind us to the dangers of the present. As he wrote, “The lurid mass movements of the 20th century—communist, fascist, and other—have bequeathed to our imaginations an outdated image of what 21st-century authoritarianism might look like.” There is no obvious correlate in the past for, say, a ruler who manages to enrich himself and his cronies without substantially eroding the rights of citizens or who retaliates against oversight by other branches of government and the press but doesn’t try to control what people think, say or do.
The challenge is to distinguish between intentions and actions, between words and deeds. Today’s autocrats may at times use rhetoric reminiscent of the nationalists and fascists of a century ago, and some of them may even have similar ambitions to seize power and restore a mythic past. But nowhere do we see today anything like the nationalist war fever of 1914 or the totalitarian states of the 1930s. Citizens of countries experiencing the recent authoritarian turn still enjoy a range of rights and freedoms and a level of material prosperity that would have seemed utopian in the 1930s.
Mark Twain quipped that history doesn’t repeat itself so much as rhyme. We must seriously attend to those rhymes, but not at the cost of making necessary distinctions. Contesting today’s populist strongmen doesn’t require calling them fascists, a label that often deepens the anger and alienation of their followers. It is quite enough to challenge their misdeeds and to address the underlying causes of their rise.
The only thing worse than forgetting history is using it badly, responding to echoes of the past with actions that fuel today’s fires rather than douse them.