History does NOT repeat itself. But that does not mean that there are no parallels between the past, the present and future or that we cannot learn from the lessons of the past.
At the moment Remain pundits are busy drawing comparisons between the dark days of 1930s with the current state of British and world politics. The populists and Brexiteers dismiss such suggestions as fear mongering and claim that the dark clouds on the horizon are actually the sunny uplands.
History is not an exact science. Political axioms cannot be tested in a sterile laboratory environment that allows historians to confidently pronounce that if “x” occurs “y” will result. There is a mathematical element to the study of the past, but it is based more on probabilities than scientific certainties. For instance, if you punch your neighbour in the nose, it is probable—but not certain—that they will punch you back.
The study of history – and its application to current events– involves an understanding not only of past events but a comprehensive knowledge of human nature and how it is likely to respond to similar events in the future.
In the 1930s there was no internet or social media. Air travel was still in its infancy. Oceans were crossed by ship .Television was in the prototype stage. Space was a totally unknown frontier and although the weapons of war were frightening, they were slings and arrows compared to today’s nuclear arsenals.
But there are still parallels likely to result in similar—but not exact—results.
The 1930s was the tail end of a long period of European imperial history and a strong belief in the nation state. It came just 20 years after a disastrous Great War involving 40 million casualties. The peace that followed was judged by the loser as manifestly unjust. The world’s great economic power decided to withdraw from the world stage and crawl back into its outdated and traditional isolationism. At the same time its irresponsible economic policies created a Great Depression that spread across the globe.
Life became very complicated. Political and economic problems multiplied and had an impact on the daily lives of the butcher, baker and candlestick maker. Faced with a confusingly complex world, populations turned towards populist leaders. Solutions are simple they were told. Kill the Jews. Hang the capitalists. Then they tied their solutions to nationalism. Other groups should be killed, invaded and/or subjugated because the Aryans were a superior nation race.
Today’s world is not recovering from a Great War. It is, however, recovering from a long Cold War and a large number of Russians believe that their country was cheated by the West out of its rightful position. Chinese leaders argue that the United States is attempting to prevent it assuming the position that the world’s largest country and oldest civilisation deserves.
There has been no Great Depression. But all things are relative. Between 1945 and 2008 the world saw the biggest sustained economic growth in history. World Trade grew by a factor of 30. Three successive generations were each significantly better off than their parents and grandparents. That stopped in 2008 with the global sub-prime mortgage scandal. A depression was avoided by a coordinated international response, but growth has stalled and the current generation of young people is struggling and angry.
The world is again turning to populist politicians offering simple sound bite solutions to complex problems. Slap tariffs on your competitors. Take back control. Make America Great Again. Independence for Scotland. Independence for England.
With the slogans come the scapegoats: the EU, Black immigrants, Asian immigrants, Arab immigrants, Latin immigrants, Poles, Romanians, Turks, the deep state, Parliament, the urban elite, liberals, remainers, remoaners, and whingers….
To justify the scapegoats the populists implic itly glorify their supporters own group. They don’t have to be a majority. They just have to be made to feel as if they are superior to other groups and convinced that pursuit of their cause is greater than the rule of law or the protection of democratic principles.
Then there is the United States—the world’s great economic, military and political power. In the 1930s it retreated into isolationism with terrible consequences for the world. In 2019 it is racing down the previously untrod road of unilateralism which could have an even more disastrous result.
There are similarities between the 1930s and 2019. They are not exact. That they exist does not mean that we are on the verge of war or that millions are about to be marched off to the gas chambers. But the basic ingredients are there for something bad to happen. A cursory study of an inexact science and the law of probabilities tells us that.
Tom Arms is the author of the Encyclopedia of the Cold War and is currently working on a major book on Anglo-American relations. He also broadcasts on foreign affairs for American radio and writes a regular column for US newspapers.