Why History Matters – How the past can inform present events

By Doctor Michael Herron

History matters on its own terms.  It also matters because policy-makers can use the lessons of the past to help make decisions in the present.  In addition, they can use these lessons to avoid making serious mistakes as long as they compare the present with the past critically and honestly.

This sums up the historian’s task.  When an historian studies a period or an event in history they look for both the different factors influencing the actions of historical actors as well as commonalities.

For example, looking at the Anti-Comintern pact of the 1930s uniting Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Imperial Japan, each of these states were different from each other.  Nazi Germany was more influenced by racial ideology than the other two, particularly centred around anti-Semitism, which hardly featured at all in the ideology of Italy and Japan.  Italy and Japan had monarchs as heads of state whereas Hitler was the head of state of Nazi Germany. Japan was essentially a military dictatorship whereas Hitler had the military firmly under his control.

Conversely, it was the commonalities which brought them together. There was the common fear of the Soviet Union, whose Comintern was tasked with co-ordinating the policies of foreign Communist parties with that of the Soviet Union, hence the formation of the Anti-Comintern pact.  There was the mutual desire to overturn the status quo in the world.  By doing so, they would build their own empires: Fascist Italy would establish its own empire in North Africa, Nazi Germany in Eastern Europe and Imperial Japan in Asia.  All these states prioritised the use of force in international relations where diplomacy was a negotiating gambit, which would be quickly replaced by the use or threat of armed force to get their way.

It is true these commonalities did not lead to joint action in the Second World War.  Although Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany combined to fight in North Africa, Imperial Japan did not co-ordinate its actions with the other two Anti-Comintern states.  However, it still stands that one needs to understand the similarities as well as the differences to comprehend this historical period.

Some might say it is different from saying that two historical periods are similar.  It is also true that no two historical periods are exactly the same.  The different characteristics of a particular period in history will mean that it develops in a slightly different way to another.  However, one can draw parallels between two apparently drastically different periods of history, arguably, on the basis that many states operate on broadly similar principles over time because they have the same permanent interests over that same time period. For example, British foreign policy has for many hundreds of years been governed by the principle that it is in Britain’s interest to prevent any one state from gaining dominance in Europe.  It is for this reason that although Britain has had a lukewarm relationship with Europe it has fought many wars on continental Europe to prevent this occurrence.  

It is also why Winston Churchill when researching his biography of his ancestor the Duke of Marlborough, was able to draw parallels between the aggressive foreign policy of Louis XIV to gain hegemony in 18th Century Europe and the bullying tactics of Hitler’s diplomacy in the 1930s.  Just as Louis’s aggression had meant that Britain had had to go to war in the 1700s, Churchill believed that the prevailing British policy of appeasement of Hitler would ultimately lead to failure and war when Britain would be unprepared.

While this continuity of foreign policy aims is true of a Constitutional monarchy, like the United Kingdom, it has also been true of a state that has had vastly varied political cultures like Russia whose foreign policy priorities, arguably, have been largely consistent whether the regime has been Tsarist or Communist.  This is mainly due to geography.  The predominantly flat Northern European plain that extends into Russia with few natural defences has meant that Russia has had to involve herself in Central European politics whether it has been to build alliances or to create a buffer zone against attack.  Similarly, the fact that the Baltic Sea has had a tendency to freeze has meant that since the reign of Catherine the Great, Russia’s paramount goal is to seek a warm water port with access to the open seas.  This aim is the primary reason why it has often tried to gain control of the Bosphorus Straits to facilitate access from its Black Sea ports to the seas beyond.  This motive to control the straits at Istanbul has plunged her into the politics of the Balkans in the past and that of the Middle East today in order to maintain access to ports in Syria one of which acts as a military base for Russian forces.

There was a brief period after the Russian Revolution when the Bolsheviks, predominantly Leon Trotsky, advocated global revolution but when Stalin overthrew Trotsky this fervour reverted to the more conservative policy of “socialism in one country”, i.e. the Soviet Union.  The main point to take from this is to establish whether a present policy of a regime is consistent with those of its predecessors that enables foreign governments to predict its likely course of action.  One major mistake Western policymakers made in the 1930s was to perceive the Soviet state as the main threat to global stability at least in Europe whereas it was the Nazi regime that posed the greater threat. Stalin’s government did involve itself in the affairs of other countries during this period, most notably in the Spanish Civil War; however, this was mainly to control foreign Communist parties primarily to purge them of Trotskyite sympathisers.  Nevertheless, it was the Nazi state that was, arguably, the more unpredictable one.

The question then arises is Putin predictable and are his actions consistent with traditional Russian foreign policy?  In some ways, such as the desire to preserve a warm water port and his involvement in Central European politics, they may appear to be. However, Putin is pursuing his goals much more aggressively than even Stalin.  Whereas in the 1930s Western policymakers believed the Comintern, was trying to undermine Western democracy, Putin is actually doing so now by funding Far Right parties and intervening in elections in the West.  Putin did not invent these Far Right movements but he is manipulating them for his own ends.

Ostensibly, Putin is motivated by what he perceives to have been humiliation inflicted on Russia through the break-up of the Soviet Union and the chaos caused by this collapse.  Arguably, he wishes to restore Russia’s great power status and believes NATO and the EU are obstacles to that end so he has endeavoured to challenge and undermine them respectively and to restore Russian hegemony in Eastern Europe.

It is therefore important to distinguish what is a continuity of policy and what is a break with the past that constitutes a real threat even if it means to return to an earlier balance of power situation.  This is because one can learn the wrong lessons from history, which can lead to disaster.  The grouping of Iraq, Iran and North Korea as “the axis of evil” and the comparison of Saddam Hussein with Hitler preceded the invasion of Iraq, which has ultimately led to the breakdown in the Middle East we see today.  That is why it is important to both compare and contrast a historical period with the present, arguably, emphasizing the latter.  Any military has to be wary of fighting the last war, since invariably the next one is nearly always significantly different.

That said, it is important to identify patterns or trends that some might describe as forces influencing states to act in a certain way.  It is important to correctly identify these trends.  In 2003, Iraq did not pose a threat to its neighbours never mind the West. Today there is a constellation of states including Russia, Turkey and China as well as North Korea that are not satisfied with the status quo.  When a group of states especially military powerful ones are willing to challenge the status quo it usually leads to trouble.  One must stress it is not inevitable; however, history has shown that when the western democracies are weak and divided then this is when trouble can quickly escalate.

For that reason, since the two historically most militarily important members of NATO, the United States and Britain, are presently going through their own trials and tribulations, it is incumbent upon France and Germany to take up the slack for Western security.  Although France’s economy is struggling, the converse is true of Germany.  The former can compensate for its economic weakness through its relative military expertise.  By appearing stronger and more united this can act as a deterrent to revisionist powers. Nevertheless, it is understandable that Germany has reservations about strengthening militarily given her history.  

What is different now compared with the past is that France and Germany are bound together in the EU, not at each other’s throats. It is this fact more than any other that makes the EU important, since it was the mutual desire of French and West German diplomats after the Second World War to learn the lessons of history to never wage war against each other again that has led to the formation of the EU.  It is vital then this relationship integral to the EU and the EU itself need to be preserved.  It is this willingness to learn the right lessons from history that demonstrates why history matters.