Is history repeating itself?

The recent 1930s Guardian special, which explored the current popular tendency to draw comparisons between that tumultuous decade and the economic, political and cultural climate of today, raised some important points of discussion surrounding historical patterns, and overarchingly, the use and purpose of history.

‘The 1930s’ have indeed been held up as a pivotal moment in history – not only by those presenting similarities drawn between the present day and the pre-war decade as warning signs to build an ominous case for a state of global emergency, but also by those engineering comparisons as a demonstration of exciting times for change. As such a widely recognised era of global upheaval and transformation, political employment of this discourse has immense holding power. One mention of the allegorical decade invokes an embedded fear not only of the economic jeopardy of the era, but also of the test of humanity that came to follow: an historic, all-encompassing, ‘rock bottom.’ As  Freeland noted, when the OBR warned that Osborne’s 2014 Autumn Statement would effectively drag public spending down to its lowest level since the 1930s, the political damage was enormous and instant. Equally, unsurprisingly parallels have been drawn between Trump’s executive order to omit immigration from 6 Muslim-majority countries and the early stages of the persecution of Jews in the 20th century – the order itself tauntingly announced on Holocaust Memorial Day.  References to the monumental era also have the polarising effect of mustering support within a rising nationalist community united by their xenophobic sentiments. Trump’s Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, for example, directly draws a positive correlation between the two, stating our current political position is ‘as exciting as the 1930s;’ ‘the greatest opportunity to rebuild everything.’ Political exploitation of mythologies of history, and the effects of this tactic is a vital conversation to be had in itself.

For now, however, we return back to comparisons drawn specifically between the present day and the 30s. One obvious comparison between the two eras is the sense of economic crises. Even the term awarded to the aftermath of the 2008 financial crash – the Great Recession – echoes the lingering past of the Great Depression. However, Freedland rightly points out that U.S unemployment never even comes close to the dire situation of the 30s – where 1 in 4 workers was out of a job  – with unemployment figures never surpassing the 10% mark, even in the depths of 2009. Another marked similarity oft recalled is the rise of nationalism. Freedland seems to be attempting to provide some comfort in our current situation by claiming that so far Hungary and Poland are the only European countries that have governments seemingly doctrinally akin to those that flourished in the 30s – whereas in the 1930s, leading powers Germany, Italy and Spain were all led by ultra-nationalist/fascist groups. Further, he claims that although Trump does appear to march in step with the demagogues of the 1930s, the marked difference between now and then is that current public anxieties of Trump’s presidency focus on what he could do, rather than what he has so far managed. We should be reassured, Freedland seems to be remarking, that Trump hasn’t actually ‘closed down any newspapers,’ nor sacked or imprisoned any of his dissents, or ‘moved to register or intern every Muslim citizen in the US; he has not suggested they wear identifying symbols.’

In my opinion, Freedland wastes time picking these differences apart. Of course, historic situations will never replicate exactly – that much is obvious: that differences can be noted is of no surprise, nor is it really the point. History is a messy amalgam of personalities, politics, economics and cultures, interlinking locally, virtually and globally – all mixed up with a healthy helping of chance. No combination could ever be repeated. There are, however, some particularly notable thematic comparisons. The same blend of a fear of the Other mixed with societal discontent and instability that enabled the widespread persecution of the Jews in the 20th century is a significant driving factor in the contemporary tendency for public support of strict immigration laws. Muslims today embody the mythologised ‘agents of some heinous worldwide scheme, designed to deprive you of peace, prosperity or what is rightly yours,’ a narrative predominantly ascribed to the Jewish community last century. There is also a similar sense that our current global situation, democracy, and politics has failed us, hence the rise of anti-establishment populist rhetoric that captivates attention both on the political left and the right. This rejection of globalised connections and structures (such as the EU, UN, World Trade organisation) mirrors the prominence of nationalism in the 1930s in the face of a fear of the global. Further speculative comparisons could also potentially trace back the ‘post-truth’ element of contemporary culture and politics back to the 1930s, where Orwell claimed ‘history stopped in 1936; after that there was only propaganda.’ His assertion that ‘useful lies were preferred to harmful truths’ can and does indeed ring true today.

Thus it is indeed possible to locate similar historical patterns when it comes to the crises, fear and scapegoats of the 1930s and of today. It is this concept of ‘history repeating itself’ which is interesting. The notion of historic recurrence is not a new one, but what do we have to gain by it? A common point is the didactic purpose of history: when we notice similar trigger climates, we are supposed to prevent the same ‘mistakes’ occurring again. That we have the memory of the 1930s and the years that followed is indeed an advantage. We also have the outcomes of that very catastrophe: a concept of universal and inalienable human rights. Further, by understanding history as a cyclical, undulating series of situations and events rejects traditional understandings that history and modernity is supposed to be some sort of continuous linear progression. The phrase ‘repeating the past’ itself seems to purport the notion that historical events are not supposed to do that; we are not supposed to digress from our enlightened path. In one sense, this approach can be comforting: no matter how awful the collapse of seemingly solid and robust systems of the 20th century was, humanity survived to tell the story. However, does a perspective of history as a natural balancing act teetering in and out of disaster create a laziness that simply leaves history to readjust and run its course. This runs the danger of making us less active in challenging progressions, patterns and political changes. Although there are notable similarities in historical situations, the agents ever changing. Histories can be immediately diverted as a result of one individual’s chance decisions; events can also be prevented by the actions of others. Ultimately, no situation can be simplified to a repeat episode of the past. Historical events, patterns, cultures, and trends are too chaotic to be points plotted on a graph. The complexities and nuances of histories – individual and collective, local and global – are vast, overlapping, both interlinked and at odds with each other. While we should study and learn from the past, we need to remember to take each situation as it is, and always ensure the power of historical actors is not swallowed up within a grand narrative of the force of history.


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