“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” It’s a cruel irony that perhaps the most famous warning of how dangerous it is to ignore what came before us is often wrongly attributed to Winston Churchill and not to its true author, Spanish-born philosopher George Santayana. To Santayana, the phrase meant something very specific. Rather than insisting that we merely remember events that already happened, he was imploring us to retain the experience of our history. It’s a subtle difference, but it’s an important one, and to understand the peril in failing to distinguish between the two, we need look only at the legacy of World War II.
It’s hard to overstate just how consequential World War II was. It completely changed the political structure of the world. By removing Europe from the top of the international order, it gave way to the United States as a superpower and created opportunities for newly independent powers in Asia to rise. It destroyed European Jewry, which had played a crucial role in European geopolitics for centuries. It sounded the death knell for the traditional forms of imperialism and colonialism. It confirmed the nation-state as the basic organizing principle of the international system, and in the war’s aftermath, the vast majority of those nation-states were organized into a global political and economic structure that revolved around the United States. It created new and terrible weapons that could wipe out humanity in a matter of hours. From international political structures to still-unresolved territorial disputes – between Japan and Russia, between Ukraine and its neighbors, between Israel and the Palestinians and between everyone in the Balkans – the world today was forged by the changes World War II wrought.
World War II also reconfigured the political imaginations of all who participated in it. And how could it not? In geopolitics, issues tend to be gray, situations rarely zero-sum, with very little on the line. The remarkable and unprecedented thing about World War II was that it was a zero-sum conflict, good versus evil, with nothing less than the fate of the entire world on the line. That was the mindset of every politically conscious man, woman and child for eight years. It’s understandable why we have since grafted that mentality onto nearly every conflict that has taken place since 1945.
It’s understandable but ultimately misguided because it has corrupted the histories the victors wrote. They blamed World War II solely on the men deemed responsible for it – men like Adolf Hitler and Hideki Tojo. By 1953, Leo Strauss, a Jewish philosopher who narrowly escaped Europe early in the war, coined the phrase “reductio ad Hitlerum” to describe a type of ad hominem attack whereby any argument could be defeated by linking it to Hitler, even if in the most circuitous way. (“Hitler liked dogs, and you like dogs. Therefore, dogs are evil and so are you.”) In 1994, when the internet was still in its infancy, an American writer named Mike Godwin coined “Godwin’s law,” the idea that the longer an online discussion goes on, the greater the chance a comparison to Hitler is drawn. (From my experience, Godwin’s law is nearly as immutable as the law of gravity.)
To be clear, there are good reasons men like Hitler and Tojo are so reviled. Their policies were morally reprehensible. They were anti-democratic, racist demagogues who believed in the superiority of their races, and they shoulder plenty of responsibility for World War II. But scapegoating them after the fact had the added benefit of political expedience. When World War II gave way to the Cold War, the U.S. needed to rehabilitate Germany and Japan as allies in this new global conflict, and Washington couldn’t rightly side with the evil people against whom it had just waged an existential battle. Germany was thus remade as a liberal democracy that manufactured great cars and warned about the dangers of anti-Semitism. Japan was remade as a liberal democracy as passionately pacifist as it had been martial just a decade previous. Vilifying Hitler and Tojo absolved the German and Japanese people, who were now free to become trusted U.S. allies.
This kind of thinking violates the idea on which the entire international system is based: the sovereignty of the people. Governments do not gain power simply by virtue of being governments. Presidents do not achieve power simply by declaring themselves presidents. (Self-proclaimed Venezuelan interim president Juan Guaido is the latest to learn this lesson.) People give governments power – and governments derive power from people. Germany’s embrace of Hitler was not a bout of mass psychosis. The German people weren’t duped by promises of a noble liberal democrat who transformed into a monster that held the country hostage. Hitler came to power because he had the support of millions of Germans – people who voted for him, people who fought and died for the vision of Germany he articulated, people who either supported his government’s policies or found them palatable enough not to protest.
This is not to say that every German supported Hitler, nor is it to say that there weren’t those who resisted. But it is to say that someone like Hitler could not have come to power without the support of his people. People tend to forget this today when they invoke World War II as a warning against regimes or leaders they don’t like. That’s because it’s easier to blame individuals for the horrors of something like World War II than to indict a system that was complicit in its crimes. People are happy to pin problems on individuals they hate and to credit successes to individuals they love. Better to blame it on someone else and get back to tweeting. No sense in accepting the truth – that broad, impersonal forces shape the world and that individuals sometimes bend those forces to their will.
We see this kind of thinking infecting contemporary foreign policy everywhere. The United States recently intervened in Venezuela to attempt to overthrow the Maduro regime. At least one GPF reader wrote in agreeing with the policy because, he argued, had the U.S. intervened in Germany in 1936, Hitler would never have started World War II. (A classic reductio ad Hitlerum.)
A British lawmaker went on the BBC last week and raged against the “Teutonic arrogance” of a German business leader who said Brexit would hurt the British economy. The lawmaker compared his defiance to his father’s landing on the beaches at Normandy.
Western media, meanwhile, routinely compares the treatment of China’s minority Uighur population to the Nazis’ treatment of the Jews. Their treatment is unconscionable, but if it’s true that this is Nazism 2.0, then the U.S. should be preparing for war, not applying economic sanctions.
Elsewhere, internal U.S. political debates about the now-abandoned Iran nuclear deal became a fight about whether the deal was like appeasing Nazi Germany. A few years ago, then-Secretary of State and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton compared Russian President Vladimir Putin to Hitler when he intervened in eastern Ukraine. The list of examples is endless.
When we invoke such a narrow historical memory of World War II and apply it to any modern conflict, we do so at our own peril. It personalizes issues that cannot be fully understood when personalized. It reduces complex issues into matters of good and evil, and thus it ignores the conflicts of interest around which most international disputes arise and by which most are resolved. If every problem is a nail, every solution is a hammer. If every adversary is Nazi Germany, every fight is existential. If every person you disagree with is Hitler, then every argument ends without compromise. Indulging in a reductio ad Hitlerum or a reductio ad World War II every time a problem arises is not remembering the past, it is invoking archaic tropes to avoid dealing with complicated questions. Learning the lessons of the past isn’t the same as living in the past.
World War II was fought because of the rise and fall of great powers, because of the secular rise of the power of the state, because of the rejection of prior forms of political legitimacy for both liberal and nationalist principles, because of distrust between nations, because of scarcity of resources in a rapidly transforming global economy – to name just a few of the root causes.
Famous as Santayana’s adage has become, the line that precedes it is, to me, equally profound: “When experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual.” The most important thing to understand about World War II is that it is over. One can only hope that at some point the world will start acting like it, rather than preparing unconsciously for the next.