The Crimea crisis and the abuse of history

Every international crisis brings out the amateur historian in pundits and politicians. The Russian seizure of Crimea has been no different, sparking all kinds of analogies and examples, including the inevitable Hitler comparisons. (Yes, Secretary Clinton, you have a point. But it was still over the top, especially coming from America’s former chief diplomat.)

That is not to say that history itself is not useful. Professional historians have much to tell us about the roots of this conflict, as do political analysts, who (like me) see proximate causes for the crisis in recent events, including serious errors in U.S. foreign policy. But facile historical comparisons are only obscuring more than they are clarifying.

Many of these parallels are put forward by people who understand neither the present situation nor the past to which they’re comparing it. Taking an early lead in the competition for the worst way to open an article in this category, a “senior political analyst” at Al Jazeera began a story recently by writing: “Like most of the people speaking about Ukraine, I am no expert. But I know one or two things about the history of the Cold War to recognize…”

As is so often the case, knowing just one or two things is almost always an invitation to later intellectual trouble.

If you think I’m making too much of this, just consider that Democratic strategist Bob Shrum yesterday compared President Obama to Eisenhower, as though this is Hungary in 1956. You can read the rest of my piece here.

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