Historical Analogies: A Difficult Game

This has been a season of historical analogies in the press and on social media. The thing is, as pretty much any scholarly historian will tell you, historical analogies are an incredibly tricky thing and almost no one gets them right. I advise my undergraduates to just avoid them altogether, and professional historians use them carefully, with carefully defined limits.

Historians as a group tend to abhor making predictions, and the Hitler analogy, of all analogies, is both the most ridiculed and the most sacred, in the sense that serious people tend to feel strongly that it can’t ever be a fair comparison. Yet, one of the many extraordinary things about our current moment is that a number of prominent historians of fascism have publicly agreed, with due qualifications, that there are some comparisons to be made between Donald Trump’s campaign for the presidency and interwar European fascism. So what’s going on here?

History does not repeat itself,

and no one is saying it does

First: absolutely no one is seriously suggesting that Trump = Hitler, that history is going to repeat itself, that we are doomed to another WWII and Holocaust, or anything like that. This is the sort of thing that makes me want to bang my head repeatedly into a wall. NO ONE with any pretensions to seriousness would ever say this, let alone a historian. So if you think someone is saying this, maybe pause and consider whether you’re possibly missing their real point.

Analogies are not predictions

Second: historical analogies can be useful, but not as a prediction. Mark Twain said that “history doesn’t repeat itself, but sometimes it rhymes.” The purpose of historical analogies is not to predict that the future will resemble a point in the past, but to use the mental exercise of comparing and contrasting two situations point by point in order to jerk us out of our human tendency to experience the present and both inevitable and stable (more on this here). The idea that Francis Fukuyama (a political scientist) put forward after the Cold War, that we had reached an “end to history,” was obviously false. History does not end any more than it repeats itself. But because it is very difficult for us to imagine change clearly, it can help to look to how changes have occurred before.

The first key to doing a historical analogy well–after you’ve clarified that your goal is to understand the parameters of possibility rather than to turn back the clock–is to make specific comparisons between apples and apples. This is the main way that most attempts at analogy break down.

For example, we can’t compare a present-day demagogue during his rise to power with Hitler at the height of World War II and the Holocaust, though I have seen observers assume this is what is meant by the comparison. We can’t compare one demagogue himself with the followers or associated movement of a different demagogue. If we’re going to compare, we compare the rise to power to the rise to power, followers to followers or leader to leader. You get the idea.

You don’t need, and can’t have, a perfect match

It’s also a fallacy to believe that the only good analogy is one that matches exactly on every point. For one thing, no analogy ever can match on every point. But what’s even more important to understand is that we can learn from both the points of comparison and the points of contrast. It’s a mental exercise meant to help us see new factors and perspectives, not an attempt to find the most perfect match in order to earn points in an argument on the internet.

Now for a couple of my own examples of ways that historical analogies can be useful.

Top-down to top-down analogy: Trump and Gabriele D’Annunzio

Obviously, we don’t yet know what Trump will do once in power. We do know that he has invoked rhetoric and tactics, apparently knowingly, from fascist leaders. But imitating a fascist because their methods work is not the same as being a fascist, any more than Melania Trump copying Michelle Obama’s speech made Melania similar to Michelle in any meaningful way.

Most interwar fascist dictators appeared to be completely sincere and dedicated to their causes, and certainly worked hard at meeting their policy goals. I don’t see any plausible parallels with Trump there. While Trump has expressed racist and nativist views and failed to renounce endorsements of him by avowed white supremacists, and his racism does take the particular form of scapegoating minorities for the economic and political disappointments of working- and middle-class people, he’s not operating in an environment following a world war, there is no realistic threat of socialism driving his agenda, and his attitude seems both non-ideological and casual. His attitude toward women is also quite different, in a variety of ways. He has not so far shown the military ambition characteristic of true fascism, although his views on foreign policy, if acted on, would be a frighteningly unstable influence on the world stage. Economic comparisons are probably the most complicated, especially because Trump hasn’t yet shown a consistent economic stance.

On the other hand, since most of the public doesn’t realize that European fascist leaders typically came to power through democratic elections, this point of comparison is worth publicizing widely. Second, while American politics have seen unsavory characters before, this level of open, unabashed racism, homophobia and misogyny being this successful on a national stage is new, and that fact has significant implications and should not be minimized. Third, Trump’s treatment of the media does parallel fascist attitudes and should be a cause for serious concern as a threat to the constitutional right to a free press.

More specifically, there is one man most people haven’t heard of who I think is interestingly similar on a few key points. Gabriele D’Annunzio began the process that eventually became Italian fascism under Benito Mussolini. Unlike Trump, he was an apparently talented writer who enjoyed a successful literary career before turning to politics. Like Trump, however, he dabbled in politics without apparently fully intending to pursue a government role, but nevertheless became the enthusiastic and galvanizing figurehead of an ultra-nationalist movement based on resentment and anger, that culminated in the taking over of the city of Fiume. He’s seen as paving the way and setting the tone for Mussolini. He was also an inconsistent, volatile womanizer, and was probably partaking in considerable recreational drugs. He fell off a balcony while partying with a mistress, putting an end to his political career. For more about D’Annunzio and the context in which that all happened, I recommend the excellent book Fascist Voices by Christopher Duggan.

So far Trump shows none of the military fetishism of D’Annunzio (and other fascists) and let’s hope he doesn’t begin to do so, although he does talk about violence with the gleeful casualness that is familiar to the student of fascism. But the volatility and charismatic whipping up of public resentment and then leaving the scene, opening a path for — as it turned out in Italy’s case, fascism proper — does present some interesting parallels and warnings worth considering.

Bottom-up to Bottom-up: What Draws Ordinary People to Fascism

I teach a course on writing and history with “ordinary life under fascism” as the theme. Just the last time I taught it, in Spring 2015, I had to make a case on the last day of class to show how fascism is possible anywhere. Today I no longer have to make that case, since we’re living it. But how we got here is still a difficult, confusing, and in many ways stressful question.

Historians have posited a long list of reasons to explain why millions of ordinary people supported, enabled, tacitly tolerated, or actively participated in violent fascist regimes that destroyed civil liberties, started a world war, and murdered millions of innocent people. One of the big factors driving political opinion in the 1920s and 30s was resentment over the costs and aftermath of World War I, and another big factor was fear of socialism in the wake of the Russian Revolution of 1917. Socialist parties made inroads in many countries, and while some welcomed these parties, middle class people, especially, were often terrified of the prospect. Neither of these factors has any parallel today.

But there are other factors that do ring a bell now. Economic instability was another of probably the biggest factors driving people to extreme politics in the interwar period. Of course, there have been many periods of economic instability that don’t result in fascism, so on its own it has no explanatory power. But as an exacerbating factor, it is important.

Another significant issue in interwar Europe was the failure of liberal democratic politics in many countries in the wake of World War I. In that case, the failures occurred most often where a previous government fell because of the war and new governments were unstable and uncertain, completely unequipped to handle postwar crises.

Today Americans on both sides of our political spectrum also feel disappointed and disgusted with our politicians. Congress is almost universally hated, and our government is almost paralyzed with partisan dysfunction.

In addition, the interwar period in Europe saw women getting the right to vote in many countries, and a general expansion of visibility and opportunity for some minorities. At the same time, jobs were scarce. Fascism offered a story to explain why people didn’t have the stability, prosperity, or security that they expected: fascism blamed it on those increasingly visible minorities. Those who don’t see those parallels in the US today are not paying attention.

Finally, another factor historians recognize as contributing to the popularity of fascism is information technology. Mass media was in its infancy at that time, giving nearly everyone immediate access through radio and cheap daily newspapers to the voices of politicians. Fascist leaders were expert at presenting an appealing image and feeding audiences whatever message most effectively galvanized them.

In the later part of the twentieth century we became accustomed to these forms of media and more cynical about media messages. But in the twenty-first century we are again confronting new technology, which can again serve up false information to huge numbers of people faster than anyone can counter it. When a teenager in Macedonia can whip up what looks like a respectable news site in an afternoon, there is a completely free-for-all in what to believe, and most people lack the time and skills to sort it out.

Combine that media environment with enormous economic and cultural strain and a lack of faith in traditional government or politicians of any flavor, and you get a disturbingly dangerous scenario.

Some of the factors I find most disturbing in what I’ve seen are these: (1) Trump voters and many observers often assume he doesn’t mean what he says and is unlikely to truly do anything extreme in office. That’s what everyone said about fascists, too, which is one of the ways the fascist dictators won democratic elections. (2) Some Trump voters, from both right and left, express support not for him specifically but for the idea of just blowing up the system, forcing a reckoning. This, too, was commonly expressed by people who enabled the fascist takeovers of their countries during the interwar, out of frustration and a lack of alternatives. (3) Many liberal observers are reassuring people today that this threat can be met. Possibly it can – I certainly hope so – but it must be fought off, not waited out, if we are to learn anything from fascism in Europe.

To ignore multiple specific parallels to European fascism would be foolish in the extreme, even while we note the many differences and recognize that we are not doomed to repeat history.

In the wake of fascism the victorious Allies, especially the US and Britain, took pride in having been on the “right side of history.” But there was nothing inherently deranged or immoral about millions of people across Europe who supported a dozen or so fascist regimes. The US and Britain had fascist parties in the interwar period, and we probably escaped seeing them gain power through a combination of having been on the winning side of World War I and playing the key role in dictating the terms of the treaty that ended it, and having had pre-existing democratic institutions that luckily proved stable enough to weather the global depression of the 1930s. But those institutions did not weather the storm without the massive collective efforts of both political leaders and ordinary people. Hopefully we will weather the current threat, too, but taking stability for granted is not likely to be a successful strategy.

For more information on ordinary people’s support for fascism, I recommend not only the Duggan book recommended above, but also Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men and Michael Mann’s Fascists. There are many, many other books on the subject but I find these as readable as they are reliable.


Historical arguments identify patterns in the past that can be instructive now, but they also teach us how systems work, how information dynamics work, how ideas and movements and people respond to various constraints. History teaches us to separate causes and effects (symptoms from the disease) and how to reason through multi-factor causes. History also teaches us how to see the difference between one person’s perspective and the patterns generated by lots of people at once. History teaches us how to look up from the changes that seem big on the ground but turn out to be small from a distance, and the massive, slow movements that you can’t feel while they’re happening. Analogies are one tiny tool in that toolbox, and they should be approached with caution and thoughtfulness.


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