History as our guide?
Published September 14, 2004

As the political season heats up, tempers are starting to flare on both sides of the spectrum, and in the flurry of words, many are going back to that old debating standby, the historical reference. Dig up some old gem from the past—be it Hitler or Roosevelt, Churchill or Stalin—and toss it out as evidence of the other side’s wrongdoings, or your side’s stellar qualities. What could be easier? And who’s going to argue about it? I’d like to give it a try.

History is full of interesting stories. A lot of people, bored to tears with high school classes that are little more than a memorization study of dates and names, think they hate history, but there’s a whole world of stories out there that they’ve never had the opportunity to hear. Why else does Hollywood keep going back to the historical trough and throwing epics our way? From WWII movies, to films about Troy and Scotland, we gobble the stuff up. The characters are compelling, and if the facts are bent or beaten in the process, well, that’s not too terrible. It’s the movies, after all.

But when history is brought up in political debate, different rules apply. It’s not good enough to drop a name and hope it sticks. Some research is necessary, and a little respect for the facts can go a long way.

Take Hitler and the Third Reich. Adolf is surely the biggest historical canard, thrown out whenever you want to compare your enemy to the worst of the worst. Just his name chills the blood, and rightly so, but tossing it about cheapens what he did to this world. He and his minions slaughtered more than 6 million innocent people, most of them Jews and all because of bigotry and hatred. Hitler deliberately killed another 3 million prisoners of war, and millions more lives on both sides were lost to war and depredation.

It’s impossible for our minds to even comprehend of the magnitude of the crimes of the Nazi era. I wish everyone would visit the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, or another like it, just to get a taste of the incalculable inhumanity that we are capable of inflicting on one another.

And it is in this league that we are supposed to see our modern American politicians? To both sides, I say, “What are you thinking?” There is nobody in modern American politics who compares to Hitler; to say so is grossly unfair and distorts the political process. Do we need to be vigilant against the rise of another Nazi regime? Yes. But we should be a bit more reluctant to cry “Wolf!” every four years.

We’ve seen it here in Meadville already, as the debate over the Academy Theater’s controversial decision simmers on. On the national stage, various parties have fallen victim to this siren call as well, on both sides of the political spectrum.

At least everyone sees the Hitler comparison as dirty; more insidious by far is the effort by politicians and others to cloak themselves in the mantel of positive history, often that of a heroic age past. Thus, both sides compare favorably with F.D.R. or Lincoln, without regard for the strengths and weaknesses of the presidents. Everyone invokes WWII to support virtually any side of any argument, without regard for the actual events of the war.

One of my favorite examples of this phenomenon is the study of the other great war of the twentieth century, World War I. The War to End All Wars—would that it had truly been that!—is often seen as an instructive model for various theories on the causes of conflict. The amusing part is that all the different and contradictory theories use the same war to support their cause.

What this proves is that history is a dangerous thing. It’s easy to see what you want to see in the stories of the past. We pick out the parts that support our views and conveniently ignore the bits that argue against us. The most common statement regarding history is that if we ignore it, we are doomed to repeat our mistakes. Maybe so, but I think we are always ready to make new mistakes, and it is often an assumed and incorrect history that leads us astray.

Let’s make a deal for the rest of this campaign. Lay off the historical arguments and comparisons; let’s debate the issues on their own merits, and leave Hitler where he belongs: buried in the ground.