A Little History Can Be a Dangerous Thing

by Harry Browne

February 12, 2003       

George Santayana said, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

Perhaps a corollary of that axiom should be: Those who know only historical slogans should quit using them to support their causes.

For example, amateur historians remind us impatiently that the reason Iraq must disarm (which no one else is doing) is that Hussein promised to disarm at the end of the Gulf War in 1991.

Of course, they neglect to tell us that the "promise" was made at the point of a gun. You don't "freely" give your money to a mugger when he says, "Your money or your life." Promises and actions that are coerced are morally meaningless.

But citing Hussein's promise isn't the only way history is misused.

History is invoked to justify the U.S. starting a war against a foreign country (Iraq in 1991, Serbia in 1999, and now Iraq again) because "history tells us" we have to stop the latest incarnation of Adolf Hitler before he proceeds to conquer the entire world. As though Serbia or Iraq could be compared to the power of Hitler's Germany.

And the history-sloganeers remind us over and over that millions of lives would have been saved if only the Allies had stopped Hitler at Munich.

A historical slogan can be a wonderful thing. It allows you to reduce all the complexities created by billions of people to a simple equation of Good vs. Evil, white & black, us & them.

The Facts

However, the world didn't begin in 1938. And amateur historians apparently have never bothered to go beyond their high-school history lessons to discover what made it possible for Hitler to threaten Europe in 1938. And the background throws a completely different light on the relevance of 1938 to today.

In 1914 Austria dominated Europe the way the U.S. dominates the world today. The Austrian Empire included what is now Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia, as well as parts of Italy and Romania.

Many Serbs thought Bosnia should be part of Serbia instead of Austria. When the Austrian Emperor's heir apparent, Archduke Ferdinand, visited Bosnia, he was murdered by a Bosnian Serb protesting Austrian domination.

This act sucked almost all the countries of Europe into the bloody first World War. Austria declared war on Serbia. And because of mutual defense treaties, Britain, France, Belgium, Romania, Greece, Portugal, Montenegro, Russia, and even Japan went to war on behalf of Serbia. On the other side, Germany, Italy, Bulgaria, and Turkey supported Austria.

Eventually, 15 million soldiers and civilians would be killed and at least 20 million wounded, all because one person had been murdered a fitting testament to the irrationality of war.

Stalemate

The war probably could have ended in 1917. Both sides were devastated and seeking an armistice. But America, under no threat of attack by the Germans or Austrians, entered the war that year allowing the Allies to step up the war and forcing Germany to surrender in 1918.

The Allies imposed oppressive terms on the Germans who, by a complicated argument, were blamed for the entire war. Important parts of Germany were confiscated and given to Czechoslovakia, Poland, and France. Germany was stripped of its colonies. And the Allies forced the Germans to assume the cost of the entire war a price they could never hope to pay.

To the victors go the spoils, indeed!

Enter Hitler

All that most Americans know of 1920s Germany is the decadence they've seen in Cabaret and other movies. But here was an intellectual country devastated by losing the resources to support itself, made to pay horrendous reparations, and suffering from a runaway inflation that caused a loaf of bread to cost billions of marks.

If we realize what the Germans were forced to go through, we can begin to understand how one of the most culturally advanced countries of the world the home of Goethe, Schiller, Beethoven, and Wagner could have fallen for a thug like Hitler.

Hitler would have been laughed out of Germany in 1910. But in 1933 he seemed to be the only person able to end the reparations, recapture the stolen territory, reunite families, and restore Germany's glory. The Germans could see he was a brutal man, but they were told you can't make an omelet without breaking a few eggs.

(Unfortunately, everyone assumes it will be someone else's eggs that will be broken, and no one notices that the omelet never materializes.)

Conclusions

So perhaps those who love to recite historical slogans could give some thought to a few lessons from history that are relevant to today's situation and could help us understand something about our own future . . . 

  • If U.S. politicians had minded their own business in 1917, instead of plunging America into a war that didn't threaten us, an armistice would have occurred, and the existing governments in Russia and Germany most likely would have remained in power meaning no Soviet Union and no Hitler. But do-gooders always believe they know what's best for the world and they claim that some simple act of force will settle matters once and for all. It never does.

  • If the U.S. had stayed out of World War I, most likely there would have been no World War II, although it's entirely possible that other wars more localized would have occurred. World War II was the direct result of World War I and, more specifically, of the U.S. interfering in World War I.

  • If the Allies hadn't imposed draconian peace terms on Germany in 1918, there probably would have been no Hitler to threaten anyone. Germany would have resumed its role as an intellectual and cultural center in Europe. (American diplomats learned their lesson and eased their demands somewhat at the end of World War II.)

  • The Allies forced the Germans to promise things that could never be delivered. And using force to exact promises from someone like Saddam Hussein creates about as much security as ordering your cat to guard your home. If the demands are unnatural (as expecting a country in the Middle East to disarm certainly is), you can expect a backlash.

  • There always will be thugs like Hitler, Osama Bin Laden, or Saddam Hussein in the world. But those thugs aren't dangerous to us until we create real grievances that cause millions of people to support the thugs with money, networking, and connections that allow the thugs to threaten us.

  • There's a Lot More

    We haven't even touched on some other salient facts of history that bear on today's situation such as the attitude of Muslims in the Middle East toward foreigners who have invaded and subjugated Arabs over the centuries. Nor have we looked into the way the British and French in the mid-1900s drew unnatural boundaries in the Middle East that were bound to lead to turmoil.

    And when amateur historians remind us that Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990 (as though that were an excuse for bullying Iraq forever) probably not one of them could tell you why Iraq invaded Kuwait. Are they aware of the oil disputes, the fact that Kuwait has more in common with Iraq proper than the northern Iraqi Kurds do, or that Kuwait not too long ago was prepared to become part of Iraq? Are they aware that the American ambassador to Iraq gave her blessing to an Iraqi invasion of Kuwait just a few days before it occurred?

    Nor have we touched on another important part of history the assertions made by our government before and during the Gulf War, assertions that later proved to be false. There were no Iraqi troops massed on the Saudi border, no Iraqi atrocities in Kuwaiti hospitals. The "smart bombs" General Schwarzkopf talked about so proudly in his TV briefings were hardly ever used in the war and when they were used, they missed their targets more often than not. And the number of innocent Iraqi civilians killed was revised upward several times after the war.

    Of course, all that is ancient history. So why dredge it up today?

    Because the men who told the lies in 1991 Richard Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and Colin Powell are the same men providing the "evidence" that we must go to war again.

    When Colin Powell says he has solid evidence for the claims he made at the UN, we have to remember that this is what he and his associates said before the Gulf War.

    History is more than slogans.

    • It is facts backed up by evidence you can verify;

    • It is human nature being relived over and over;

    • It is continual confirmation that we must treat our own government with great skepticism;

    • It is an admonition that initiating force never produces the results promised for it.

    And if we ignore history and listen to the slogans instead, it will be you and I who will suffer the consequences.

    When will we learn?