1914 versus 1938: how anniversaries make history
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Ivan Krastev

Chairman of the Centre for Liberal Strategies, Sofia, Bulgaria; Permanent Fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences, Vienna, Austria

Why is the west so reluctant to recognize Russia’s involvement in Ukraine as a war? Why is public opinion in the United States, United Kingdom and Germany so unwilling to see Russia’s actions as a threat to European peace? Is it because it is a “quarrel in a faraway country, between people of whom we know nothing” or because Russia is a nuclear power and Europe is dependent on Russian gas? Is it because Europe is a risk averse power or because America is weaker and has had its fingers burnt by its military adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq? Or could it be that Americans and Europeans have fallen victim to a wrong historical analogy, and that the flood of books and films produced this year to mark the 100th anniversary of the Great War have made them believe that what we should fear is not inaction but over-reaction?

Historical anniversaries are like carpet-bombing. They throw upon us “teachable lessons” in volumes of historical research, novels, conferences, films and exhibitions and demand unconditional surrender.

It is enough to drop into any of the big bookstores in London or Berlin to discover that they are literally occupied by books about the Great War. Some claim that more than 1000 books related to it have been published only in English in the last two-three years.  Is it not just that these books we all read or at least read about fuel particular fears and make certain future developments look more real than others. The power of the anniversaries is a magic power: it comes from our obsession with round numbers and it is divorced from rational arguments.

It is arguable that if the fall of the Berlin Wall had not coincided with the bicentennial of the French Revolution, our reading of the changes in Central and Eastern Europe could have been different and what we call revolution today could have been called by another name. And it was this very word “revolution” with all its rich historical connotations that determined the choices of the actors. After 1989 it was the shared fear of revolutionary violence that urged both the old communist elite and the dissidents to opt for negotiations and compromise. It was the shadow of 1789 and the Terror that followed that acted as the invisible presence in Central European politics in the early years of transition.

The power of historical anniversaries is so real that one can also imagine that if a mass political protest erupts in Moscow in the year 2017 (centenary of the Bolshevik revolution), we would be tempted to believe that history has yet again changed its course and our view of what is happening on the streets will be dramatically shaped by the books about Lenin, Stalin and Trotsky that will top the bestsellers lists. 

In their classic study, Thinking in Time, American political scientists Richard Neustadt and Ernest May have revealed that the choice of the proper historical comparison is at the heart of any crisis decision-making. Policy makers need history to make sense of the present.

At the time of the Cuban missile crisis the most important choice that President Kennedy had to make was the choice of proper historical analogy. He had to choose between a “Suez”, “Pearl Harbor” or “July Crisis “ 1914 analogy. The choice of comparison pre-determined his choice of strategy. Betting on “Suez” would have meant that Russian missiles were a game of distraction and the US should be ready for Soviet actions somewhere in Europe. If the Soviets were preparing a “Pearl Harbor” type of surprise, Americans had to choose to strike first.

Kennedy opted to view the Cuban Missile crisis in terms of the Great Powers politics of the summer of 1914 and he was determined not to make the mistakes that were made then. In a conversation with his brother Robert Kennedy the President clearly explained the logic of his choice and the sources of his decision. It was Barbara Tuchman’s popular book The Guns of August that shaped his opinion. “I am not going to follow a course”, confessed President Kennedy, “which will allow anyone to write a comparable book about this time, ‘The Missiles of October’ ”. Tuchman’s book was published in 1962, on the eve of the 50 years anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War. If it was not for the coming anniversary, she could have written a different book and the course of the Cold War could have been different. If it was not for the imminent anniversary, the President could have decided not to read the book.

Our common history

There was a time when for Europeans, history meant mostly ancient Greek and Roman history. It was our common history but at the same time it was nobody’s history. We were studying it without feeling embarrassed or responsible for what happened. In the twenty first century the history that matters is the history of the last century. It is also our common history because we feel collectively responsible for what happened in that savage century.

Now when confronted with foreign aggression and the violation of the borders of a sovereign state, European policy makers and European publics have to choose between two historical comparisons only: “July 1914” or “Munich 1938”. Neither analogy represents history as such; both recall a lesson instead, but different lessons.

The story of “July 1914” is the story of an accidental war. If in the case of the Second World War we are focused on how it ended—the defeat of Nazism—in the case of the First World War the interest is focused on how it began.

The popular belief is that the war was caused by misunderstandings, miscommunications and the lack of trust between the Great Powers. In the collective imagination of EU Europe, the Great War represents “the collective suicide of Europe”.

The lesson of “July 1914” is a simple one: beware of over-reacting and give a chance to diplomacy. As is sometimes said, you might have decided to be a pacifist after the Second World War, but you were obliged to be a pacifist after the First World War.

“Munich 1938” teaches us a different lesson. It teaches us that capitulating to the demands of a territorially aggressive dictatorship does not bring peace. Although it does avoid a war in the short term, it makes a larger war, on less favourable terms, inevitable later. This warns not against over-reaction but against inaction.

Consulting history

But how should we judge if we are back to 1914 or to 1938? How should we decide whether to fear an accidental war or destructive appeasement?

The historical comparison we choose very much depends on the history books we read at the moment. And what we read, as we have seen, is pre-determined by the historical anniversary that we are currently celebrating. To pretend to consult history in 2014 means to go back to the outbreak of the Great War. In this year any historical comparison other than the reference of WWI does not have a chance to be heard. Now when political leaders lack a tragic experience of their own, and when citizens ‘google history’ instead of living with it, historical anniversaries are our only common history.

So, faced with Russia’s annexation of Crimea, European politicians and publics do not have much of a choice. In the year when the centenary of the Great War is celebrated all over Europe, choosing 1914 is inevitable. And it is not only Russian gas or America’s weakness, but the anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War, that has pre-determined Europe’s reaction to the annexation of Crimea. If Russia had decided to annex Crimea in 2038, the reaction of the west could have been different.

| Open Democracy