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.)He then proceeds to explain how he considers the situation in Crimea to be different from Kosovo in 1999, Iraq in 2003, Georgia in 2008 and Hungary and Czechoslovakia in 1956 and 1968 respectively. (How Sudetenland gets left off the list I can't imagine, as that seems like one of the more frequently made analogies.)
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.
Sometimes, of course, the goal is intentional obfuscation: Russian apologists, for example, rely on flawed comparisons with Kosovo and Iraq as justifications for the Kremlin’s aggression. In America, meanwhile, some partisans, determined to prevent this disaster from staining the Obama administration, invoke George W. Bush’s tepid reaction to the 2008 Russian attack on Georgia as the precedent for Western inaction.
In the end, however, these historical analogies are mostly nonsense, especially when they are used to draw false moral equivalences. There may be precedents to consider in determining our reaction to the Russian invasion, but they are not to found among clumsy historical fairy tales. So let’s dispense with them right now.
His points are all pretty good, and it is of course true that no one situation is exactly like another and thus that each event should be analyzed on its own merits. I'm not really sure that means people shouldn't make analogies so much as that analogies are always limited in application and scope.