I’ve Seen This Before: The Fallacy in Perceiving Historical Recurrences

By Jake Levine

In understanding the complex relationship between past and present, Voltaire’s assertion that history is “nothing but a pack of lies we play upon the dead” is perhaps the most accurate. The manner in which we discuss and understand history is largely determined by our own perspectives and judgements, rather than those of the actual people involved. While this is understandable, considering that many historical figures are no longer alive to explain the circumstances of a certain event, it opens our understanding of history to many fallacies that make it difficult to discern fact from interpretation. This is especially concerning in regards to historical analysis, as perception taking precedence over actuality exacerbates misconceptions and places the truth in danger of being perverted or skewed.

A fallacy that demonstrates this issue of perception in historical analysis, is the notion of “history repeating itself.” While it can be convenient to draw comparisons between certain events, this too is a dangerous endeavor because it oversimplifies historical events. Perceiving historical recurrences undercuts the myriad of different occurrences and human decisions – twists of fate – that determine what happens. Though some historical events may seem similar, and in some sense familiar, they are more dissimilar and distinct than anything else. History is uncertain, and allowing perception to determine recurrences inaccurately places a sense of determinism on the outcome of events.

One of the more prevailing examples of historical recurrence is the assertion that Hitler repeated Napoleon’s mistakes in his invasion of Russia. Common parlance dictates that if Hitler had studied European history, he would have known not to invade Russia during the winter, or at the very least, have been prepared for the Russian’s predilection for a “scorched-earth policy.” Though this certainly holds some relevance in analyzing this historical event, it is an incomplete understanding. It fails to take into account the other factors that determined Hitler’s “ignoring” of historical errors; such as the fact that the invasion of Russia occurred during a period in World War II in which the Battle of Britain had failed, the Allies were advancing in North Africa, and the US had entered the war. More can be said about the complexity of this particular event, but it is demonstrative of the fact that the perception of historical recurrences overly simplifies the understanding and contextualization of historical occurrences.

In a more modern context, this is also seen in the linkage made between the Trump and Nixon administrations, in which the current Russia investigation and (most likely) cover-up is equated to Watergate. Again, this holds true in some respects, but fails to account for the historical variance surrounding both circumstances. It is important to consider the fervent unpopularity of Nixon’s bombing campaign in Vietnam and Cambodia in relation to Watergate, and in Trump’s case, it is important to consider the contentious nature of the 2016 election as well as developments in Russian-American relations during Obama’s presidency. In both regards, perceiving historical recurrences limits each event to the characteristics of those involved, and fails to account for the complexity of happenings that contribute to an event.

Though it is not necessarily wrong to contemplate the similarities of historical events, it becomes problematic when it is used to define and contextualize history. History is about facts, and though interpretation may be unavoidable, it is important to highlight the fallibility of perspective in distorting facts. The notion of historical recurrences highlights this fallacy, as it demonstrates that we make the mistake of seeing repetitions of actions in history, instead of the reverberation of themes and mistakes. If you think you have seen something before, you are discounting the complexity of the event in question and limiting your understanding. In that regard, interpretation should never take precedence over fact and historical truth should never be at the mercy of perception.

[1] Voltaire. “Letter to Pierre Robert Le Cornier de Cideville, 1758.” In Voltaire’s Correspondence, edited by Theodore Besterman, 1958. Geneva: Institut et Musée Voltaire. Print.

Jake is a junior History major with a double minor in Art History and French.

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