On Historical Comparison

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Andreas Kör­ber: On His­tor­i­cal Com­par­i­son — à pro­pos a dis­cus­sion on whether Trump equals Hitler. 1

Com­par­ing is almost nev­er about “equalling”, but about dis­cern­ing sim­i­lar­i­ties and dif­fer­ences — and the end of com­par­ing is not whether the sim­i­lar­i­ties or the dif­fer­ences are stronger, result­ing in either/or — in this case: if the the dif­fer­ences out­num­ber the sim­i­lar­i­ties: be relieved, or in the oth­er case: pre­pare for what Hitler did. No, com­par­ing is not about whether two his­tor­i­cal inci­dents, com­plex­es etc. are “sim­i­lar” or “dif­fer­ent”, but about in what way they have sim­i­lar­i­ties, and in how far these can play out in the cir­cum­stances which is most cas­es changed considerably.

There is a lot of virtue in com­par­ing, but in his­to­ry the result nat­u­ral­ly is a nar­ra­tive con­struct, a sto­ry stat­ing “just like in those times … and again today”, “where­as back then … but now”, or “even though … is just like, … under these cir­cum­stances …” — or diffrent con­clu­sions of the kind.

Yes, I do see a lot of valid and dis­turb­ing sim­i­lar­i­ties here point­ed out by Evans and it real­ly helps — as do a lot of those com­par­isons apply­ing Han­nah Arendt’s con­cepts and cri­te­ria. Where I see a big dif­fer­ence at the moment is that Trump does not have a big, organ­ised, mass-organ­i­sa­tion at his hands. On the oth­er hand, Arendt’s char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of the mass­es might be out­dat­ed in times of inter­net etc.

In fact, if com­par­ing was about find­ing out whether his­tor­i­cal events and devel­op­ments are of the same kind, result­ing in either/or, that it would exclude al present agency. If any his­to­ri­an high­light­ed that there are a lot of sim­i­lar­i­ties between 1933 and 2017 and they out­num­bered the dif­fer­ences — would that mean that every­thing has to go as it went in 1933?

So let’s not get blind­ed by com­par­ing Hitler to Trump only. As Umber­to Eco wrote, “Ur-fas­cism” can “come back under the most inno­cent of dis­guis­es” — and in fact even if a com­par­i­son results in stat­ing that what emerges here was not “fas­cism”, it would not mean “all-clear” at all.

No, the pur­pose of his­to­ri­og­ra­phy and with­in it of com­par­a­tive approach­es is to find out about both the struc­tures and the options. One of the cen­tral cond­tions of his­tor­i­cal com­par­a­tive approach­es is that the com­par­ing mind has the “ben­e­fit” (as well as the bur­den) of hind­sight. In not being in 1933 again, in being able to con­struct some (more or less) plau­si­ble nar­ra­tives about how things devel­oped back then, in being able to apply log­ics not of deter­min­ist “cause and (nec­es­sary) effect”, but rather of log­ics of devel­op­ment, it not only keeps up the frame­work of agency, of pos­si­bil­i­ties of act­ing sim­i­lar­ly and/or dif­fer­ent­ly in sim­i­lar cir­cum­stances, but it sheds a light on the pos­si­ble out­comes of actions which were not yet dis­cernible in the pri­or case in the comparison.

So what is more valu­able in a com­par­i­son of this kind is not the sum­ming up, the final con­clu­sion of “iden­ti­cal”, “pret­ty close” (“alarm”) or “not so close” (relief!), but rather the dif­fer­ent aspects being com­pared, their indi­vid­ual rel­e­vance, their inter­act­ing — and the nar­ra­tive con­struc­tion which is applied. It is these aspects which we can (and must!) use for our ori­en­ta­tion, as to who are we in this sit­u­a­tion, what are the val­ues we are uphold­ing, what are the posi­tions, iden­ti­ties etc of the oth­er “agents”, and what can we learn about logics.

There are some very strik­ing struc­tur­al sim­i­lar­i­ties which should make every­body alert: The con­tempt for the courts, of the con­sti­tu­tion. Even if this was the only dif­fer­ence, it needs to be highlighted.

Under this per­spec­tive, I think that maybe it’s not so much about com­par­ing Hitler to Trump and whether either of them was or is crazy, but rather about learn­ing what it would mean to inter­pret them as crazy — would it help? In the case of Ger­many, it would deflect the focus from the respon­si­bil­i­ty of all the oth­ers, of those in the inner cir­cle and those going along (“bystanders” is a very prob­lem­at­ic con­cept). From this reflec­tion we can learn a lot more. — the ide­ol­o­gy of the inner cir­cle, etc. .…

Anmerkun­gen / Ref­er­ences
  1. This text was ini­tial­ly a com­ment in a face­book dis­cus­sion ref­er­enc­ing Isaac Chotin­er: “Too Close for Com­fort” about Richard Evans com­par­ing Trump and Hitler.[]