On Historical Comparison

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 On the other hand, Arendt’s characterization of the masses might be outdated in times of internet etc.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. ….

  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. []