Wednesday, October 28, 2009

History doesn’t repeat itself.

Mark Twain once said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” There is truth in that statement. Many times those who are not students of history will say just the opposite. That somehow history will repeat itself if given enough time, say1000 years, and another Hitler or Stalin would arise or another Genghis Kahn would destroy those powers around him or that eventually a Golden Hoard will cover all of Asia and Eastern Europe. Nothing could be further from the truth. The chance of another Civil War occurring in the United States over slavery and state’s rights is almost impossible and going to war with the Canadians as in the War of 1812 is not even practical. However it’s not just the part of the quote “history doesn’t repeat itself…” that is true, but the second part “…it does rhyme” is also applicable. Similar circumstances will bring about similar results. Although Tyrannies were popular from around 650 BCE to 500 BCE in ancient Greece they were never resurrected there and were only used in limited ways in other times.1 In modern times Bonapartism, which is similar to Tyrannies, has many of the same characteristics, such as coming to power as a populist, but it is still not quite the same. Think of it in terms used in the fashion world. In the late 1960s and early 1970s there was a fad called bell-bottoms. Today there is something similar called flares. Not exactly the same thing but very similar. Another fashion fad would be the hip-huggers of the 1970s and low-rise jeans that are popular today. The clothes are very similar but not quite the same. As I’ve said, the same sort of thing happens in history.

An example of this loosely speaking “rhyme” in history is the rise and fall of international-states and super-powers. All empires, régimes, dynasties, republics, dictatorships, or commonwealths have a beginning, a period of ascendancy, a period of apogee, and then a period of decline until the entity no longer is powerful or doesn’t exist.2 We find this throughout history from ancient times to today and can pick any time period and find an international-state that has gone through this cycle. Some of the rise and falls are short and rather easy to discern. The German Empire of 1871 to 1918 would be a good example of this. The empire was formed through victories at war and the skillfulness of the Minister President of Prussia and eventually Imperial Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck. The German Empire at the time had the leading military in Europe, and was an industrialized nation with natural resources and a growing economy. However, by 1918 the empire was finished because of internal and external forces. Of course the war and the armistice left Germany crippled internationally and militarily with a huge debt. But the internal problems were just as difficult. Germany had a population that was starving because of poor harvests and blockades by the victors that lasted until July 1919. Additionally, the economy was faltering with runaway inflation and the paper currency being devalued.3

Those international-states/empires that have had longer life, at least a couple of centuries, show similar problems. A good example of this is the Ottoman Empire that lasted 624 years. From its infant beginnings in 1299 the Ottoman Empire grew to be one of the largest and most powerful empires in Asia Minor. At one point it contained most of North Africa, Palestine and the rest of the Middle East and a large portion of what was the Persia Empire. It contained all of Anatolia and a large portion of what is known as Romalia reaching up though to Transylvania and Moldavia. Yet by 1923 it was gone. All that was left of the once great Ottoman Empire was the rump state of Turkey, the heart of the empire.

Certainly there were external forces that caused the demise of the Ottoman Empire. The warfare that periodically occurred over the centuries had positive and negative effects on the empire. Certainly in its early years the Ottomans used wars to expand borders through gaining territory in all directions. The 1700s and 1800s were centuries of stagnation and the beginnings of decline. Even though the Ottoman Empire was on the winning side of the Crimean War, it was only because the French and British couldn’t agree on how to beat Russian and divide the empire so they decided to support it. Two wars that certainly affected the empire were the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913 and World War I. After this the decline was irreversible.

Internally we find there were five major reasons the state declined. First, there was poor leadership. For a period of time the empire had a preponderance of leaders that had little experience and in some cases little ability. Second, the government was marked by bribery, cronyism, nepotism, and positions in government for sale to the highest bidder. This corruption was found in the provincial governments too with greater taxes placed upon the populace. There were also frequent shifts in judicial officials. Third, the military suffered major changes internally. Instead of the onetime handpicked force, the military became augmented with troops of limited ability. This included the use of mercenaries when necessary. Forth, the Imperial economy was suffering. There was severe inflation, the currency was debased and this bred corruption. On top of this there was a negative trade balance with cheaper goods being imported. Finally, there was an intellectual decline.4 This pattern is typical of most major empires/regimes/superpowers from the Assyrians, to Rome, to the Holy Roman Empire and to Bonaparte’s French Empire.

When looking at the United States we see some of the same patterns. I’m not suggesting the US needs to worry about Armageddon being around the corner or that society is slipping into chaos, but we need to remember the rhyme of history.

The external factors can at times be thrust upon us but the US needs to be mindful of entanglements. Of the 1,379,551 soldiers on active duty approximately 27% are around the world in 150 different countries. Large portions of those soldiers are on a war footing in Iraq, Iran, Korea, and even in the Balkans. Additionally, the government is using private military companies and security contractors to perform historically military duties. The US government likes to call companies such as Dyncorp, Titan Corporation, and Blackwater USA private contractors but in reality they are mercenaries. They are hired guns to work for the government in any capacity the government deems necessary. This pattern found in the military is actually an internal factor that is typical in the period of decline for many nations.5

Other internal factors that need to be recognized include executive leadership, corruption in government, the economy and the need for a society to be supportive of higher education. When reviewing these factors in the US today we see problems. Although the executive leadership of the country is stable there seems to be a great deal of legal and illegal corruption in congress. Both houses appear to be overly affected by lobbyists and periodically caught in a scam of one sort or another. Presently we are told the economy gives the impression of rebounding on “Wall St.” but not on “Main St.” Until the middle class recovers and the poor have a safety net little really can occur. The problem with the economy is that it affects higher education also. With loans hard to get many in the middle class will not be able to continue their education. A persistent lack of support for higher education will eventually have an adverse’ effect on society. As Twain said, “history doesn’t repeat itself but it does rhyme,” even for the United States.

1 Ernest R. Rugenstein, Ph.D., “The Rise of Greek Civilization,” (lecture, World Civilization and the World 1, Hudson Valley Community College, Troy, NY, September 29, 2009).
2 Ibid.
3 Ernest R. Rugenstein, Ph.D., “The Paris Peace Conference and Peace Treaties,” (lecture, World Civilization and the World 1, Hudson Valley Community College, Troy, NY, April 28, 2009).
4 Richard L. Chambers, The Ottoman Empire., 2007. Accessed October 16, 2009.
5 Active Duty Military Personnel Strengths by Regional Area and by Country. Washington, DC: Department of Defense, 2007, 309A.


  1. Interesting article. Didn't understand alot of it as it pertained to history, but it was educational!

  2. That quote by Twain reminds me of the complex notion of Nietzsche's "eternal recurrence." The idea certainly doesn't imply that history just repeats itself, and you do a nice job of illustrating that - it's all about contextualization. That's what I used to tell my students. They were probably pretty sick of that term by the end of the semester, but I think my point was understood. That's what matters!