Some old dead white man said: “All historical analogies are odious”. He meant they stink because time, place and dramatis personae of any historical event are so particularistic; drawing similarities with another event defies logic.
Yet, yet … we amateur historians play at the game and often. And perhaps there is value in shredding a past major historical event with 20-20 hindsight to see if we can make something of a current conundrum.
That’s how – hang on to your seats – I caught myself thinking about Syria recently in terms of the Spanish Civil War of my youth.
For you kiddies out there, let me encapsulate: the first great modern empire, Spain, entered the 20th century in tatters after the U.S. had given it a near fatal wallop with William Randolph Hearst’s war delivering Cuban independence. Continuing colonial problems in North Africa, Madrid’s failure [along with the rest of Europe and FDR’s America] to emerge from a severe business cycle plus growing regional ethnic and linguistic independence movements [“las Españas”], paralyzed the second republic from its 1921 inauguration. By 1936, Communist, anarchist and syndicalist revolutionaries on the left faced a showdown with fascist, aristocratic and clerical reactionaries on the right. Another military revolt bounced in from North Africa.
Still mired in The Great Depression, Western democracies could not sort out this problem on their doorstep. The totalitarians – Moscow on the left and Berlin and Rome on the right – chose up sides, moving in while London and Paris wrung their hands, and Washington pulled up its two-ocean drawbridge. The right eventually won out establishing a dictatorship which toyed with ideological loyalties to the Axis but opportunist and wily Generalissimo Francisco Franco had the good sense to maintain mock neutrality in World War II.
Syria today is not Spain 1936 in any conceivable way. But the Western democratic alliance’s inability to halt unrestricted violence against its own people by an atrocious regime resembles the West in the mid-30s trying to deal with unparalleled Spanish atrocities. Iran 2012 is not the Soviets of the Nazi-Fascist era but their support [along with Beijing and Moscow] of Dictator Basher al-Assad in the face of Western shillyshallowing is similar. And the growing jihadist intervention against the crumbling regime promises a successor unlikely to contribute to regional peace as post-Civil War Spain originally threatened to do. And just as the continuing 1930s economic disaster paralyzed the world community, so the Euro crisis and leftovers from the U.S.’ 2007-08 financial crisis with world dependence on Mideast oil today hamstrings the democracies.
The Spanish Civil War was confined to the least important of the major European nation-states. But just as its crucial geography and its multi-minority composition gives little Syria entangling tentacles to all its neighbors, Spain’s war had links and effects – as far away as Mexico.
Germany and Italy tested their weapons in Spain for Adolph Hitler’s coming war for Europe. [It’s fitting an opponent of the Assad regime calls Homs “Syria’s Guernica”, the Basque city which saw one of the first demonstrations of air power decimating a civilian population, a horror captured by Spanish painter Pablo Picasso.] New techniques of terrorism and asymmetrical warfare are being tested. And just as Germany’s fate was so tied up in Generalissimo Francisco Franco’s war, the fate of the mullahs’ regime in Tehran could well depend on Damascus’s outcome. Tehran mullahs’ attempt to dominate the region by controlling its oil [armed with a nuclear weapon] depends on penetrating the Arab world – which they have done ironically through supposedly secularist Syria, and its clients Shia Hezbollah and Sunni Hamas. All that’s at stake in Syria now just as the Nazis’ imperial dreams were given a fillip by Hitler’s tacit victory in Spain.
Of course, what looking back on Spain also teaches us is the complexity of world events; how despite all odds, an Allied victory in World War II guaranteed eventual Spanish democracy and prosperity. But, that, too, alas!, is now up for grabs with an economic crisis destabilizing all southern Europe including Spain with its 20% of the Eurozone’s gross national product and the continents highest unemployment.
That may well lead us back to where we started: No, Prof. Jorge Agustín Nicolás Ruiz de Santayana y Borrás notwithstanding, there may be no mistakes not to be repeated to be learned from history.