Trump, Brexit and Echoes of World War I

A Q&A with the historian Sir Max Hastings on worrisome parallels with the Great War.

The glorious dead?

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Of all the famous things Mark Twain never actually said, perhaps none is repeated more often and with less justification than "history doesn't repeat, but it rhymes." And since the election of Donald Trump as president, history as verse has become a farce: He is Hitler, he is Stalin, he is Mao, he is Caligula, he is Cyrus the Great, he is Pharaoh, he is Joe McCarthy, he is Charles Lindbergh, he is King George III (both the sane and insane versions), he is Julius Caesar, he is Hamlet, he is the Know-Nothing Party, he is Charles Manson, he is Jimmy Carter, he is Andrew Jackson, he is Herbert Hoover, he is Woodrow Wilson, he is -- wait, what: Woodrow Wilson? Seriously?

"Ironically," writes  Trygve Throntveit in Time, "Trumpism finds ample historical precedents in the immediate and long-term aftermath of U.S. intervention in World War I." He adds that in pledging to "make the world safe for democracy," Wilson was foreshadowing "Trump's make-America-great-and-safe-first foreign policy."

Hmmm. I'm not sure I'm sold that the 28th president was the MAGA man of his day. 1 But it's a fresher take than the many uninformed comparisons of Trump to the Republican isolationists who followed Wilson, and thus a contribution to the growing body of journalistic analogies between our present moment and the era of the Great War. You can see the parallels, we are told, in Brexit, the backlash against immigrants in the U.S. and Europe, a radical autocracy in Russia roiling the West with propaganda, the collapse of order in the Middle East, secessionist movements in Europe (Serbia, meet Catalonia), and so on.

So, with this Veterans Day marking the centennial of the final year of the War to End All Wars, I decided to hash out which of these supposed historical echoes make sense, and whether lessons learned 100 years ago can help see us through the fraught present. And I was lucky enough to get to do so with Sir Max Hastings. This eminent British historian, newspaper journalist and TV broadcaster has written 26 books (his first, on the radical America of 1968, when he was 23) including one very relevant to this debate: "Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War" in 2013. So, pin a poppy to your lapel and read this lightly edited transcript of our chat:

Tobin Harshaw: I happened to be in London over what you Brits call Armistice Day in 2014, and there was a frenzy of activity memorializing the beginning of the war, including 888,246 ceramic poppies -- each representing a fallen British or colonial service member -- planted outside the Tower of London. Are there similar events planned for the next 12 months?

Max Hastings: There's been a terrific change in the course of my lifetime. For many decades, the British people were obsessed with World War II and frankly not much interested in World War I. But that has changed, especially since the centenary of 1914. And in this coming final year of commemoration, there's going to be many ceremonies and television programs and books andso on. For the British people, World War I has now come to be seen as the supreme tragedy, because far more British lives were lost than in World War II.

TH: And do you think these sorts of commemorations are the right way of remembering?

MH: I welcome anything that makes the current generation think about the past. But there is a danger that it becomes frankly mawkish. One thing most of us who write books on history in the 21st century are trying to do is to look at events from a less nationalistic perspective. World War II was a far bloodier event than World War I, just not for the British people.

TH: OK, let's talk big picture. In 2013, The Economist ran an editorial pegged to the centennial of the war's outbreak, with some serious forebodings:

The most troubling similarity between 1914 and now is complacency. Businesspeople today are like businesspeople then: too busy making money to notice the serpents flickering at the bottom of their trading screens. Politicians are playing with nationalism just as they did 100 years ago. China’s leaders whip up Japanophobia, using it as cover for economic reforms, while Shinzo Abe stirs Japanese nationalism for similar reasons. … Vladimir Putin has been content to watch Syria rip itself apart. And the European Union, which came together in reaction to the bloodshed of the 20th century, is looking more fractious and riven by incipient nationalism than at any point since its formation.


Do you agree that those words look pretty prescient today?

MH: I don't think I entirely agree with the Economist's view that everybody is just too busy making money. People are seldom more innocently employed than when making money, as distinct from war. Yet it is scary how readily lessons of the past are forgotten -- history never repeats itself, but we can learn a lot from looking back at the ghastly mistakes that were made.

About three years ago, a delegation of Chinese generals visited Britain, and I was asked to speak to them. They'd been told that I'd written a book about 1914, and one of them asked me if I saw any parallels. I said yes, I did see one: To me the supreme irony of 1914 is that if the Germans had not gone to war, almost nothing could have prevented them from dominating Europe within 20 years by peaceful means. By all the economic and industrial indicators, they were leaping ahead of Britain, France and Russia. But Kaiser Wilhelm and his generals measured strength by counting soldiers, and they went to war, and the rest is history.

TH: Did these Chinese generals take the point?

MH: I suggested that their government might wish to ask itself whether anything at stake in the South China Sea or with Taiwan was worth putting at risk their enormous achievement. And one of them responded, "But we have claims!" I said: "You may find me a bit more sympathetic to some of those claims than you might expect, but that's not the point. The point is, is it really worth putting all this at risk?"

TH: Speaking of China, in an interview with Bloomberg Television, your fellow British historian Niall Ferguson asked and answered a question: "Where were we 100 years ago? The rising power went to war with the incumbent power. What we must avoid in the 21st century is a rerun of that with China in the role of Germany and the United States in the role of Great Britain." In the U.S., similar comparisons have been made to the so-called Thucydides Trap that caused the Peloponnesian Wars. Despite the threats posed by Iran, North Korea and Russia, do you share the fear that China is inexorably and inevitably America's -- and, by extension, the U.K.'s -- prime future adversary?

MH: Absolutely nothing in history is inevitable, and it's huge mistake to think that. I buy about half the arguments in the Thucydides Trap. I am especially interested in arguments put forth by Richard Haass of the Council on Foreign Relations and Graham Allison of Harvard, who each made points that seem to me tremendously important in recent books. 2 One is that the United States no longer has the power to make its own will stick about everything everywhere in the world. There's got to be an understanding -- which, alas, there doesn't seem to be in the White House at present -- that on some issues that the United States cares about it's going to have to give ground, especially to China. There's going to have to be some very painful horse trading.

And there's a second point which I think is significant: We too often use the word "peace" to denote the highest good. Yet my hero among British historians, Sir Michael Howard, often makes the point -- which Richard Haass echoes -- that "stability" should be the key word, that what are really most precious and most likely to save us from getting into another war are stability and predictability. We need statesmen who say what they mean and mean what they say.  Our troubles start when they don't do that.

I think I was the first writer to make the comparison between the personality of Trump and that of Kaiser Wilhelm -- who ruled Germany in 1914 -- both narcissists, both natural posturers. The historians I respect are sure that Kaiser Wilhelm in 1914 did not want a big war. But he made the colossal mistake of believing that he could have a small war without triggering a big one. It is easy to see similarities between the posturing of the Kaiser, which led to disaster in 1914, and some of the posturings of President Trump. Now that does not mean we are on the path to war -- again, I do not believe in inevitability -- but we must recognize these risks.  

TH: Among the victims of the Great War were the great houses that had dominated Europe for so long: Romanovs, Hapsburgs, Hohenzollerns, etc. Today, with Brexit, Catalan independence, the tussle over immigrants and open borders, rising popularity of right-wing parties in France, Germany and elsewhere, is the continent's post-World War II order also in danger? 

MH: I will again quote Sir Michael Howard, who is now 94, and said to me the other day the great lesson of his lifetime is that all difficult problems are best addressed with partners or allies. And one reason that some of us are so desperately unhappy about Brexit is that I'm afraid there is a belief among some of my countrymen that somehow Britain can divorce itself from many of the alarming and dismaying things that are happening on the continent simply by hiding behind the White Cliffs of Dover.

Of course, there is an awful lot wrong with the EU. I've been among those very critical of the EU's apparent unwillingness to control immigration, a huge historic challenge. It's understandable that a lot of people on this island felt that we could overcome the problem of European paralysis on migrants by walking away. Yet this migratory problem is so big that it can only be addressed in partnership with allies. It seems a great, indeed historic mistake to kid ourselves differently.

The isolation movements have been much strengthened by social media. I'm among those who think this is a malign force in the world and a malign force for democracy. On both sides of the Atlantic we find this scary idea that if some of us don't like the way a dialogue with others is going, we can just walk away and do our own thing. That flies in the face of everything we've learned over the last century or two. Of course international negotiations and international relations are always difficult. How can they possibly be anything else? But somehow one has to keep talking.

TH: And instead, the desire to keep talking seems to have been replaced by this sort of social-media outlook on global affairs, as though we could just simply "unfriend" the world?

MH: Another historian remarked to me recently that we should never forget that the Age of the Enlightenment happened less than 300 years ago -- the age of rationality in which Western civilization learned to accept that you don't reach decisions on the basis of instinct, religion or superstition, but instead try to do so on the basis of an examination of evidence. Some people whom I respect believe that what we're seeing now, especially at the extremes of the political right and left, is almost an attempt to undo the Enlightenment, to go back to doing things on the basis of often childlike impulses. But all of us who like to think we were at least half educated, were taught in colleges or in schools that one day you write an essay arguing a case from one side and the next day you do it from the other. And most of us have spent our lives reading at least some newspapers that reflect highly varied points of view. This is what civilization is supposed to be about.   

But now you've got huge swathes of the electorates worldwide who don't get their news from the Washington Post and the New York Times and Bloomberg or, in Britain, the Times and the Guardian. They're only interested in what like-minded folk tell them on social media, most of it nonsense. A RAND researcher the other days described Russia's contribution a "firehose of falsehood," and Fox News is not much better. These people are only communicating with others who tell them what they want to hear. Now I'm a natural optimist. I think that means will be found of taming social media. But at the moment, while the world is still trying to figure out how to do that without destroying freedom of speech, we have a problem.

TH: One of the issues that that we simply can't seem to discuss these days without it descending into pure rancor is immigration. There was a controversial report by the think tank Policy Exchange that had suggestions for reforming the U.K.'s immigration policies after Brexit, and you have written in praise of it. Can you explain what you like in it?

MH: I've always been in the middle of the immigration debate, which means that I'm neither in favor of a wide open door nor do I believe that it's desirable or possible to slam the door. We're dealing here with an unprecedented situation. Forty or 50 years ago, I was a foreign correspondent for the BBC and I was filming people in the middle of Africa. You would spend an hour or two with these tribesmen who regarded you as a visiting Martian. They would never for a moment think that their lives had anything to do with our lives and it certainly would never occur to them that they might ever join our society. But now, because of globalization and the extraordinary freedom of movement that air travel makes possible, if you go and visit those same tribes in the middle of Mali or wherever, they're all supporters of Manchester United and they will ask you why the team's not doing better up there. They watch "Downton Abbey." They now know what we have got and what they have not.

And so tens of millions and conceivably hundreds of millions of people's greatest aspiration is to come to the West. And if a substantial portion of those people come, then it is going to transform our society in ways that most people don't want. And why should they want it? It is vital to both Europe and the U.S. to have some immigration, but it seems to me essential to recognize that if you're going to preserve the stability of our societies, the consent of our existing electorates, you cannot have an absolute freedom of movement, there have to be controls on immigration. It is hardly surprising that an awful lot of perfectly decent people both in Britain and in the United States are deeply angry with the elites about the failure to control immigration.

TH: So you see a failure at the top of society?

MH: I know it's boring to keep quoting Michael Howard, but because he's 94, he's seen more than most of us. Michael says he thinks we must recognize that the elites, of which he himself freely admitted to having been part, have failed to sustain the consent of electorates for what's gone on. And all those elites in Britain -- for instance those who drove through the European Project while ignoring the need to sustain the consent of the electorate, bear a considerable responsibility for getting us into this mess.

As long as prosperity continued to increase as it has since 1945, Western electorates were willing to give elites a very considerable measure of discretion about what they did, whether in creating the United Nations or getting the United States or Britain into alliances, whatever it might be. They were willing to acquiesce. Now, prosperity is being squeezed, wages are stagnant, and for many people unlikely to rise much in real terms.   It is going to be much more difficult to sustain the consent of Western electorates for purposes the elites consider enlightened and unselfish.

TH: I'm glad you brought up prosperity. Because this is Bloomberg, I can't help but bring in an economic angle. Josh Feinman, the chief economist for Deutsche Bank, last year issued a report warning: "We’ve seen this movie before. The first great globalization wave, in the half-century or so before World War I, sparked a populist backlash too, and ultimately came crashing down in the cataclysms of 1914 to 1945." Obviously, there were many causes for those wars, but do you see similar forces at play today?  

MH: I would accept that. The lesson is always the same. It is depressing how very few of our political leaders on either side of the Atlantic are attempting talking to electorates in enlightened or even grown-up terms, to try to explain to them what's going on around them, to keep an intelligent debate going about how best we manage our affairs.

As a historian I find myself thinking back to the giants not only of the White House but also on Capitol Hill who were often leading debates about the Vietnam war, NATO, the Cold War, Bretton Woods. People like William Fulbright held up torches to electorates, showing them what was going on in their society. Unless I'm missing something or rather somebody, on both sides of the Atlantic we have a very serious leadership deficit.

TH: One country where people don't feel they have a leadership deficit is Russia. Putin seems to be playing this game of how to make yourself popular in the current world scene fairly well, at least among his own people. This got me thinking of Margaret MacMillan's great book "Paris 1919" …

MH: I was talking to her about it only yesterday, marvelous historian …

TH: Oh, well, then I sure hope I have this right. But as I recall, she pointed out that many of the Germans didn't really understand that they had lost the war, because when the armistice was declared, they still had troops across the border in their enemies' lands and they hadn't been invaded. And this sort of festered for a long time, and was something that Hitler played on for his rise.

MH: This is absolutely true.

TH: And now Putin is in the same sort of spot -- with the West saying that it won the Cold War. He seems to have inflamed Russians about that idea. Do you see the parallel there too?

MH: There's a general acceptance that the West made a huge mistake with the end of the Cold War by treating the Russians with near contempt, as mere losers. The Russians are a proud people, and some of us have argued for many years that we can only hope to have a more comfortable relationship if we can help them to feel better about themselves. This isn't easy because, unfortunately, industrially and economically Russia is lagging far, far behind the Western world. The Russians can't build an electric toaster that anybody outside Russia would wish to buy. Russia's only notable exports are oil, gas and fear.

Putin is a gloomy, deeply depressing figure. He is doing a lot of at best mischievous, at worst deeply malign things to destabilize the West. But he commands the support of a majority of the Russian people.  Today, the only thing that's making many Russians feel good about themselves is making life less comfortable for us, as if it was a zero-sum game. But it seems unlikely there will be a full-blown war between Russia and the West, whereas there is a real possibility of a major conflict in the East between America and China.

TH: We are commemorating a couple of other important moments this month: the centennial of the Balfour Declaration -- the first promise by a European power of a Jewish state in the Holy Land -- and the 102nd anniversary of the start of the Sykes-Picot negotiations, during which the European powers redrew the map of the Middle East. Now, with all the chaos there, does it seem like we are in for another total shakeup?

MH: Almost everybody who looks at the Middle East today gets up feeling pretty depressed. A Jewish audience asked me recently my opinion of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and I said that I believe the people of Israel deserve something better. I've never forgotten an exchange I had in about 1980 in Jerusalem with the Israeli novelist Amos Oz. I was bemoaning something that the Menachem Begin government was doing. He said to me, "You are typical of a certain kind of European who has always loved Israel because you think of it as a European nation." This was changing, he said: Israel was ceasing to be a European nation and becoming a Middle Eastern nation.  In the future, he said, "I hope that Israel will never behave worse than other Middle Eastern countries. But I think you will be disappointed if you hope that it is going to behave better."  

That remark seemed profound then, and more so now. Israel’s economic, intellectual, technological -- and military -- achievement is awesome. I haven't been there for some years now, but everybody who does says that it's becoming ever more inward-looking -- partly because they feel so beleaguered. They have become ever-less interested in what everybody else thinks about them, and seem determined to keep going their own way, which includes treating the Palestinians in ways some of us find deeply distressing.

TH: Looking at Israel's neighbors, I'm just wondering if you think that there is something inherent in the idea of the French and the British drawing up those artificial lines on the map, that eventually it is simply going to have to go away.

MH: It's been self-evident for a long time that the lines drawn at the end of empires are not sustainable. It seems today a great mistake that Western policy still assumes that both Syria and Iraq can survive as unitary states, whereas most of those who really know both of those countries believe that's impossible.

One of the things I've learned as a historian is that one should never listen to anybody who uses the word "solution." Most difficult problems in the world are not susceptible to solutions. What they are susceptible to is management. We'd all get along a lot better if we understood there is not the remotest possibility of a "solution" or even multiple solutions to the troubles in the Middle East because they are so fantastically complex. The only way to approach them is to think how we can best manage them. How best can we avoid making things worse? 

TH: That goes back to what you said earlier, quoting Michael Howard, about peace not being the goal. What did you say -- it should be stability?

MH: Yes, stability is the key.

It brings up another mistake we've learned from the past. Almost the only thing that rulers can be sure of is that if they send soldiers to march or ships to sail or warplanes to fly, those things will happen -- because armed forces are by their nature responsive. But the fact that they are responsive to orders from the top does not mean that they're the appropriate tools to deal with everything.

Especially now that I'm just coming to the end of writing a big book on Vietnam, I am convinced that we must question why, again and again, we burden soldiers with responsibility for fantastically complex cultural and social problems that are way, way outside their sphere of expertise. Soldiers' specialty is killing people -- that's their job and we need them for that purpose. But the idea that soldiers can be expected to provide the answers to countries like Afghanistan or Iraq is always mistaken.

TH: Let's end on a more personal note. The screensaver on my iPad is a photo I took on Armistice Day in 2014 of Edward Lutyens's Cenotaph to the war's casualties on Whitehall. I think the memorial is a sublime work of art. But I've always found its inscription -- "The Glorious Dead" -- somewhat incongruous for a war in which the dead died so ingloriously in the trenches. What does that phrase mean to you?

MH: Let me make two points. First, it is mistaken to believe that dying in one war is worse than dying in another. The British people have got an idea, which some of us historians are constantly trying to disabuse them of, that World War I was somehow a worse historical experience than other wars. Anybody who was with Napoleon's armies in Russia or went through the Thirty Years War in Europe or for that matter the American Civil War would laugh at the idea that the First World War was somehow a qualitatively worse military experience. Wars aren't fun for anybody except lunatics. They're absolutely ghastly.

"The Glorious Dead" -- I'm afraid it's one of those clichés that societies have to keep using to sustain popular will to go on sending their sons to die in wars. But there is never anything glorious about dying young. All you can say is that sometimes the causes are better than others.

Having spent most of my life studying wars, my respect is very great for all those who take part in them and for what some wars have achieved for the rest of us. By their nature, conflicts bring out the very best and the worst in human beings. Writing books about them means studying both how low mankind can fall and how high it can rise. "The Glorious Dead" -- it's the sort of phrase that all nations have to write on their memorials. Otherwise you'd never get anyone to go to war again.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
  1. Throntveit admits that the comparison isn't ironclad, citing as a difference Wilson's "humble vision" -- and odd descriptor for a man who once told an audience that "At last the world knows America as the savior of the world!”


  2. These are, respectively, "A World in Disarray: American Foreign Policy and the Crisis of the Old Order" and "Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides's Trap?"

To contact the author of this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net

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