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"Those who don’t learn from History are doomed to repeat it.”

Those of us who taught History frequently heard that line. Although we knew that History never actually repeats itself (as the History Channel often does), we would nod agreement when someone said this.

Bad human behavior does repeat itself, and that is really what is behind the “don’t learn from History” comment. 

I was reminded of these words when I recently acquired an old hardback copy of a novel I first read in college: an English translation of the German classic All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque, published in 1929.

This is the story, told by Paul Bäumer, of his journey, along with four of his friends, as a German soldier in World War I. When that war ended on November 11, 1918, all of them were dead.

In the final weeks, Paul and remaining friends were retreating in the face of the Allied offensive that would soon bring an armistice. In the following passage, he offers a description of early modern machine warfare:

The tanks that so depressed Paul Bäumer in 1918 were mere toys compared with the weapons of today. War has changed but is still war.

From a mockery the tanks have become a terrible weapon. Armoured they come rolling on in long lines, and more than anything else embody for us the horror of war.

We do not see the guns that bombard us; the attacking lines of the enemy infantry are men like ourselves; but these tanks are machines, their caterpillars run on as endless as the war, they are annihilation, they roll without feeling into the craters, and /climb up again without stopping, a fleet of roaring, smoke-belching armour-clads, invulnerable steel beasts, squashing the dead and the wounded—we shrivel up in our thin skin before them, against their colossal weight our arms are sticks of straw, and our hand grenades matches.

Such a graphic depiction of horror could probably get this book banned by a Tennessee

School board today; it certainly is an anti-war novel that could make students uncomfortable. That explains why the Nazis, even before they took over Germany in 1933, sent men to release mice in the aisles of theaters after this book was made into a movie in Germany in 1930.

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Over a century ago that row of fictional tanks rolled across the French countryside. Now

major military powers now have air power, nuclear missiles and drones that kill both combatants and civilians far more effectively and from a greater distance than those early tanks. In addition, any large military conflict today will have planetary consequences—economic and political, as well as on our climate.

Vladimir Putin doesn’t care about such consequences. His invasion of Ukraine proves as much. He doesn’t care about the economic sanctions placed upon his country. He “thinks in grandiose terms,” to use the words of Washington Post columnist Dan Balz. We should not misjudge him as we did Adolf Hitler in 1938.

Hitler wasn’t satisfied with taking the part of Czechoslovakia (the Sudetenland) inhabited largely by Germans. He wanted the whole country—and then the rest of Europe, as we soon discovered.

Putin wants to restore the Russian Empire and is as focused on that as much as Hitler was on creating a Thousand Year Reich.

So what have we learned from this invasion?

We have learned that sanctions cannot stop troops from marching or missiles from being fired. The tanks that so depressed Paul Bäumer in 1918 were mere toys compared with the weapons of today. War has changed but is still war. The reptilian part of our brain still tells us to fight.

But maybe we have also learned something about community. After we declared independence from England, Ben Franklin said that after we declared independence from England that “if we don’t hang together, we will hang separately.”

President Biden received bi-partisan praise for confronting Putin and strengthening NATO. That is more important than the sanctions.

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Maybe it is time for Republicans to find a leader who won’t tell Fox News how “savvy” Putin is and that his invasion of Ukraine was a result of the “rigged election” in 2020, as Trump did on the day that the Russian tanks rolled in.

History doesn’t repeat itself, but human stupidity does.

Ken Wolf