Commentary: Ukraine, rhymes, and repeats

By Tony Makowski

Photo of author Tony Makowski
Tony Makowski is a professor of history at Delaware County Community College. He has taught various modern world history courses, including one on the Second World War and international relations, for over
19 years at the college.

“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” This statement is attributed to Mark Twain. However, as with many supposed raps of wisdom, there is little evidence that he ever said it in quite that fashion. As a soothsayer, oracle, and author, Twain’s wisdom in this statement about history can be viewed through many lenses.  

When I was in college over 30 years ago, the Soviet Union collapsed. Before that moment, many of my professors said the Soviet Union would most certainly not collapse in my lifetime. I’m still around, albeit a bit grayer, but the Soviet Union is gone. Such is the danger of predicting historical truths and futures.

As we look with apprehension and horror at the 24/7 news concerning the Russian attack upon Ukraine, we are reminded of the continuing power of a single nation-state, or a single leader, to radically change our understanding of what is truly a “safe Europe” and globe. 

Like many individuals, I had a mixture of hope and fear. I predicted Russia would not directly engage in a brutal war of aggression and attrition against the people of Ukraine. The global stakes were too high, and the potential gains would be minimal if there were such a thing as a war of choice. Unfortunately, Russian President Vladimir Putin chose war, and we are faced with the worst humanitarian crisis in Europe since the end of the Second World War.

Vladimir Putin, a man in power for over two decades, has made a fateful, brutal attempt to increase the waning power of Russia in Eastern Europe. His rationales for the invasion rest on dubious grievances and poor justifications too numerous but easy to refute here. Suffice to say, Putin’s decision was probably made many moons ago–not to aid the Russian people but preserve the power of his rule. His decision was a grave miscalculation.

Though what Putin calculated as a small operation is certainly not small to those living and dying through it, I am reminded seemingly small events in “far away” parts of Eastern and Central Europe have led to much larger conflagrations.  

The declining Austria-Hungary empire went to war with the relatively young state of Serbia in 1914. This conflict spread and brought a continent, and the globe, into war in a matter of weeks. The result was the mass slaughter of World War I.  

In 1939, after a series of diplomatic victories brought him great public acclaim in Germany, Adolf Hitler began the Second World War with the German invasion of Poland. The effects of this conflict on the globe still resonate today, even as we lose those who could remember it first-hand.  

What is happening in Ukraine is bad enough. Attempting to stop the war must be the highest priority—before it metastasizes elsewhere.

Ukraine is a beautiful land that has seen more than its share of tragedies in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Stalin’s “Harvest of Sorrow” in the 1920s and 30s led to the deaths of millions of Ukrainians. It was one of the most warlike actions a government has ever taken against its citizens.

The Bloodlands of Eastern Europe in World War II saw much blood spilled in Ukraine in the conflict between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. The civilian price was incredibly high, coupled with the persecution and murder of much of the Jewish population of Ukraine.  

Nuclear disasters (Chernobyl) and wrenching economic “restructuring” have stunted the economic growth in Ukraine. Even after gaining independence in 1991, Ukraine has remained in a tough neighborhood with Russia, the next-door nuclear superpower. 

Now, Ukraine is in a fight for its territorial integrity and right to exist as a sovereign state. Over three million Ukrainians have been displaced by the war thus far. Many thousands have been killed and wounded, often the most vulnerable in society. It will take many years and much treasure to repair the damage done in less than one month.  

In both World War I and World War II, Eastern Europe was a critical theater of political and military battle that shaped the outcome of each conflict. Russia lost World War I and then plunged itself into a series of revolutions that resulted in the first communist state on earth—one that would rival the United States in military power. In Postcommunism, Russia still rivals or exceeds the U.S. in nuclear might.  

During World War II, the greatest loss of civilian and military life occurred in Eastern Europe: the battlefields of Stalingrad and Kursk and the murder of millions in the Holocaust. 

 

 In World War II, the greatest loss of civilian and military life occurred in Eastern Europe…[in] the Bloodlands…What happened there…can happen [again] as the scent of blood travels and war spirals out of control.

Professor Timothy Snyder of Yale University refers to these lands as the Bloodlands, not simply for what happened there, but what can happen [again] as the scent of blood travels and war spirals out of control. We have seen early scenes of this film before, and it needs to be cut short.

 The brutal attack on Ukraine has, for now, galvanized the fight for democratic values above concerns for economic security and quick political gain. The response of the United States, the European Union, and allied states has been forceful with an eye on containing the damage already done. 

Economic sanctions on Russia have shown how ties to the global economy can place non-military pressure on aggressor states. The world has also responded with aid and comfort for refugees. Perhaps we can remember many other refugees from other conflicts need our help.  

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has proven difficult circumstances can yield remarkable leaders who are matched to their purpose and use the power of media to produce positive action. For now, and hopefully, forever, the agreement to keep wars limited so as not to use nuclear weapons has held.  

The end of the Cold War in Eastern Europe did not break the wheel of conflict. However, we have an opportunity to make certain the worst of the past is not repeated. The past need not be a prologue. 

The repeats and rhymes of songs, as with the interpretation of history, can change as society changes. While the study of history cannot predict the future, it can be a useful tool to understand patterns of human behavior better. 

It can also help us be more emphatic with those who have suffered from the hard hand of war. We are the most recent ring on an ancient tree, so do all that you can as an individual to strengthen the roots to save the forest.

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