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Andre­as Kör­ber: On His­to­ri­cal Com­pa­ri­son — à pro­pos a dis­cus­sion on whe­ther Trump equ­als Hit­ler. 1

Com­pa­ring is almost never about “equal­ling”, but about dis­cer­ning simi­la­ri­ties and dif­fe­ren­ces — and the end of com­pa­ring is not whe­ther the simi­la­ri­ties or the dif­fe­ren­ces are stron­ger, resul­ting in either/​or — in this case: if the the dif­fe­ren­ces outn­um­ber the simi­la­ri­ties: be reli­e­ved, or in the other case: prepa­re for what Hit­ler did. No, com­pa­ring is not about whe­ther two his­to­ri­cal inci­dents, com­ple­xes etc. are “simi­lar” or “dif­fe­rent”, but about in what way they have simi­la­ri­ties, and in how far the­se can play out in the cir­cum­s­tances which is most cases chan­ged considerably.

The­re is a lot of vir­tue in com­pa­ring, but in histo­ry the result natu­ral­ly is a nar­ra­ti­ve con­s­truct, a sto­ry sta­ting “just like in tho­se times … and again today”, “whe­re­as back then … but now”, or “even though … is just like, … under the­se cir­cum­s­tances …” — or dif­frent con­clu­si­ons of the kind.

Yes, I do see a lot of valid and dis­tur­bing simi­la­ri­ties here poin­ted out by Evans and it real­ly helps — as do a lot of tho­se com­pa­ri­sons app­ly­ing Han­nah Arendt’s con­cepts and cri­te­ria. Whe­re I see a big dif­fe­rence at the moment is that Trump does not have a big, orga­nis­ed, mass-orga­ni­sa­ti­on at his hands. On the other hand, Arendt’s cha­rac­te­riza­ti­on of the mas­ses might be out­da­ted in times of inter­net etc.

In fact, if com­pa­ring was about fin­ding out whe­ther his­to­ri­cal events and deve­lo­p­ments are of the same kind, resul­ting in either/​or, that it would exclude al pre­sent agen­cy. If any his­to­ri­an high­ligh­ted that the­re are a lot of simi­la­ri­ties bet­ween 1933 and 2017 and they outn­um­be­red the dif­fe­ren­ces — would that mean that ever­y­thing has to go as it went in 1933?

So let’s not get blin­ded by com­pa­ring Hit­ler to Trump only. As Umber­to Eco wro­te, “Ur-fascism” can “come back under the most inno­cent of dis­gu­i­ses” — and in fact even if a com­pa­ri­son results in sta­ting that what emer­ges here was not “fascism”, it would not mean “all-clear” at all.

No, the pur­po­se of his­to­rio­gra­phy and within it of com­pa­ra­ti­ve approa­ches is to find out about both the struc­tures and the opti­ons. One of the cen­tral cond­ti­ons of his­to­ri­cal com­pa­ra­ti­ve approa­ches is that the com­pa­ring mind has the “bene­fit” (as well as the bur­den) of hind­sight. In not being in 1933 again, in being able to con­s­truct some (more or less) plau­si­ble nar­ra­ti­ves about how things deve­lo­ped back then, in being able to app­ly logics not of deter­mi­nist “cau­se and (neces­sa­ry) effect”, but rather of logics of deve­lo­p­ment, it not only keeps up the frame­work of agen­cy, of pos­si­bi­li­ties of acting simi­lar­ly and/​or dif­fer­ent­ly in simi­lar cir­cum­s­tances, but it sheds a light on the pos­si­ble out­co­mes of actions which were not yet dis­cer­ni­ble in the pri­or case in the comparison.

So what is more valuable in a com­pa­ri­son of this kind is not the sum­ming up, the final con­clu­si­on of “iden­ti­cal”, “pret­ty clo­se” (“alarm”) or “not so clo­se” (reli­ef!), but rather the dif­fe­rent aspects being com­pared, their indi­vi­du­al rele­van­ce, their inter­ac­ting — and the nar­ra­ti­ve con­s­truc­tion which is appli­ed. It is the­se aspects which we can (and must!) use for our ori­en­ta­ti­on, as to who are we in this situa­ti­on, what are the values we are uphol­ding, what are the posi­ti­ons, iden­ti­ties etc of the other “agents”, and what can we learn about logics.

The­re are some very striking struc­tu­ral simi­la­ri­ties which should make ever­y­bo­dy alert: The con­tempt for the courts, of the con­sti­tu­ti­on. Even if this was the only dif­fe­rence, it needs to be highlighted.

Under this per­spec­ti­ve, I think that may­be it’s not so much about com­pa­ring Hit­ler to Trump and whe­ther eit­her of them was or is cra­zy, but rather about lear­ning what it would mean to inter­pret them as cra­zy — would it help? In the case of Ger­ma­ny, it would deflect the focus from the respon­si­bi­li­ty of all the others, of tho­se in the inner cir­cle and tho­se going along (“bystan­ders” is a very pro­ble­ma­tic con­cept). From this reflec­tion we can learn a lot more. — the ideo­lo­gy of the inner cir­cle, etc. .…

Anmer­kun­gen /​ Refe­ren­ces
  1. This text was initi­al­ly a com­ment in a face­book dis­cus­sion refe­ren­cing Isaac Cho­ti­ner: “Too Clo­se for Com­fort” about Richard Evans com­pa­ring Trump and Hit­ler.[]