MARCH 16, 2021
NAVIGATING UNCERTAIN TIMES, it is tempting, and helpful, to search the past for precedents that might help guide understanding and action — inevitably with the risk of drawing false equivalences. Comparing Trumpism to 1930s fascism, especially, has struck some historians and political theorists as likely to blind us to the longer trajectories of Trump’s reactionary politics — his quintessential Americanness.
The question of historical analogies has also defined the United Kingdom’s memory wars. With respect to Britain’s imperial past, Boris Johnson’s government has rejected all fascist implication. Britain’s schools, museums, and country houses, it insists, must not reflect on restitution, statue-removal, or the idea of white privilege; these worries are the province of nations that truly have something to apologize for — namely, Germany. As the Times explained last year, the moral case for returning colonial artifacts is unlike that of returning artworks stolen by the Nazis. After all, Britain, led by Johnson’s hero Churchill, defeated the Nazis — the finest hour of its proud past. The National Trust’s efforts to explore country houses’ ties to colonialism and slavery similarly outraged the Churchill biographer Andrew Roberts by implying a “moral equivalence between colonialism and slavery,” as if the empire was not founded on slavery and did not continue to depend on forms of bonded labor well after abolition in 1833.
Johnson’s government instead calls for unapologetic pride in Britain’s past to fortify the nation’s capacity to endure today’s political challenges, from lockdown to Brexit, when, the prime minister promises, the UK will once again emerge as “the greatest place on Earth.” The past must redeem the present, not the other way around. The leader of the House of Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg calls on the United Kingdom to “be proud to have spread overseas the liberty it so valued at home,” while the Tory MP Iain Duncan Smith celebrates the “prospects” Brexit creates for British youth “to be out there buccaneering, trading, dominating the world again.” Rather than redress the imperial past, Britons ought to revive it.
This nostalgia testifies to an urgent need to come to terms with the unpleasant reality of Britain’s imperial past. But the anxiety to distance that past from the moral abyss of Nazism and slavery frustrates efforts to do so. To urge Britain to reckon with its imperial past through reparations, school curriculum, restitution, memorialization, or other methods that Germany has also employed in confronting its Nazi past does not automatically imply an equation of British imperialism with Nazism. Different kinds of violent and racist pasts may yet share a common need for redress. We might also, for example, look to South African efforts to address the legacies of apartheid or American attempts to deal with slavery. American thinkers, too, such as Susan Neiman, enlighten conversations about healing American racial divisions by “Learning from the Germans” — the title of Neiman’s 2019 book. Others put these cases into conversation as counterpoints, for instance Joan Wallach Scott’s On the Judgment of History (2020).
That said, other thinkers, such as Isabel Wilkerson in Caste (2020), go beyond comparing forms of healing, analogizing America’s racial divides to Nazism itself; critics analogize Israeli policies in the Occupied Territories to apartheid. Kehinde Andrews’s The New Age of Empire (2021) likens the genocide of Australia’s Aborigines to the Holocaust. The British debate about colonial reparations intensified a decade ago also thanks in part to an effective historical analogy: the Harvard historian Caroline Elkins titled the UK version of her 2005 account of British concentration camps in 1950s Kenya “Britain’s Gulag,” a Pulitzer Prize–winning work that helped launch a spate of successful reparations suits by Kenyan survivors. In protesting the camps in the 1950s, the Labour MP Fenner Brockway went further, comparing the camps’ communal labor punishments to Nazi slave labor policies.
Historical and local specificities mean all analogies are ultimately inaccurate in ways that historians must always make clear. The point of such comparisons, however, is to uncover darker historical truths obscured by prevailing, more flattering comparisons. Historical analogies played a central role in the making of modern history, including its ugliest episodes; new comparisons allow us to shift the paradigms through which we have long understood the past so that we might make new history in the present.
British imperialism was often justified by comparisons to earlier empires. In South Asia, for instance, the British avoided the charge of harmful conquest by both analogizing their presence to the Mughal Empire that ruled much of the subcontinent before the British and claiming to offer a more enlightened form of imperial rule than what they denigrated as “oriental despotism.” As Indian critics pointed out even in the 18th century, by refusing to indigenize their rule and extracting India’s resources and shipping them out of the country, the British had introduced a wholly destructive form of rule radically unlike the land-based imperium of the Mughals. In fact, Mughal trends in managing food security and water were better. The deadly famines that followed British conquest, up to the Bengal famine of 1943, ceased after Indian independence in 1947, testifying to the particular rapacity of British imperial administration.
The British also disguised their new kind of empire as another Rome. In the 18th century, the historian and MP Edward Gibbon narrated the story of Rome’s rise and fall as a cautionary tale: Britain would succeed where the Roman Empire had failed. British officials could launder their consciences by reference to Rome’s example. What was the destruction of rebellious Indian cities next to the Roman sack of Jerusalem? The British adapted the Roman model in ways that those against racial prejudice today would stomach with difficulty. Blaming Rome’s fall on corrupting contact at the margins of its empire, the British determined to insure against that fate by maintaining racial boundaries. Even then, critics noted the darker implications of the “new Rome” cover story. During the Indian rebellion of 1857, Marx observed that the British had subjugated India by engaging in a “Roman Divide et impera,” manipulating “races, tribes, castes, creeds and sovereignties” against one another to secure British supremacy. How then can we say that there is no reason to condemn the British Empire because it was simply another empire like Rome or the Mughals?
When the contest between European empires led to World War I, the British styled their conquest of the Middle East as a chance at redemption, where they would emulate ancient “improving” empires in the region — the Persians, Seleucids, Parthians. These flattering analogies helped defend their invention of air control, a cheap but devastatingly violent policing regime, as an improvement scheme for interwar Iraq. An RAF wing commander explained in 1928: “The cheaper the form of control the more money for roads and development and the sooner it will be no longer necessary to use armed forces to do with explosives what should be done by policemen and sticks.” As the British Empire fell apart after 1945, Gibbonian analogies — the idea that Britain, like Rome, had become too enfeebled to retain its colonies — helped Britons forget their destructive stand in colonies such as Kenya.
The British were not alone in using historical analogies to legitimize territorial conquest and violent subjugation. Such analogies enabled some of the worst episodes of modern history. The Nazis found inspiration in American race laws and the genocide of Native Americans — as recently examined in James Q. Whitman’s Hitler’s American Model (2017) and Mahmood Mamdani’s Neither Settler nor Native (2020). If, as Richard Evans argues, “real experts” in European fascism agree that Trump is not a fascist (whatever the mutual support between him and avowed neo-Nazi groups), they may be doing so without equivalent expertise in American history. Lost in this tedious debate is what European fascism itself owed to trans-regional historical comparisons. In 1939, the Nazis defended their proliferating camps by pointing to British concentration camps in the South African War (1899–1902). That analogy does not excuse the Nazi camps any more than the invocation of Roman or Mughal example can excuse British abuses.
Analogies, especially to the most morally abject episodes of the 20th century, are liable to being invoked excessively and inaccurately. But silencing an analogy out of regard for the alterity of the past and what is particular and new about the present risks denying the past’s afterlife in the present (as Peter Gordon has also argued), the way it has structured the world we inhabit, the way our very writing, reading, and recalling of it has shaped and continues to shape our own actions — just as a sense of the past shaped British actions.
Analogy is central to empirical inquiry, as Gordon rightly reminds us, but, in the era of colonialism, Enlightenment philosophers, such as Gibbon’s great admirer, Adam Smith, popularized the view of history as a collection of analogies whose study allowed one to discern “general principles” of moral conduct. “The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living,” Marx described history’s legitimating role in the modern era. “[J]ust as they seem to be occupied with revolutionising themselves and things […] they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past […] to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise.” Given this historical role of historical analogies, the question is not so much whether to analogize but whether the analogies we invoke serve ethical ends.
Eschewing comparisons to European fascism does not free us to understand our present discontents on their own terms but rather preserves undisturbed the anodyne analogies to ancient Rome and Greece that have legitimized American and British liberal empire since the Enlightenment, when invocations of history began to make history. Worse, it risks promoting myths of British and American exceptionalism. By changing our comparison set, we may more clearly grasp both what makes the present different from what came before and the way the past has habitually been repurposed in a manner inhibiting ethical accountability in the present.
Modern European imperialism was qualitatively different from ancient and contemporary land-based imperialisms (the theorists Eric Hobsbawm’s and Ernest Gellner’s perception of a resemblance between the multinational UK itself and the Austro-Hungarian Empire is more persuasive). The propaganda about a “new Rome” that enabled the racist violence of empire cannot today redeem it. To dispel the idea that a political formation based on racism might nevertheless be a source of pride today, we might instead draw a comparison to the way racist despotisms in modern Europe have been evaluated. Apart from a fringe minority, no one touts the “pros” of Nazism. Since the 1970s controversy around Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman’s Time on the Cross (1974), respectable scholars no longer enumerate slavery’s pros and cons either. We have agreed, together, that slavery was a moral wrong that cannot be redeemed. The fact that we have not arrived at such a consensus on the British Empire testifies to the success with which older palliating historical analogies enable it to be continually relegitimized, despite the anticolonial struggles of the last century.
Countless rebels, anticolonial thinkers, and historians left exhaustive testimony of the British Empire’s calamitous record of continual racist violence. At the close of the 19th century, the poet Wilfrid Blunt described in the Times — the paper that is today so certain of empire’s moral soundness — the “hundred years of violent fraud and crime” the empire had wrought around the world. He called on fellow Britons to “sit with ashes on our heads” in mourning.
The Johnson government seeks to smother the memory of such dissenting voices in favor of mythologizing Churchill. In 1937, while Hitler looked to the genocide of Native Americans as a model for his conception of Lebensraum (the idea that expansion was essential to German survival), Churchill refused to admit “that a great wrong has been done to” Native Americans or Aboriginal Australians “by the fact that a stronger race has” “taken their place.” Churchill was rejecting the moral outrage of anti-imperialists, whose struggle to end imperialism has been partially honored by today’s reparations movement: Australian Aboriginals have won the right to sue for colonial land loss, while conversations about reparations and restitution of objects to Greece, Nigeria, India, Easter Island, and other countries are intensifying. France’s apparently greater willingness to return its looted artifacts offers another comparison that might fruitfully shift British perceptions.
Stepping out from behind Churchill’s shadow and acknowledging the harms of empire does not imply that the British are existentially evil any more than Germans are for their Nazi past. It is not a call for British self-abasement but, as the term “reparation” indicates, for a process of repair that will benefit both Britain and its former colonies. Empire’s racism and cruelties not only denied the humanity of the colonized but, as George Orwell recognized, depended on warping the humanity of the colonizer. Today, Germans are more respected and functional as a society, more capable of navigating their place in the European Union, because they have engaged in what Susan Neiman calls Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung, or “working-off-the-past.”
Still, even Germany’s redemption remains limited (as Mamdani and Scott also note) as long as Nazism is singled out as a criminal exception in an otherwise benign history of modern imperialism. Monstrous as the Nazi regime was, the fact remains that slavery, apartheid, and Nazism shared common origins in the wider phenomenon of European imperialism. Black radical thinkers such as George Padmore recognized how colonialism and slavery had opened the way for European fascism in the 1930s, as Hitler was emulating American race laws. Thinkers as diverse as Hannah Arendt and Aimé Césaire again traced those common roots in breathtaking indictments after World War II. British camps in Kenya may not have been the same as Nazi and Stalinist camps, but they were also “not wholly different,” writes Elkins.
Rather than anxiously safeguard the empire from Nazi taint, we might more productively reckon with all this imperial past. By condemning its worst excesses — Nazism, slavery, apartheid — we have not only avoided condemning imperialism itself but have relegitimized it, as evident, for instance, in the imperial presumption that drove the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the paternalist power dynamics shaping the global response to climate change today. The scandal of modern imperialism was not Nazism, slavery, or the rogue activities of particular companies and generals; it was imperialism itself, the enabling context of all these atrocities: a form of rule without consent aimed at coercive resource extraction on the racist presumption that Europeans alone were the bearers of historical progress.
Academic objections to the accuracy of an analogy are inevitably correct, given the irreproducible nature of all history, but excessive preoccupation with the fitness of an analogy distracts us from larger and more urgent problems arising from silencing certain pasts in our present, like the history of empire and slavery. Some discourage the fascist analogy for Trumpism out of a worry itself rooted in analogical thinking: that it will license reckless policing and militarization as the invocation of “Islamofascism” did after 9/11. But no necessary historical logic dooms every cry of fascist to the same outcome. The ends to which it is put are on us — as guided by our understanding of the past.
Analogizing Trumpism to fascism abnormalizes Trump as an aberration in American history only if we understand “fascism” as a unique evil unrelated to other troubling pasts. With a clear grasp of fascism’s connection to empire, the comparison of Trumpism to fascism might inspire us to challenge the myths of liberal exceptionalism that blind so many to the realities of American and British imperialism.
That it has had this effect in some quarters is evidenced by the unprecedented support for Black Lives Matter and Rhodes Must Fall, movements calling on us to address inequities long predating Trump. Rather than abnormalizing Trump and normalizing, say, George W. Bush, it might increase awareness both of the path from the latter to the former and of the long complicity of American and British empire in the history of fascism. It is a historical comparison that reminds us of a historical connection. Rather than disguising Trump’s quintessential Americanness or sullying Britain’s self-image, the fascism analogy may help reveal what fascism always owed to Americanness and to empire.
Priya Satia is the Raymond A. Spruance Professor of International History at Stanford University, focusing on the history of Britain and its empire. She is the award-winning author of Spies in Arabia (2008) and Empire of Guns (2018). Her new book, Time’s Monster: How History Makes History, was published in 2020.