• Sun
  • Dec 28, 2014
  • Updated: 4:01pm
My Take
PUBLISHED : Saturday, 22 March, 2014, 4:34am
UPDATED : Saturday, 22 March, 2014, 5:48am

Learning the wrong history lesson

We learn too much history, not too little. It's often not the ignorant we have to worry about, but the learned and brilliant.

It's instructive to observe how a historical insight could lead an astute observer astray in his judgment of contemporary events. The newly published The Kennan Diaries offer one such lesson. George Kennan is usually credited as being the first to formulate the containment strategy that shaped and won the cold war for the West. Now that Russia is in Crimea again, the issues that confronted him suddenly take on a contemporary relevance.

Back in the 1930s and 40s when many Western intellectuals fantasised about Stalin and the Soviet Union, Kennan already saw the mortal danger they would pose to the West. Yet he was often reproached for failing to foresee the horrors of Nazi Germany. In gauging the two great totalitarian systems of the last century, he scored only one out of two. In an embarrassing diary entry from the late 1980s, Kennan bitterly complained against a critic who took him to task for failing to recognise Hitler's tyranny earlier.

One reason is that as a young man, he was a devoted student of Bismarck's diplomacy. His The Decline of Bismarck's European Order remains one of the best books on the subject. Though written after he retired, its main conclusions dated back to his time as a foreign student in Europe. Bismarck probably led him to read too much of the Iron Chancellor into Hitler's early international successes in the 1930s. Instead of restraint through strength à la Bismarck, the Führer would commit Germany to an expansionist adventurism through weakness and ended in "the twilight of the gods". But which was it when they were going on if you were a live witness?

Hard to tell! The rearming of Germany, the reoccupation of the demilitarised Rhineland, and the neutralising of Czechoslovakia through demanding the return of the Sudetenland with its ethnic German population - these were moves that the ruthless Bismarck himself might have made to reverse the disadvantaged position of Germany in Europe under the oppressive Versailles treaty. But Bismarck would not have gone on to invade Poland. Kennan might have seen all that more clearly if he knew less about Bismarck.


For unlimited access to:

SCMP.com SCMP Tablet Edition SCMP Mobile Edition 10-year news archive



This article is now closed to comments

You’ve earned a short reprieve from the rabid hateful crowd with no mention of China. Let’s talk history.
There are many parallels today to the 1853 Crimean War. England, the only superpower, allied with sidekick France and Ottoman Turks, fought a bloody war against Tsarist Russia.The Hapsburgs stayed briefly on the sideline but eventually joined the fray.
These evil imperialists had diverse motives for blood letting. Turkey and Russia fought for regional dominance. Napoleon III wanted Catholic control of the Holy Land by displacing the Byzantium Orthodoxy. Britannia, as always, was in every war of aggression to consolidate her hegemony.
America with her NATO alliance has expanded the containment to Russian doorsteps –missiles in Poland and Baltic states in NATO. Still dissatisfied, the US wants to poke the bear’s eyeballs with provocation first in Georgia and now Ukraine. It’s the same old story.
More similarities. Flags flown in US cities were far more numerous than Nazis in Munich streets in Third Reich. Media and House support of Iraq and Afghan wars matched the blood lust of England then. Imperialists love wars if victory seems like cakewalk.
While the US is actively containing China with TPP, Chinese at least have a little entertainment watching these nations going at one another’s jugular.
As usual, I read familiar SCMP China bashers cheering the West and booing Putin. They know no history. For them, there are only two poles: Democracy and Marx cults.
"You’ve earned a short reprieve from the rabid hateful crowd with no mention of China. Let’s talk history"
Regrettably though the reprieve is short lived as we are subjected to a "hateful" anti-West tirade. How tedious.
whymak, I ain't sure how accurate you are in your interpretation of historical events, but you are most certainly right about one thing: Beijing has been around long enough to witness to her amusement how a bunch of idiots and barbares were fighting to their deaths trying to imitate China for quite a few centuries only to find themselves at the same pathetic spot once more. Here's one piece of fact that may be proven to be useful to you: up until 1912, China was the largest and most impressive economy the world had ever seen.
You're quite wrong about China's economy in 1912. Though economics historical data are quite unreliable, China's leadership in science and technology deteriorated in Ming dynasty, with it the decline of the economy. Before Ming, China owned more than half the world great inventions.
Unfortunately, we were isolated from the Industrial Revolution, which was the key to the steady Western growth in 3 centuries despite many destructive wars.
From late Qing to post WW 2 Nationalists, we became almost as poor as other colonized Asian nations. Worse, foreign occupation, extraterritoriality, and economic expropriation destroyed our social fabric and what little was left in our nation's industrial base.
Mao may be tyrant par excellence, but he deserved to be lionized by many Chinese as the hero who purged China of all foreign occupation and thus set the path for eventual national construction.
The cruelties of man to man in Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution purges are a constant reminder the costs exacted on our laobaixing for China to rise again as an independent nation.
Half of a globe away what AL’s related European history is being related to us here today. What comes to my mind is history much closer to home. Are we to treat China’s new development as one single frame in its history? The rapprochement between US and China by Nixon and Mao certainly didn’t view it so. These two men certainly held a view of each other and themselves very differently for their critics around us even today whose view misses the entire history.
"It's often not the ignorant we have to worry about, but the learned and brilliant."
So you're now taking on promoting obscurantism ? Nice !
The cultural revolution itself was supposed to be a new beginning for China, casting aside all things "Chinese." This is why historical monuments, relics and treasures were trashed...for the sake of a new China, getting rid of the old.
Being a great admirer and beneficiary of the great Western civilization, I don't need to lie to myself constantly that gunboat democracy, opium and slave trades were nonexistent. For Western low lives and self hate Chinese, denials and self deception are necessary for their belief systems.
Alex Lo may be right that we learn too much history. But we also have too much ideology, including a "political correctness" now so enveloping as to prevent seeing reality.
Crimea gone and troops now massed on the borders of eastern Ukraine? The deeper this crisis gets and the more the West commits to a series of concrete steps to counter Putin, the more likely China too might perhaps choose to make quick moves in the Far East, where there is low-hanging fruit like Taiwan.
For Russia and China, the essential point was -- right from the start -- a canny assessment of Obama, whom they always understood as a player who would not make smart moves for Team USA.
The Chinese and the Russians probably grasped early on that Obama is still much the "Muslim socialist" of his youth, as he himself literally put it on April 28, 2013, at the annual White House Correspondents' Dinner. For a comprehensive examination, see:
By definition, a "Muslim socialist" cannot be a strong player for Team USA, because the USA is not a Muslim country nor a Third-World country nor a "developing" country -- e.g., within the scope of Lenin's theory of imperialism, which is Obama's Bible; just as it was for his left-liberal mother and for his Kenyan birth-father who was also Marxist.
For experienced realists like Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, besting stubborn ideologue Obama is like shooting fish in a barrel.
This is not history, but the viewpoint of one particular author who like most individuals
has his own view of history~ and life, in general.




SCMP.com Account