“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes”: A quick dive into human nature and why we never learn

Editor's note : Re-published archive article (cf. Crescendo no.7, May 2022 "La France à Istanbul, une présence durable")

When the Germans decided to invade the Soviet Union on the 22nd of June, 1941, they underestimated the harshness of the Soviet winter and the entire operation was deemed a failure. Some consider it to be the beginning of the end for the third Reich. Coincidentally, more than a century before that, the same mistake was made by none other than Napoleon Bonaparte when he lost a large portion of his troops during his invasion of Russia and it was, once again, considered to be the beginning of the end for the French Empire. 

Les soldats allemands pendant l’Opération Barbarossa contre l’Union soviétique.

Now the question arises, how could the Germans make such a mistake if the same mistake was so mistakenly mistaken not so many mistakes ago?

Our history is riddled with repetition after repetition, the prime example of which I presented in the intro to this article. But as is the case with many things, there isn’t one definitive answer as to why we as a species keep repeating ourselves. 

L’écrivain américain, Mark Twain

Mark Twain once said that “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes”, the quote is an adaptation of the aphorism « History repeats itself” but challenges it by adding a layer of nuance. The nuance in question is that our history is so varied that you could find an event that resembles another then chalk it up to repetition although, it might not be history repeating itself, but humans. Now what I mean by this is that our repetition is most likely due to our nature and thinking patterns, those historical events we think are repetitions are in turn just another amalgamation of the same human thinking errors. 

For example, say a 19th century French emperor -of average height- decides to invade one of the coldest wintertime countries in the known world. What season do you think he should invade? 

If you said summer, Good Job! You have the same thinking pattern as a military genius. If you said spring you’re a cheater using the power of historical hindsight… Anyways, Napoleon thought to invade in the summer because duh it’s the warmest month, he also thought he could live off the various towns he conquered if he ever needed supplies. It all went terribly wrong for the guy when the Russians started burning their own land to avoid giving the French supplies and by the time winter hit it was too late and most of the soldiers in the Grande Armée ended up dying. 

Now say a German dictator whose last name just so happens to start with a big fat H is planning to invade one of the coldest wintertime countries in the world. Now yes, maybe in the past armies have failed, but he’s confident in his technology and thinks it can be done before winter even if he starts, coincidentally, near the end of June. The Germans couldn’t even take over Moscow because the oil in their tanks froze and yeah a lot of soldiers died. 

All that to say no, don’t try invading Russia in the summer. But more importantly, it’s easy to make the same mistakes if you’re given the same circumstances because we all innately have the same way of thinking. 

Okay so now that we have that figured out we can move on to the complicated science bit that deserves a proper scientific explanation to the theory of eternal return which offers a scientific approach to an already hard topic to explain. 

Anyways, so time is infinite, right? Then logically everything that could happen must happen again, with infinite recurrence, only slightly changed as nothing can happen exactly the same twice. 

Thus we have a history that rhymes. Boom. Science. Math. Physics. 

In more recent times, figures such as philosopher George Santayana and Winston Churchill have attested to the importance of analyzing history so as to not repeat the many mistakes committed. But this idea of learning history and avoiding past mistakes has been around for awhile, in one form or another. The only difference is that nowadays thanks to the Internet everything is more accessible meaning we all have easy access to humanities greatest achievements as well as its worst blunders. Who knows, contrary to the title, maybe we’ll end up learning. So now, next time you have an invasion to plan or maybe something even bigger like a history exam to study for, you’ll know better.

Editor's note :Special thanks to Ms. Cécile Guinard for her support on this article.

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