Some old dead white man once said: "All historical analogies are odious." He meant they stink because the time, place and dramatis personae of any historical event are so particularistic. Drawing similarities with another event defies logic.
Yet, yet ... we amateur historians play at the game and often. And perhaps there is value in shredding a past major historical event with 20-20 hindsight to see if we can make something of a current conundrum.
That's how hang on to your seats I caught myself thinking about Syria recently in terms of the Spanish Civil War of my youth.
For you kiddies out there, let me encapsulate: The first great modern empire, Spain, entered the 20th century in tatters after the U.S. had given it a near-fatal wallop when William Randolph Hearst's war broke its hold on Cuba. Continuing colonial problems in North Africa, Madrid's failure (along with the rest of Europe and FDR's America) to emerge from a severe business downturn, and growing regional ethnic and linguistic independence movements ["las Espanas"] paralyzed the Second Republic from its 1921 inauguration. By 1936, Communist, anarchist and syndicalist revolutionaries on the left faced a showdown with fascist, aristocratic and clerical reactionaries on the right. Another military revolt bounced in from North Africa.
Still mired in the Great Depression, the Western democracies could not sort out this problem on their doorstep. The totalitarians Moscow on the left and Berlin and Rome on the right chose up sides, moving in while London and Paris wrung their hands and Washington pulled up its two-ocean drawbridge. The right eventually won out, establishing a dictatorship which toyed with ideological loyalties to the Axis, though the opportunistic and wily Generalissimo Francisco Franco had the good sense to maintain nominal neutrality in World War II.
Syria today is not Spain 1936 in any conceivable way. But the Western democratic alliance's inability to halt unrestricted violence by an atrocious regime against its own people resembles the West in the mid-1930s trying to deal with unparalleled Spanish atrocities. Iran 2012 is not the Soviets of the Nazi-Fascist era, but its support (along with Beijing and Moscow) for dictator Bashar Assad in the face of Western shilly-shallying is similar. And the growing jihadist intervention against the crumbling regime in Damascus promises a successor unlikely to contribute to regional peace, just as post-Civil War Spain originally threatened to do. And as the 1930s economic disaster paralyzed the world community, so the euro crisis and leftovers from the U.S.'s 2007-08 financial crisis coupled with world dependence on Mideast oil today hamstring the democracies.
The Spanish Civil War was confined to the least important of the major European nation-states. But just as its crucial geography and its multi-minority composition give little Syria entangling tentacles to all its neighbors, Spain's war had links and effects as far away as Mexico.
Germany and Italy tested their weapons in Spain for Adolf Hitler's coming war for Europe. (It's fitting that an opponent of the Assad regime calls the besieged city of Homs "Syria's Guernica," the Basque city that suffered one of the first demonstrations of air power decimating a civilian population, a horror captured by Spanish painter Picasso.) In the current crisis, new techniques of terrorism and asymmetrical warfare are being tested. And just as Germany's fate was tied up in Franco's war, the fate of the regime in Tehran could well depend on the outcome in Damascus. The attempt by Iran's ruling mullahs to dominate the region by controlling its oil (and backed by nuclear weapons) depends on penetrating the Arab world which they have done ironically through supposedly secularist Syria, and its clients, Shia Hezbollah and Sunni Hamas. All that is at stake in Syria now, just as the Nazis' imperial dreams were given a fillip by Hitler's victory in Spain.
Of course, looking back on Spain also teaches us the complexity of world events how despite all odds, an Allied victory in World War II paved the way to eventual Spanish democracy and prosperity. But, that achievement too, alas!, is now up for grabs, with an economic crisis destabilizing all southern Europe, including Spain, with its 20 percent of the eurozone's gross national product and the continent's highest unemployment rates.
That may well lead us back to where we started: Professor Jorge Agustin Nicolas Ruiz de Santayana y Borras notwithstanding, mistakes will be repeated, even if we know our history.
• Sol Sanders, a veteran international correspondent, writes weekly on the intersection of politics, business and economics. He can be reached at solsanderscox.net and blogs at www.yeoldecrabb.wordpress.com.