No, He’s Not Hitler. And Yet ...

tags: Hitler, election 2016, Trump

Justin E. H. Smith is a professor of philosophy at the University of Paris 7–Denis Diderot, and the author, most recently, of “The Philosopher: A History in Six Types.”

We are supposed to find some solace these days in the assurance that Donald Trump is “not Hitler.” One reasonable response is this: Of course he isn’t. Only Hitler is Hitler, and he died in a bunker in 1945. There is no such thing as reincarnation, and history is nothing more than a long, linear series of individual people and events that come and go. It is, as the saying goes, “just one damn thing after another.”

This quip is in part a rejection of the idea that history is, or might someday be, a sort of science in which we subsume particular events under general laws. This idea motivated Hegel to conceptualize human history as a law-governed dialectical process of the “unfolding of absolute Spirit.”

Marx in turn eliminated the ghost from Hegel’s system, and conceived the process of history as one of material relations between classes. But it, too, remained bound by general laws, so that when any historical actors did this or that (crossed the Rubicon, repealed the Edict of Nantes, etc.), they did so not so much as individuals, but as vessels of a historical process that would be unfolding even if they had never existed.

Even when Marx facetiously riffs on Hegel’s claim that historical facts and personages always appear twice — by adding that they do so the first time as tragedy and the second time as farce — he is still perpetuating the very serious idea that individual people and happenings in history are instances of something more general.

But what would it mean for the “same event” to happen again? What are the criteria of sameness? How alike do two individuals have to be in order to be paired? How much does this repetition depend on the individuals themselves, and how much on the similarity of external circumstances? Can we really compare the United States at present to the late Roman Empire or to the Hittites just before their collapse, given how much we know to have changed in human societies since antiquity? ...

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