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Does History Really Repeat Itself?

The notion that history repeats itself is widely accepted, but how true is it?

The famous quote, ‘History repeats itself’ was probably first said by the Spanish philosopher George Santayana in the 19th century. In fact, what he said was, “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it”, which does not mean that history will inevitably repeat itself, but the chance of repeating a mistake is likely if you don’t read, discuss and contemplate on what happened in the past.

But before even accepting this, we need to first clearly understand that history can in no way ‘repeat’ itself. The word ‘repeat’ would mean a copy of something that is exactly the same – that means the source, the beginning, the course, the end, the results, the effects of the event have to be exactly the same or proportionate. That has never happened and the possibility of something as such happening, practically speaking, is negligible.

An example to make this a little bit clearer could be the two world wars. Most people just assume that one is the repetition of the other and hence a stark example of history repeating itself. However, the fact of the matter is that the way the WWI began was when Austria attacked and invaded Serbia a month after the Austrian archduke was allegedly murdered by the Serbs. But the WWII began when Germany invaded Poland not because the Poles were accused of murdering a German, but because the Germans wanted to seize Polish territory and increase their empire, influence and territorial control.

And then of course, the effects and results of the First World War were very different from those of the Second World War. For example, in the First World War, approximately 1.75% of the world’s population were killed, while in the Second, well over 3% of the world’s 1939 population were killed. That shows repetition in that millions of people died because of a war, but if the Second World War was a repeat of the First, then the results of each would have had to have been the same in order to comply with the definition of the word ‘repetition’.

So history does not repeat itself, history does not recur, but what happens is that history goes in spirals. The Great Depression of the 1930s and the Great Recession that initiated in late 2007 are congruent in that, essentially, they both began in the United States, they were both accompanied with stock markets in a freefall, they both occurred when the US President was a Republican and they were both unforgiving to the point where millionaires suddenly found out they’re deep in debt.

However, despite these among several other similarities, the Depression varies from the Recession in a variety of ways. The Depression’s major Wall Street crash was in October 1929 which was the very same year the new US President Hoover was elected. However, the Recession’s major Wall Street crash was in September 2008 where it fell a record 778 points while US President George Bush only had a few months left before his tenure expired.

So there was a major difference in the governance during the two disastrous recessions. For the first, the existing government had been sworn in the same year with more than 3 years left while for the second, the existing administration had only a few months to go. Henceforth, the Great Recession was handled very differently, had several vastly different effects and is neither a copy nor a repeat of the Great Depression.

So instead of history repeating itself, what happens is that seemingly similar things from the past happen later on, but are more or less different from the compared event or situation. History makes the framework for the future and it is our ignorance of history that causes us to slander our own times. There are certain things which occur every so often, like crises and recessions, but never has there been a situation when all aspects of any two events were the same.

And that is what drove the renowned French philosopher Paul Valery to say that history is the science of what never happens twice. In other words, every event, every place, every person, every situation and every era is unique and is never a copy or a repeated entity.

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