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The golden age of anachronism

The relentless scramble for dubious parallels reveals worrying levels of historical illiteracy.

Paul Lay | Published 17 November 2016

Plausible parallels? 'Cicero Denouncing Catiline', engraving by Barloccini, 1849This is a golden age for connoisseurs of anachronism. The perfect storm of Brexit, a dysfunctional US presidential contest, murderous meltdown in the Middle East and the rise of autocrats around the globe has seen commentators scrambling around for often dubious historical parallels. Donald Trump has been compared with, in ascending order of plausibility, Hitler (inevitably, lazily), the Emperor Nero and Catiline, the Roman senator who conspired to overthrow the Republic.

Worrying levels of historical illiteracy were revealed in October, on the anniversary of the Conquest of 1066, as people made bold by Brexit eulogised the paradisical delights of the Anglo-Saxon realm in contrast to the Norman ‘yoke’– preferring to omit mention of the fact that a substantial minority of the pre-Conquest population of England had no more rights than a beast of the field. Most bizarre of all, Nigel Farage, erstwhile leader of UKIP, compared one-time deputy prime minister Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband, former leader of the Labour Party, to Vidkun Quisling. It is vile to compare decent democratic politicians with the Norwegian Nazi puppet and it is absurd to liken the EU – for all its many faults – with the Third Reich and its satellites.  

Such anachronisms are not only stupid, they are also dangerous, as they feed a desire to make the past and, as a consequence, the present and the future, neat and tidy, black and white, free of the complexity, nuance and compromise that real historians reveal and long-term solutions demand. No one who engages seriously with the past can be party to such crude analogies.

Paul Lay is the editor of History Today.

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