Remembering the Great Jewish Historian of Ancient Greece and His Wisdom about the Present

Born in the Lithuanian shtetl of Kurshan in 1932, Donald Kagan came to the U.S. with his mother when he was only two years old, following the death of his father. He grew up in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn and attended Brooklyn College, where he developed an interest in ancient history. As an adult he became one of the foremost experts on ancient Greece and the Peloponnesian War, spending most of his career teaching at Yale University, where he also served as dean. He died last Friday at the age of eighty-nine.

In a seminal 1987 essay for Commentary, Kagan outlined the historical lessons of World Wars I and II, and applied them to what he called World War III—that is, the cold war. While since 1918 historians had argued that French and British unwillingness to accommodate Germany had helped to bring on the First World War, Kagan disagreed:

The question is, what “accommodation” could the European states have made to the German “upstart” that would have brought satisfaction to Germany and stability to Europe? What, in fact, did Germany want? At the turn of the century Germany was the strongest military power in the world. It also had the strongest and most dynamic economy on the continent. In 1897, without any previous naval tradition, without any new challenge from the sea to justify an expensive change in policy, the Germans undertook the construction of a major battle fleet concentrated in the North Sea where it could threaten traditional English naval superiority and the security that went with it. The British gradually became alarmed as they came to recognize the threat Germany might pose.

The chief lesson that emerges from seeing the outbreak of World War I from this perspective is not the one learned by [most historians]. It was not the unwillingness of the British to make reasonable concessions to a new competitor for power and prestige that allowed the war to come, but their refusal to pay the high price of deterring an ambitious opponent committed to changing the balance of power to their disadvantage and danger.

Britain, having learned the wrong lessons from the Great War, went on to apply these lessons to a resurgent Germany at Munich, leading to disastrous consequences. Such confusion still dominated sophisticated thinking in the 1980s, when elite opinion generally agreed that Ronald Reagan—by pursuing the arms’ race, confronting the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and Latin America, and calling on Germans to tear down the Berlin Wall—was increasing rather than decreasing the risk of war.

History proved Kagan right, although he hardly could have predicted that Berliners would tear down the wall two year later, or that in another two years the USSR would collapse. But the lessons Kagan drew concerning the importance of military preparedness, the need to stand up to rather than to appease enemies, and the willingness to use force when necessary remain hard to learn, although they apply to present conflicts with China, Russia, and even Iran. His essay concludes:

All of that runs against the grain and is terribly difficult in free societies that enjoy the luxuries of economies designed for the pleasure and happiness of their people and systems of political competition in which the material advancement of the citizens has very high priority and in which the illusion persists that isolation is still possible. But the 20th has been a hard century, and the 21st will be no less hard. The study of our two analogies [to the two world wars] suggests that nothing short of an honest look at reality . . . will be needed for survival.

Read more at Commentary

More about: Ancient Greece, Cold War, U.S. Foreign policy, World War I, World War II

Only Hamas’s Defeat Can Pave the Path to Peace

Opponents of the IDF’s campaign in Gaza often appeal to two related arguments: that Hamas is rooted in a set of ideas and thus cannot be defeated militarily, and that the destruction in Gaza only further radicalizes Palestinians, thus increasing the threat to Israel. Rejecting both lines of thinking, Ghaith al-Omar writes:

What makes Hamas and similar militant organizations effective is not their ideologies but their ability to act on them. For Hamas, the sustained capacity to use violence was key to helping it build political power. Back in the 1990s, Hamas’s popularity was at its lowest point, as most Palestinians believed that liberation could be achieved by peaceful and diplomatic means. Its use of violence derailed that concept, but it established Hamas as a political alternative.

Ever since, the use of force and violence has been an integral part of Hamas’s strategy. . . . Indeed, one lesson from October 7 is that while Hamas maintains its military and violent capabilities, it will remain capable of shaping the political reality. To be defeated, Hamas must be denied that. This can only be done through the use of force.

Any illusions that Palestinian and Israeli societies can now trust one another or even develop a level of coexistence anytime soon should be laid to rest. If it can ever be reached, such an outcome is at best a generational endeavor. . . . Hamas triggered war and still insists that it would do it all again given the chance, so it will be hard-pressed to garner a following from Palestinians in Gaza who suffered so horribly for its decision.

Read more at Washington Institute for Near East Policy

More about: Gaza War 2023, Hamas, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict