“History can be studied as a whole and we can see the recurrence of certain patterns in it.” Discuss this claim.

The idea of historic recurrence and things repeating themselves in history is not foreign to Western philosophical thought. The concept itself is quite simple: similar events should take place under similar circumstances, so given time certain historical events will resemble others.

A commonly cited example of recurrence in history is the idea of ‘Russian Winter’ contributing to the failure of multiple military campaigns against Russia. Both Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812 and Hitler’s backfired invasion of the Soviet Union during World War II can be attributed, at least in part, to cold weather. Napoleon and Hitler’s armies were already suffering significant attrition even before the onset of winter, which only exacerbated the lack of supplies, prevalence of disease, and casualties. Historian Allen Chew, in particular, suggests that there are a number of common effects of winter on warfare like defensive positions being favoured over attacking positions that influenced the outcome of these invasions.

But historical recurrence does not necessarily mean that history should be studied as a whole. Just because a pattern repeats itself does not imply that historians are confined to studying generalities. Indeed, the aphorism ‘history repeats itself’ is not entirely accurate, in that no two historical events can ever be exactly the same. While two events can be similar, they can never be perfectly identical.

The implication of this observation is that while there is value to studying history in its totality, we should not ignore the merits of studying individual events in isolation. Returning to our example of ‘Russian Winter’, it may be beneficial to study each of the invasions in isolation to determine how influential the winter proved to be. While there is consensus amongst historians that climate did play a role in both failed invasions, the degree to which they were influential may have been different. In this case it would only make sense to focus study on the circumstances surrounding each invasion in isolation. Thus, while a holistic approach to history is certainly valuable, there is still much benefit to be gained from isolated studies.

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