The term lingua franca means a language that is understood across cultures. It literally means “Frankish language,” referring to a hybrid language that was used for commerce and diplomacy during the Renaissance. Today, one might call English a lingua franca, since unofficially and officially (as in air transport), it is the one universally used and understood.
In contemporary history, the person who comes up most often as an historical analogy is Adolf Hitler. For good reason. Others may have killed more. Others may have conquered more territory. But Hitler did it all, ignited world war, and did it in our times, in living memory, and in ways that shaped the world—and thus shaped our thinking and conversation now and for generations to come. He is the historical persona franca.
A previous post pointed out that Putin’s post-Olympics invasion of Ukraine bested Hitler’s annexation of Austria in March 1938. Hitler waited almost two years after his self-promotional 1936 Berlin Olympics before the Anschluss; somewhat bizarrely, even though Putin politely waited for two days after the Paralympics in Sochi closed, the annexation of Crimea was effectively done while the Olympics were still being held.
When Hillary Clinton mentioned in a speech that Putin’s actions were reminiscent of Hitler, she was shushed up by her supporters and her detractors. Talk like that was deemed premature, alarmist, undiplomatic, and, in Hillary’s case, unpresidential. And yet as events have sped along, the mentions increase. Just today, the former U.S. Ambassador to Russia had to admit that we have not seen an event like the annexation of Crimea since…the 1930s. And whether Hitler is a persona franca or a trump card, Putin uses it himself, claiming that the Ukrainian ouster of Yanakovych was orchestrated by Nazi thugs who are now in power.
History matters, and Hitler matters in history, whatever use he may be in thinking about the critical issues developing in Ukraine. This year is the centennial of World War I (also known as THE World War and the War to End All Wars, before there was a second one). So maybe take a little time to learn a little more about Europe in the period from 1914 to 1945—a mere thirty years or so in which there were two world wars, one of the most evil men in history, an attempt to eliminate an entire people from the earth, and the development of an apocalyptic weapon that gives God a run for his money.
Why learn this history? Because literally everything that is in the news about Russia and the Ukraine is joined with it. Because history never goes away, particularly in Europe. Or anywhere. As William Faulkner wrote, having lived in the American South where history never goes away, where understanding history is the only way to understand today, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”