Everyone’s heard the saying that history repeats itself. Sometimes it’s in the context of being told to learn from our mistakes so that history doesn’t repeat itself. Other times it’s when a current event feels eerily familiar as if you remember this happening before. Sometimes, people will question the idea that history repeats itself, but it’s hard to deny that there are many events throughout both human and natural history that feel like things that have happened before.
Whether it’s major events that lasted for several years and affected the entire world, like World War II or the Great Depression, more localized events like the famous sinking of the Titanic, or even bigger events that happened on a geological scale, there are plenty of examples of history repeating itself. The historical events you’ll see below are some notable instances, but once you start digging, it’s surprising how many similarities you can find in historical moments around the world.
Hitler and Napoleon invading Russia
World War II is such a well-researched historical event that it’s no wonder people find similarities between events that happened during the six years of the war and events that took place at other times in history. Wars in general end up having more in common than not, since the reasons for wars are often similar, and despite the evolution of technology, people are the driving force behind any war, and people haven’t ultimately changed much.
While there are plenty of examples of history repeating itself from World War II, let’s take a look at one of the most interesting episodes: Hitler’s attempted invasion of Russia in 1941. Does not it remind us of Napoleon’s attempt over a hundred years earlier, in 1812? Both of these infamous leaders had grand plans and were largely successful, but their fortunes in their respective wars turned after a failed attempt to invade Russia. Both leaders, having had significant victories, turned their attention to Russia with their massive armies. As their invasions progressed into winter, Napoleon’s troops and Hitler’s troops a hundred years later both faced unforeseen difficulties. The brutal winter weather was responsible for a massive number of deaths in Hitler’s and Napoleon’s army, and in both cases after gaining an advantage in a major battle, Russian forces took the initiative and pushed the invaders back to their countries.
Great sinking ships: the Titanic, the Vasa, and the Tek Sing
The Titanic is the most famous sinking ship, partly because its story is the setting for one of the highest-grossing movies of all time. But the Vasa, a Swedish ship, and the Tek Sing, a Chinese ship, have similar stories, proving that there is nothing too big to withstand the forces of nature. These nautical disasters are examples of history repeating itself when engineers underestimated the powers of mother nature.
All three ships were very large, modern and impressive vessels. The Vasa was commissioned and built in the 1620s on orders by the King of Sweden. It was meant to be an impressive flagship for the Swedish fleet, 70 meters long. It was richly decorated with carvings and sculptures, and it was very well armed, with dozens of cannons of various sizes. The Tek Sing was a huge Chinese cargo vessel in the early 1800s. Its tallest mast was about 30 meters, and the ship was 50 meters long. Finally, the Titanic: a British passenger cruise ship built in the early 1900s, 269 meters long and 32 meters tall.
Each of these great ships met an early demise at sea. In 1628, the Vasa set out on her maiden voyage. It was a calm day, but some sudden gusts of wind caught the ship’s sails and caused the ship to unbalance, tilting enough that water began to rush into its lower deck, and it quickly sunk, still within view of the shore. Hundreds of people drown.
The Tek Sing was on a solo journey, headed to Indonesia, carrying a full load of cargo, including fine porcelain, as well as 1800 people. They were in a hurry to reach their destination and took a shortcut, which resulted in the ship hitting a barrier reef. The fact that it was so heavily loaded contributed to its sinking. Most of the passengers and crew died, though a small portion was rescued the next day.
The Titanic set sail in 1912 to great fanfare, very much like the Vasa. It was through to be unsinkable, and when it hit that fateful iceberg, it didn’t have enough lifeboats, the crew wasn’t trained to carry out an evacuation, and at least 1,500 people died, while about 710 survived.
All of these ships were big, important vessels, but due to oversights in construction or management, all had catastrophic wrecks leading to loss of life. This is one of the interesting examples of history repeating itself, teaching that nothing is too big to fail.
The Great Depression and The Great Recession
The Great Depression is the worst economic crisis that the United States has seen. It began with the infamous stock market crash of 1929. Millions of investors lost everything, banks failed, and around 15 million Americans were unemployed. Many things contributed to the conditions that led to the stock market crash and subsequent economic depression. The 1920s were a time of rapid economic growth, but by 1929, production was declining, unemployment was on the rise, and consumer debt was high, with many banks having made a lot of large loans.
These conditions sound familiar: high consumer debt led to the Great Recession in 2008 as well. A housing boom in the early 2000s led to high rates of mortgage debt, and banks were making lots of risky loans. When the housing bubble burst, many people defaulted on their mortgages.
During these economic crises, President Roosevelt and President Obama both increased federal spending. In 1939, the unemployment rate was over 20 percent, and unemployment rose from 8 to 10 percent in Obama’s first year in office. However, with the modern tight economic structure, 10% unemployment is much more stressful than it may seem. Or course, government spending increases didn’t seem enough in either case to reverse the economic decline.
Economists and historians are still studying the causes of the Great Recession, but there are certainly many similarities between it and that situation 80 years ago. People who studied these two cases of economic decline could not help noticing that it was a great example of history repeating itself, teaching us that more financial education is needed before lending money to the mainstream.
Natural history: mass extinctions
Most of the time, when we think of examples of history repeating itself, we think of human activities, but the natural world also has its own stages. Over the history of life on earth, there have been several periods of mass extinction, during which over 75 percent of living species were wiped out.
The well-known asteroid impact led to the extinction of the dinosaurs. That was the last big extinction event, 65 million years ago, but it also was the smallest one. The earliest known mass extinction event happened 440 million years ago, wiping out 86% of life on earth, mostly in the ocean. The next event, in the late Devonian period, was about 364 million years ago, and it was a gradual event, killing about 75% of species over hundreds of thousands of years. Next, about 251 million years ago, a massive volcanic eruption released a massive amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, warming the Earth and acidifying the oceans, and an amazing 96% of species were wiped out. This is by far the largest mass extinction in natural history. The Triassic-Jurassic extinction happened about 200 million years ago, and these extinctions paved the way for dinosaurs to rise to prominence. Finally, the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction 65 million years ago wiped out the dinosaurs, and the proliferation of mammals began.
Many scientists believe that we’re currently living through another mass extinction event, but this time it is caused by the massively outsized impact that human activity is having on the environment. While previous extinction events were caused by big natural events, the climate changes caused by humans are having a similar effect, and it’s happening even faster, as industrialization has increased the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere massively.