One day soon, robots will write politicians’ lines for them. It won’t be hard. When the US negotiated its recent nuclear deal with Iran, it was plain which analogy political opponents would choose: Britain’s appeasement of Hitler at Munich. The Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz (his lines possibly already being generated by robots) duly pronounced: “The deal being negotiated today is reminiscent of Munich in 1938.” Previously, Cruz had compared Congressmen who favoured accepting Obamacare to appeasers of “the 1940s”. (A robotic glitch presumably generated the wrong decade.)

Last week’s 70th anniversary of victory in Europe is the moment to retire comparisons with the Second World War. Memories of the war have shaped our responses to everything from the Viet Cong to today’s European extremists. But the analogy almost never works. Often it has led us into costly error.

Happily, many Nazi-based analogies are already being laughed out of court. In 1990, in the early days of online forums, the American attorney Mike Godwin declared what became known as ‘Godwin’s Law’: “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.” Godwin later explained: “I wanted folks who glibly compared someone else to Hitler or to Nazis to think a bit harder about the Holocaust.” Indeed, nowadays anyone comparing anything in democratic politics to Nazism is considered to have lost the argument through preposterousness. Even the American billionaire Steve Schwarzman, who compared Democratic efforts to close tax loopholes with Hitler’s invasion of Poland, eventually conceded it was “an inappropriate analogy”.

Similarly, almost nobody now defends the euro by saying it prevents renewed European war — although one of the currency’s fathers, German chancellor Helmut Kohl, thought exactly that. Only Greek tabloids continue to find Nazism in today’s Germany.

However, the Munich analogy does still influence western foreign-policy debates. The Korean War, the Suez invasion of 1956, the Vietnam War and both Iraq wars all began amid warnings against appeasement. Memories of Munich made the US and UK more warlike right up to 2003.

In fact, analogies with Munich are almost always misleading. Criticise the Iranian deal by all means but don’t compare it to Munich. The point about Hitler wasn’t simply that he was a tyrant. He was a tyrant with a massive army and global ambitions, unlike Saddam Hussain or today’s Iranian leaders.

Containment or appeasement?

Moreover, analogies with Munich are selective. During the Cold War, the West’s “containment” of the Soviet Union looked suspiciously like appeasement. And the Munich analogy conveniently casts us as the good guys: today’s “international community” as a reincarnation of the wartime Allies. But even the Second World War wasn’t entirely a clash of goodies and baddies. When I asked a Finnish historian whether Finns were ashamed of having fought alongside Hitler, he asked me whether Britons were ashamed of having fought alongside Stalin. Touche, I thought.

Americans in particular tend to view contemporary Europe through the prism of the Second World War. The late British historian Tony Judt once told me why: it’s the only period of European history still widely known in the US. Today’s religious extremists’ threat to European Jews is therefore often likened to Nazism. Instead, the extremists need to be understood in contemporary terms: as a murderous minority opposed by European states and almost all citizens.

Holocaust analogies remain understandably compelling among Jews. There are two mainstream Jewish interpretations of the Holocaust’s contemporary relevance. Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu voices the conservative interpretation: Jews are always in danger. The liberal Jewish interpretation: vulnerable minorities are always in danger.

But in the West, analogies with the Second World War are finally fading. The Iraq war has recently taken over as the main historical reference in arguments about potential new wars.

Nowadays, it’s in China where the Second World War overshadows the present. For decades after 1945, the Chinese Communist party barely mentioned the war, largely because China’s wartime leader was their nationalist enemy Chiang Kai-shek. Only from the 1980s, as the party shifted to nationalism, did it begin talking up the war. Many ordinary Chinese have picked up the theme. On Chinese social media, the Japanese are now commonly referred to with the wartime epithet “dwarf bandits”.

Rana Mitter, historian of China at Oxford University, has just returned from a stay in a hostel in Yunnan province named The War of Resistance Against Japan Patriotic Hotel. The hotel doesn’t accept Japanese guests. The Communist party’s present talk of Chinese wartime sacrifices, Mitter says, is meant to assert China’s right to a bigger regional role while denying Japan’s right. Mitter notes that when Japan’s prime minister Shinzo Abe began trying to change the constitution to increase Japan’s military scope, China “pointedly released a series of archival photographs of Japanese war atrocities”.

The Chinese are drawing a false analogy, too. Japanese warships aren’t about to motor off to create a new 1940s-style Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. Even so, as China tries to realign the region’s order, the Second World War will continue to come in handy. A Chinese “Godwin’s Law” is still some time away.

— Financial Times