Hitler or not, the Nazi comparison is real
When the Hitler analogy is lodged against Jew-hating dictatorships, publicly hanging gays and stoning women to death, commentators denounce not the regime, but the comparison
Among the overused tropes of contemporary political discourse, few are as resilient as the Hitler analogy. Both liberals and conservatives indulge in this rhetorical practice – including politicians, commentators, celebrities, and academics.
To cite just a few from the superabundance of examples:
– Colorado Prof. Ward Churchill calling victims – not perpetrators – of the 9/11 attacks on New York’s Twin Towers “little Eichmanns,” accusing them of moral complicity in alleged U.S. military atrocities.
– Left-wing entertainer Linda Ronstadt calling the Bush administration a "new bunch of Hitlers" during the 2004 Presidential campaign.
– Republican Senator Rick Santorum comparing Democratic opponents of President Bush’s judicial nominees to “Adolf Hitler in 1942 saying, 'I'm in Paris . . . How dare you bomb my city? It's mine.'”
– Civil rights leader and NAACP Chairman Julian Bond comparing the Bush administration in 2006 to the Nazis, claiming “The Republican Party would have the American flag and the swastika flying side by side.”
– Conservative talk show host Glenn Beck comparing President Obama’s funding of a public service jobs program to “what Hitler did with the SS, he had his own people . . . the Brownshirts.”
This rhetorical grandiosity quickly shrinks into perspective upon recalling the actual brute facts of Hitler’s Nazi regime.
In January 1933, Hitler was named Chancellor of Germany after a series of "elections" and "negotiations" tainted by Nazi street gangs – the real Brownshirts – that stormed the streets beating up their opponents.
Hitler soon amassed dictatorial powers. Political opponents and homosexuals were arrested, beaten, and consigned to slave labour in concentration camps. Hitler’s “T-4" program commenced round-ups and mass murders of the mentally and physically handicapped.
Hitler promptly barred Jews from the professions and public employment, seized their businesses, and looted their personal assets. Amidst draconian media censorship that included public book burnings, the Nazis unleashed a relentless barrage of anti-Semitic propaganda.
Declaring war on “non-Aryan” civilization, Hitler invaded Poland and later the Soviet Union, slaughtering by the million not only Jews, but also Polish and Russian (read anyone under the horrors of socialist rule) civilians.
After conquering Western and Eastern Europe, Hitler ordered the deportation and murder of all remaining Jews. Six million - around one third of the world’s then-Jewish population – perished at the hands of the Nazis.
Alongside these ghastly horrors, the subjects of most Hitler analogies appear so trivial and misplaced that it is tempting to declare all such comparisons illegitimate.
In a 2008 column, Anne Applebaum compellingly argued this position, concluding that “Nazi analogies nowadays are usually deployed to end arguments, not broaden them.”
And yet – despite its litany of abuses – the Hitler analogy in rare cases remains both relevant and highly clarifying.
An especially compelling example at present is Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, which necessitates answers to three critical questions: Must this be prevented? If so, can negotiations work? If not, is military force the necessary option?
The answers depend on a correct assessment of the Iranian regime’s intentions and risk tolerances. Comparative diplomatic and military history – including that of the Nazis – can illuminate such assessments.
Though asymmetries will always preclude perfect comparisons, the relevant parallels between the Iranian and Nazi German regimes are substantial.
Starting with: messianic dictatorship; highly paranoid leadership; strict censorship; jailing and torturing gays and regime opponents; aggressive pursuit of ethnic-based regional hegemony (Germans/Shia); and the slaughter of innocent civilians to advance geopolitical goals.
And also considering: pervasive state-sponsored anti-Semitism; military proximity to large concentrations of Jewish population; and repeatedly declaring genocide of the Jewish people/nation as a major national goal.
The clincher is, with Iran on the verge of assembling deliverable nuclear weapons, it will have the unstoppable capacity to carry out that latter goal – parallel to Nazi Germany after its conquests in Eastern Europe.
On these facts, it is clearly within the realm of legitimate discussion to conclude, as Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu stated most recently to Presiden Obama last week, "As Jews we cannot but compare Iran to Nazi Germany."
But foreign policy experts across the blogosphere and on the Israeli left have denounced this comparison.
Three months ago, former CIA analyst Paul Pillar, who opposes a military strike, claimed “nothing” in Iran’s “intentions or capabilities . . . remotely resembles the Nazi threat,” and that Iran’s leaders “know full well that Israel is here to stay.” Just ignore their promises over three decades to wipe Israel off the map.
True, Iran’s military is not the Wehrmacht of 1942. Then again, neither was Germany’s in 1936. But under the Pillar policy, Iran would soon have nuclear missiles.
In Tikkun magazine, Uri Avnery in late 2009 declared the Ahmadinejad-Hitler comparison “a crime,” claiming “Iran is not a fascist state . . . Nor is Iran an anti-Semitic state . . . And, most important: Iran is not an aggressive country.”
Protestors and Jews in Teheran might disagree; as would Lebanese and Syrians who yearn for democracy.
This week, the leader of Israel’s left-wing Meretz party, Zehava Gal-On, scolded PM Netanyahu’s “crazy analogies,” declaring that “not every enemy is Hitler and not every problem is Auschwitz” as if Netanyahu had compared a dozen regimes to Hitler, not the singular case of Iran and Ahmadinejad.
In Haaretz, Anshel Pfeffer reasoned, “Precisely because 2012 is not 1942, the Iranians are not the Nazis“ as if Netanyahu declared the circumstances exactly the same, rather than simply analogous in certain pertinent respects.
Far from reassuring, these and similar denunciations echo across the century, to debates about Hitler in the 1930's: he doesn’t really mean what he says; his words are just politics; we can contain him.
Then as now, the desire to wish away genuine evil cast its shadows over daunting questions of war and peace.
Perhaps that desire explains this troubling inversion: election disputes or spending cuts in the liberal democracies trigger the Hitler analogy; but when the charge is lodged against a terror-sponsoring dictatorship that publicly hangs gays and stones women to death, rushes to develop nuclear weapons, and calls for genocide of the Jews, commentators denounce not the regime, but its comparison to Hitler.
That is truly a world – and a moral calculus – turned upside down.
Henry Kopel is an attorney with the US Department of Justice in Connecticut. The views here are his own, and do not reflect the views of the Justice Department
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