Hitler, Meet Mister Milosevic

“We will not let Mr. Milosevic succeed in keeping you out of your home,” Hillary Clinton said last week to a group of Kosovar refugees in Fort Dix, N.J. This remark prompted a Chatterbox reader to ask: “What’s with the Mister?” The first lady’s rhetorical politesse in describing the Yugoslav leader, even while addressing the ethnic Albanians he has rendered homeless, reflects current standard usage among U.S. journalists and government officials. Checking Nexis’s database for the last 90 days, Chatterbox found more than 1,000 references to “Mr. Milosevic.” Still, when you think about it, isn’t that a little weird? How did Milosevic get to be this century’s only mass-murdering foreign leader to rate an honorific?

In newspaper prose and in common speech, you don’t hear many references these days to “Mr. Hitler” or “Mr. Stalin” or “Mr. Mao” or “Mr. Pot” or “Mr. Amin.” Saddam Hussein is usually called “Saddam” or “Saddam Hussein,” presumably because “Hussein” invites confusion with Jordanian monarchs. True, Hitler was called “Herr Hitler” by British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain in 1938 when he returned from Munich (“After my visits to Germany, I have realized vividly how Herr Hitler feels that he must champion other Germans. … He told me privately, and last night he repeated publicly, that after this Sudeten German question is settled, that is the end of Germany’s territorial claims in Europe”). But, largely owing to subsequent events that Chamberlain didn’t foresee, Hitler doesn’t get called “Herr Hitler” very often today.

Chatterbox will leave to history precisely where Milosevic belongs on the spectrum of 20th-century thugs. But today’s Washington Post reports that the international war-crimes tribunal in The Hague is giving serious thought to making Milosevic “the first sitting chief of state in modern history [to be] indicted on war crimes charges.” The story, by Charles Trueheart, says that legal experts believe the evidence against Milosevic regarding the conduct of the Bosnian war was as good as that used by the tribunal to indict Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic. Milosevic was spared, Trueheart writes, only because the U.S. needed someone with whom to negotiate the 1995 Dayton peace agreement. A similar need may, in the end, keep the tribunal from indicting Milosevic for war crimes in Kosovo. It may also explain why so many people still call him Mister.

How unusual is the “Mr. Milosevic” formulation? Chatterbox conducted a Nexis experiment. There were 1,000 references to “Mr. Milosevic” during the previous 90 days. How many Nexis references were there to the other bad-guy leaders? This might at first seem unfair, given that “Mr. Milosevic” is in the news, while “Mr. Hitler” and “Mr. Stalin” are not. In fact, though, most 20th-century leaders who excelled at killing their own countrymen and -women never really went out of the news (if being “in the news” is defined as getting more than 1,000 cites during the previous 90 days). Minus any honorific, “Hitler,” “Stalin,” “Mao,” and “Saddam” all got more than 1,000 hits. (Chatterbox thinks it’s safe to assume that nearly all the “Saddam” stories referred to the leader of Iraq.) “Pol Pot” got a very respectable 752. “Idi Amin,” apparently the most obscure mass murderer on the list, still tallied a substantial 350.

Having established that single-name references to these leaders remain common, Chatterbox next searched Nexis for the same names, during the same 90-day time period, with honorifics. There were zero references to “Mr. Mao” or “Mr. Pot.” There were two references to “Mr. Amin” that referred to the former Uganda dictator; six “Mr. Stalin”s; 12 “Mr. Hitler”s; and 74 “Mr. Hussein”s (most of which did seem to refer to Saddam). These numbers fall well short of the 1,000-plus for “Mr. Milosevic.”

Some of this discrepancy can be explained by the fact that historic figures are more apt than the living to lose their honorifics (presumably because they aren’t around to gripe about it). For example, the Dallas Morning News, in an April 20 article explaining to its readers why it refers to male criminals as Mister, said that it refers to everybody with some sort of honorific except “historical figures (no Mr. Columbus or Mr. Hitler), people with single names (no Ms. Cher or Mr. Sting) and athletes appearing in game stories (no Mr. Rodman passed the ball to Mr. Pippin).”

But Idi Amin is still alive; Pol Pot was alive until quite recently; and Saddam Hussein is both alive and in power. Yet none of them gets called Mister nearly as often as he gets called something else.