Leave Hitler Out of It

The craze for injecting the Nazis into political debate must end.

“Some seem to believe that we should negotiate with the terrorists and radicals. … We have heard this foolish delusion before. As Nazi tanks crossed into Poland in 1939, an American senator declared, ‘Lord, if I could only have talked to Hitler, all this might have been avoided.’ “—George W. Bush, May 2008

“Moreover, in our time, these threats are not diminishing … [and] in these new threats, as during the time of the Third Reich, are the same contempt for human life and the same claims of exceptionality and diktat in the world.”—Vladimir Putin, May 2007

No, by citing these two quotations, I am not drawing comparisons between George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin, two vastly different men. Nevertheless, it is clear from the above that Bush and Putin, despite their vast differences, do share a common ailment: They both suffer from the inexplicable need to inject the Nazis into current political debate whether they belong there or not.

True, it seems that Nazi analogies can be used with almost infinite flexibility. Bush—in what was widely interpreted as an attack on Barack Obama last week—was making a point about politicians who talk to “terrorists and radicals,” comparing them to those who appeased Hitler in the 1930s. Putin, in what was widely interpreted as an attack on the Bush administration last year, was comparing the Nazis to contemporary regimes with “contempt for human life” and “claims of exceptionality and diktat in the world”—in other words, the United States.

But the Nazis have been invoked in arguments over many other causes. In a speech explaining what “this Kosovo thing is all about,” Bill Clinton once justified his decision to bomb Serbia by asking, “What if someone had listened to Winston Churchill and stood up to Adolf Hitler earlier?” His secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, was also fond of telling reporters that “Munich is my mind-set,” meaning Europe’s decision to appease Hitler at Munich in 1938. In 2006, a British group opposed to national identity cards designed an ad that depicted Tony Blair as Hitler with a bar code in place of a mustache. Last spring, American feminist Naomi Wolf compared Hitler’s brownshirts, the thugs who smashed Jewish shops and murdered old men, with the “[g]roups of angry young Republican men, dressed in identical shirts and trousers” who “menaced poll workers counting the votes in Florida in 2000.” On Sunday, Al Gore told college seniors that fighting global warming was comparable to fighting fascism. And, of course, Saddam Hussein has been compared to Hitler many times, by many people, of many different political views.

I am not, I hasten to add, arguing here against the public discussion of history. If the Nazis were being invoked more generally—in warnings, say, about the unpredictability of totalitarian regimes—they might be a useful part of a number of discussions. Unfortunately, Nazi analogies are nowadays usually deployed in order to end arguments, not to broaden them. Once you inject “Hitler” or “the Third Reich” into a debate, you have evoked the ultimate form of evil, put your opponent in an indefensible position—”What, you’re opposed to a war against Hitler?”—and for all practical purposes halted the conversation.

Invoking the Nazis also changes the tenor of a debate. There may be good, tactical reasons for choosing not to negotiate with Hezbollah or the Iranian regime, for example (the best reason, usually, is that the relevant diplomats are fairly sure that negotiations won’t work). But calling opponents of this policy “appeasers” distorts the debate, giving tactical choices a phony moral grounding. In reality, circumstances do change, even where “terrorists and radicals” are involved, as this administration in particular knows perfectly well.

Clearly the circumstances changed, for example, in the case of North Korea, a regime that was featured as a part of the axis of evil in 2002 and with whose leadership a number of Bush administration officials now negotiate full-time. As it happens, I’ve got no problem calling North Korea “evil,” and I dislike the current negotiations, not least because they perpetuate the illusion that the United States, not China, is the most influential foreign player on the Korean peninsula.

Still, that doesn’t mean that the Americans participating in talks with North Korea are the precise contemporary equivalents of Neville Chamberlain, and it doesn’t mean that the North Koreans are about to invade Poland. By the same token, we don’t learn anything useful by calling Kim Jong-il “Hitler,” we haven’t achieved much by calling Bush or Blair a Nazi, and the idea that people who want to negotiate with Iran are the moral equivalent of Vichy collaborators is ridiculous. Seventy years have now passed. Let’s put the ghosts of Munich to rest, this time for good.