Commentary

It’s Past Time to Bury the Hitler Analogy

Comparing foreign leaders to Adolf Hitler has long been a way of U.S. leaders to start hot wars and fan cold ones. But the Munich analogy isn’t just inaccurate, it’s dangerous.

If you live in the United States and want to start a war, the first step is to compare the foreign leader to Adolf Hitler. This technique was on display in a recent PBS NewsHour debate between Norman Podhoretz, a foreign policy adviser to Republican presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani, and Fareed Zakaria, editor of Newsweek International. At least four times during the debate, Podhoretz likened the clerical regime in Tehran to the Nazis. He argued that there is a danger that Iran may “replace [the existing global order] with a new order dominated by Iran and ruled by the religio-political culture of Islamofascism.”

This is a ridiculous claim, and it exalts Iran to status it does not deserve. Podhoretz and his confreres have a sad and curious track record of crying wolf, seeing Hitlers and appeasement nearly everywhere. The danger of embracing the Munich analogy as a catch-all analytical tool for international politics is that it overstates the implications of each international conflict, and demeans the importance — and uniqueness — of the threat posed by Hitler. By invoking the Hitler analogy over and over, American leaders and intellectuals put us on a path to war, in many cases where we need not be, and risk numbing the American people to the since-unrivaled consolidation of power and evil under the Nazi party in Germany.

Podhoretz penned a meandering essay in Harper’s in 1977 titled “The Culture of Appeasement” which likened antiwar sentiment in post-Vietnam America to the wariness of war in Britain after World War I, and then linked the latter to a homosexual yearning for relations with all the young men who perished in the Great War. In Podhoretz’s view, “the best people looked to other men for sex and romance,” and as a result, didn’t much like them being killed by the score on the Continent. “Anyone familiar with homosexual apologetics today will recognize these attitudes.”

Tying things back into the 1970s, Podhoretz pointed to the “parallels with England in 1937” and warned that “this revival of the culture of appeasement ought to be troubling our sleep.” (A correspondent in a subsequent issue of Harper’s would admit that he “had not previously realized that Winston Churchill fought the Battle of Britain almost singlehandedly while England’s ubiquitous faggotry sneered and jeered from below.”)

As Zakaria pointed out in their debate, Podhoretz retained his paranoia (without the salacious themes) into the Reagan years, even accusing President Reagan, whom neoconservatives have since tried to retrofit as a neocon, of a kind of appeasement. Podhoretz wrote in 1982 that the Reagan administration was “following a strategy of helping the Soviet Union stabilize its empire, rather than … encouraging the breakdown of that empire from within.” Less than 10 years later, of course, the Soviet Union had finished breaking down from within.

The Hitler analogy has a long pedigree. After Egpytian President Gamel Abdel Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal in 1956, British Labor leader Hugh Gaitskell warned prime minister Anthony Eden that the threat posed was “exactly the same that we encountered from Mussolini and Hitler in those years before the war.” Yasser Arafat, Hugo Chavez, and even Manuel Noriega have been vaulted to status worthy of comparison to Hitler.

Sometimes the analogy has been used to start hot wars rather than fan cold ones. In 2002, Richard Perle, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, likened Saddam Hussein to Hitler. Arguing for war with Iraq, Perle noted that “a preemptive strike at the time of Munich would have meant an immediate war, as opposed to the one that came later. Later was much worse.”

The Hitler delirium is not limited to the right, either. In 1997, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright bluntly admitted the lens through which she viewed war and conflict abroad: “My mind-set is Munich.” And one of the more absurd invocations of the analogy came from President Bill Clinton, who, in arguing for war against Serbia, wondered “what if someone had listened to Winston Churchill and stood up to Adolf Hitler earlier?” To be fair, Slobodan Milosevic was engaged in ethnic cleansing at the time, but to liken the scale of the slaughter in the Balkans — let alone its international implications — to that under the Nazis was historical malpractice of the first order. When Americans hear “Hitler,” they think World War II.

It is particularly bizarre that those who view American power as having an almost magical ability to transform the world also believe that any number of two-bit dictators measure up to the threat posed by Hitler.”

This Hitler mania has many pernicious implications. First, and most obviously, seeing Hitler and appeasement everywhere risks plunging the United States into endless war. By representing the threat posed by Saddam Hussein, for example, as Hitlerian, one stymies debate about policy. (Are you opposed to confronting Hitler?) It is particularly bizarre that those who view American power as having an almost magical ability to transform the world also believe that any number of two-bit dictators measure up to the threat posed by Hitler.

In truth, the gap between a Saddam Hussein or an Ali Khamenei and Adolf Hitler is enormous. All of the supposed modern day Hitlers have presided over sclerotic economies and led states with barely a hope of defending themselves, let alone overrunning an entire continent or the world. Hitler, by contrast, existed in an entirely different environment. The military balance in 1930s Europe made it far from irrational for Hitler to think that it may be possible for Nazi Germany to consolidate control over the continent.

As economic historian Mark Harrison has pointed out, “in the years 1935-9 Germany had procured a volume of combat munitions far greater than any other power, and equal in real terms to the munitions production of all her future adversaries combined.” Hitler was aggressive, disgusting, and genocidal, but the thinking that led to the attempt to dominate Europe was not entirely irrational. For Iran to make a play at dominating a continent, let alone the globe, the leadership would have to be quite literally insane. Yet no evidence has been offered to support this thesis.

As Jeffrey Record of the Air War College observed in his book The Specter of Munich, “no post-1945 foreign dictatorship bears genuine comparison to the dictatorship of Adolf Hitler.” Record argues that “the problem with the Munich analogy is that it reinforces the presidential tendency since 1945 to overstate threats for the purpose of rallying public and congressional opinion, and overstated threats encourage resort to force in circumstances where nonuse of force might better serve long-term U.S. security interests.”

All of which brings us back to Iran. Another AEI scholar, Michael Ledeen, has argued that there is a danger that Washington may decide to “surrender” to Iran’s desire to “create a global caliphate modeled on the bloodthirsty regime in Tehran.” But how would this work exactly? Do we have reason to believe that anyone — the Russians, or the Chinese, to say nothing of ourselves — are going to somehow acquiesce to Iranian domination of the world order? It’s never spelled out.

It is unfortunate that Hitler seems to be the only historical analogy that Americans understand. (For many, the name Franz Ferdinand more readily conjures an indie rock band than a key figure at the center of one of history’s great tragedies.) But the ultimate danger of rolling out the Hitler analogy over and over again is that if another Hitler should ever emerge, we may be so sick of hearing about the next Hitler that he just might be ignored.

Justin Logan is associate director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute.