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.