Paul Pillar

Debasing Nazism

The challenge that Nazi Germany posed to the Western powers prior to World War II has been by far the most frequently invoked analogy in discussions of national-security policy in the subsequent three-quarters of a century. No other historical episode gets mentioned as often by pundits and policy makers in arguing that some menace or supposed menace needs to be confronted firmly. As with the use of many other historical analogies, the lesson being drawn has been stripped and dumbed down. What is drawn from the Nazi analogy is an adage that a threat must be stopped forcefully now to avoid a bigger and costlier fight later. The finer points of when it actually is or is not advantageous to utilize force or escalate a confrontation get lost in the dumbing down. Also lost are the details of the real 1930s-era European diplomacy that is the supposed source of the lesson. The poor use of this analogy has contributed to at least as many unwise as wise uses of force. The analogy was a major influence, for example, on the thinking of the Johnson-administration policy makers who led the United States into the Vietnam War.

The misguided use of this one piece of history is being taken a step further in current agitation for yet another disastrous war, this time against Iran. The historical usage in question is displayed by the prime source of the agitation—the current rightist government of Israel—and by its American neoconservative friends. The latter are undeterred by their recent association with the campaign to launch the war in Iraq, a campaign that also repeatedly invoked the Nazi comparison. The more recent invocations have not just been the making of a point about advantageous timing in confronting threats. They seem to try to equate Iran with the threat from Nazism. The most recent neocon example of excessive use of the comparison is an op-ed by Max Boot, who mentions Hitler or the Nazis no less than three times. Boot's piece also exemplifies other common deficiencies of the neocon prowar agitation, especially a disregard for the multitudinous negative consequences of a resort to military force; see Eli Clifton's commentary on Boot's article for a helpful summary of the deficiencies.

The immediate danger, of course, of this misguided use of a historical analogy is to increase the chance of yet another war with calamitous effects on U.S. interests. It would be a war against a country that is most definitely not a Nazi Germany and whose leaders are definitely not Hitlers. There is nothing in the Iran case, in terms of either intentions or capabilities, that remotely resembles the Nazi threat. There is no intention to capture lebensraum. There is no plan for a monumental genocide. And Iranian leaders know full well that Israel is here to stay, however much political mileage some of them get from rants against it.

There also is other, broader and longer-term damage from the loose, profligate playing of the Nazi card. Repeatedly playing the card represents a failure to discriminate among different levels of threat. That undermines the tailoring of policy responses to make them appropriate for each threat. More specifically, it diminishes appreciation for the enormous magnitude of what the real Nazis did. If even problems that do not come anywhere close to what they did are rhetorically equated with Nazism, then the currency of discourse about human evil is debased. The rhetorical equation undermines understanding of the gigantic scale of the evil that the Nazis perpetrated, including the Holocaust.

There is a cry wolf problem as well. We can hope that another evil comparable in scale will never arise. But if one does, we should also hope that the most potent rhetorical ammunition would have been saved for the occasion. We would be in trouble if cries of alarm go unheeded because “This is another Hitler!” had been said so many times about lesser problems and because some of those usages led to costly, unnecessary wars.

Image: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-J00282 / CC-BY-SA