Deconstructing the Hitlerian slur
by Victor Davis Hanson
National Review Online
The effort to remove fascists in the Middle East and jump-start democracy, for all its ups and downs, has been opposed not just by principled critics who bristled at tactics and strategy, but also by peculiarly vehement cynics here and abroad — whose disgust was so often in direct proportion to their relative political impotence.
One of their most hackneyed charges, begun almost at the beginning of this war, has been the Bush/America as Hitler/Nazi Germany comparison. True, fast-changing events in the Middle East recently have left many of these hypercritics either embarrassed, discredited — or desperately reinventing themselves into the “I told you so” crowd. But we should not forget these slurs — nor expect them to disappear entirely inasmuch as they reflect a deep sort of self-loathing among Western elites.
Immediately after September 11, Ward Churchill compared the victims in the Twin Tower to “little Eichmanns.” Sen. Robert Byrd (D., W.Va.) more recently likened President George W. Bush’s political methodology to what transpired in Nazi Germany. Earlier during the run-up to the Iraqi war, German Justice Minister Herta Daeubler-Gmelin smeared Bush with a similar Hitlerian analogy.
In fact, what do Linda Ronstadt, Harold Pinter, Scott Ritter, Ted Rall, and George Soros all have in common? The same thing that unites Fidel Castro, the European street, the Iranians, and North Koreans: an evocation of some aspects of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany to deprecate President Bush in connection with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
At first glance, all this wild rhetoric is preposterous. Hitler hijacked an elected government and turned it into a fascist tyranny. He destroyed European democracy. His minions persecuted Christians, gassed over six million Jews, and created an entire fascistic creed predicated on anti-Semitism and the myth of a superior Aryan race.
Whatever one thinks of Bush’s Iraqi campaign, the president obtained congressional approval to invade and pledged $87 billion to rebuild the country. He freely weathered mass street demonstrations and a hostile global media, successfully defended his Afghan and Iraq reconstructions through a grueling campaign and three presidential debates, and won a national plebiscite on his tenure.
In a world that is almost uniformly opposed to the democratic Jewish state, Israel has no better friend than Bush, who in turn is a believer in, not a tormentor of, Christianity. Afghanistan and Iraq, with 50 million freed, have elected governments, not American proconsuls, and there is a movement in the Middle East toward greater democratization — with no guarantee that such elected governments will not be anti-American. No president has been more adamantly against cloning, euthanasia, abortion, or anything that smacks of the use of science to predetermine super-genes or to do away with the elderly, feeble, or unborn.
So what gives with this crazy popular analogy — one that on a typical Internet Google search of “Bush” + “Hitler” yields about 1,350,000 matches?
One explanation is simply the ignorance of the icons of our popular culture. A Linda Ronstadt, Garrison Keillor, or Harold Pinter knows nothing much of the encompassing evil of Hitler’s regime, its execution of the mentally ill and disabled, the systematic cleansing of the non-Aryans from Europe, or mass executions and starvation of Soviet prisoners. Like Prince Harry parading around in his ridiculous Nazi costume, quarter-educated celebrities who have some talent for song or verse know only that name-dropping “Hitler” or his associates gets them some shock value that their pedestrian rants otherwise would not warrant.
Ignorance and arrogance are a lethal combination. Nowhere do we see that more clearly among writers and performers who pontificate as historians when they know nothing about history.
On occasion, those who are tainted, sometimes unfairly, with past charges of rightist extremism, find some psychic release in calling an American democratic president or his conduct Nazi-like. Thus, a German politician, who de facto unfortunately operates under the suspicions of the post-Nazi world, gains the moral high ground and moral fides by gratuitously deflecting attention to an American — not as the descendant of the liberators of the Europe, but as the true inheritor of the German Hitlerian mantel.
George Soros can nearly destroy the Bank of England in his hyper-capitalist financial speculations but somehow find spiritual cover among the leftists of Moveon.org, which he subsidized and which ran ads comparing the president to Hitler. Sen. Byrd, who suffers from the odium of an early membership with the racist Ku Klux Klan, perhaps finds it ameliorative to associate others with the tactics of the 20th century’s premier racist.
Entire continents can play this game. If Europe is awash in anti-Semitism, then one mechanism to either ignore or excuse it is to allege that the United States — the one country that is the most hospitable to Jews — is governed by a Hitler-like killer. Americans, who freed Europe from the Nazis, are supposed to recoil from such slander rather than cry shame on its promulgators, whose grandfathers either capitulated to the Nazis or collaborated — or were Nazis themselves.
If the sick analogy to Hitler is intended to conjure up a mass murderer, then the 20th century’s two greatest killers, Mao and Stalin, who slaughtered or starved somewhere around 80 million between them, are less regularly evoked. Perhaps that omission is because so many of the mass demonstrators, who bore placards of Bush’s portrait defaced with Hitler’s moustache, are overtly leftist and so often excuse extremist violence — whether in present-day Cuba or Zimbabwe — if it is decorated with the rhetoric of radical enforced equality.
The flood of the Hitler similes is also a sign of the extremism of the times. If there was an era when the extreme Right was more likely to slander a liberal as a communist than a leftist was to smear a conservative as a fascist, those days are long past. True, Bill Clinton brought the deductive haters out of the woodwork, but for all their cruel caricature, few compared him to a mass-murdering Mao or Stalin for his embrace of tax hikes and more government. “Slick Willie” was not quite “Adolf Hitler” or “Joseph Stalin.”
But something has gone terribly wrong with a mainstream Left that tolerates a climate where the next logical slur easily devolves into Hitlerian invective. The problem is not just the usual excesses of pundits and celebrities (e.g., Jonathan Chait’s embarrassing rant in the New Republic on why “I hate George W. Bush” or Garrison Keillor’s infantile slurs about Bush’s Republicans: “brown shirts in pinstripes”), but also supposedly responsible officials of the opposition such as former Sen. John Glenn, who said of the Bush agenda: “It’s the old Hitler business.”
Thus, if former Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore breezily castigates Bush’s Internet supporters as “digital brownshirts”; if current Democratic-party chairman Howard Dean says publicly, “I hate the Republicans and everything they stand for” — or, “This is a struggle of good and evil. And we’re the good”; or if NAACP chairman Julian Bond screams of the Bush administration that “Their idea of equal rights is the American flag and the Confederate swastika flying side by side,” the bar of public dissent has so fallen that it is easy to descend a tad closer to the bottom to compare a horrific killer to an American president.
Is there a danger to all this? Plenty. The slander not only brings a president down to the level of an evil murderer, but — as worried Jewish leaders have pointed out — elevates the architect of genocide to the level of an American president. Do the ghosts of six million that were incinerated — or, for that matter, the tens of millions who were killed to promote or stop Hitler’s madness — count for so little that they can be so promiscuously induced when one wishes to object to stopping the filibuster of senatorial nominations or to ignore the objection of Europeans in removing the fascistic Saddam Hussein?
There is something profoundly immoral for a latte-sipping, upscale Westerner of the postmodern age flippantly evoking Hitler when we think of the countless souls lost to the historical record who were systematically starved and gassed in the factories of death of the Third Reich.
Finally, in such a debased climate, it was no accident that Alfred A. Knopf published a novel, Checkpoint, about musing how to kill Bush. Nor was it odd to hear of a New York play, “I’m Gonna Kill the President,” apparently centered around killing Bush. Late last year, a columnist in theGuardian, Charles Brooker, wrote to his British readers on the eve of the election :
On November 2, the entire civilised world will be praying, praying Bush loses. And Sod’s law dictates he’ll probably win, thereby disproving the existence of God once and for all. The world will endure four more years of idiocy, arrogance and unwarranted bloodshed, with no benevolent deity to watch over and save us. John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald, John Hinckley Jr. — where are you now that we need you?
All this venom is not so funny when we now witness a Saudi American young man, Ahmed Omar Abu Ali, currently under indictment for allegedly planning just such a murder. After all, when it becomes a cheap and easy thing to compare a president to a century’s great criminal, then it becomes even cheaper and easier to dream — or plan — to kill him.
At some point a Gore, Byrd, or Soros has a moral responsibility not to employ Nazi analogy, if for no other reason than to prevent unleashing even greater extremism by the unhinged. No doubt Abu Ali’s lawyer one day soon will say that his disturbed client’s “musings” were no different from what he read from Knopf or in the Guardian — or that he simply fell under the influence of Moveon.org and thought it was his duty to remove the Bush/Nazi threat that even U.S. senators and presidential candidates had identified and warned about.
The final irony? The president who is most slandered as Hitler will probably prove to be the most zealous advocate of democratic government abroad, the staunchest friend of beleaguered Israel, and the greatest promoter of global individual freedom in our recent memory. In turn, too many of the Left who used to talk about idealism and morality have so often shown themselves mean-spirited, cynical, and without faith in the spiritual power of democracy.
What an eerie — and depressing — age we live in.
©2005 Victor Davis Hanson