Monday, May 19, 2008

The Injection of Nazi

On Slate, Anne Applebaum explores the strange and unproductive need for politicians to inject the Nazis into the political discourse. An excerpt:

"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.

...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. ...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.

No comments: