Thursday, March 30, 2006

Katrina vanden Heuvel in Washington Post:"Stop Using Hitler analogies"

A group of scholars of the Holocaust -- myself included -- have sent a letter to the Washington Post supporting an op-ed by Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of the liberal political newsweekly The Nation, who offered what she called “A modest proposal for improving national political discussion”: a “cease-fire” on Nazi analogies.


Narukami said...


This happened during the first Gulf War when President Bush compared Saddam to Hitler.

As bad as he is, Saddam is not Hitler, and his Republican Guard was not the Waffen-SS.

(In fact, the Republican Guard was not even as militarily effective as the Hitler Youth.)

Historical comparisons can be useful and illuminating, but these gross simplifications distort not only the past but our present as well.

Perhaps it would be best if all comparisons to Hitler and to World War II were labled "Use With Caution."

Dave said...

I get annoyed by that stuff, too. I see it a lot in politics...not enough for it to be a standard, but enough for it to be visible and annoying.

Extremists like to drag Hitler in, because extremists love doomsday rhetoric, and once you bring in Der Fuehrer, you're bringing in doomsday. It's overkill.

But then, to politicians, the worst thing that can happen to them and their nation is that their opponent gets elected. So it is doomsday.

The other thing about such talk is that Hitler gets attached to irrelevancies or idiotic ideas. Like the Iranians making the Israelis into Hitler's heirs.

Epaminondas said...

I'm for that with a question ....does that apply to folks like Qaradawi and Qutb, ond others who objectively wish(ed) to accomplish those same ends by other means?

Sergey Romanov said...

Comparisons with Hitler and Nazis in general cannot do justice to history. But comparisons with Hitler's and Nazi party's early years CAN be legitimate. Otherwise, what are the lessons of the Holocaust, and how such events in the future can be prevented, if one cannot even compare certain trends the led to the Holocaust with specific trends in today's world?

Douglass said...

Perhaps the temptation to use these analogies irresponsibly is somehow rooted in the effort placed into demonizing Hitler in American schools.
American schoolchildren are bombarded with graphic footage of Hitler accompanied by scary noises in the background. Pictures of the dead are cast across the screen while Hitler’s conveniently un-translated German pierces their ears and gives them goosebumps. (I still remember the videos I saw in 2nd grade)
These materials aim to condition the population to fear Hitler and the Nazis at a young age. The result is that people who can't tell you the date and year of the American Independence day are absolutely certain that Hitler was evil. But their understanding of National Socialism ends there. They do not understand the politics of Fascism and they do not understand why people supported Hilter.

Politicians and Pundits understand that these schoolchildren grow up to vote, and that they have been inoculated with a just although irrational fear of Hitler. History suffers, but who in their right mind would vote for a NAZI?

Catamont said...

Douglass: I'm not sure what kind of school you went to, but in my experience at American schools, I never saw any pictures or films of Hitler until high school. I do not believe American schoolchildren are "bombarded" with Hitler at all. I speak at middle schools, high schools, and colleges, and have yet to see or experience what you describe. When I was in school, we studied what National Socialism was, what fascism is, as well as the date and year of American Independence. And I attended an Episcopal school in New York City.

In my opinion, Hitler analogies are the result of laziness. Rather than discuss what is actually going on in the world, it's a lot easier to say, "that guy is just like Hitler."

Douglass said...

Catamont: We can agree that the Hitler analogies being discussed here are inappropriate. Also, You are right; the students are not ‘bombarded’ with Holocaust education.

But the students are legally required to experience an education that includes a review of the Holocaust.

I am relatively young, so my experience might reflect changes in the Legal code used by The Department of Education.

In New York, the law was amended in 1994 to require Holocaust education (among other topics) for all pupils aged 8 and up.

The laws vary from state to state and some are stronger than others. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum tracks the laws and mandates that refer to Holocaust related education in the USA. Here is the link to New York:

My experience with Holocaust education left me with some resentment over the framing of the issue, which I find propangistic in retrospect. In my humble opinion, the real issue addressed by Holocaust education in American schools is not genocide, It is fascism.

To be blunt, the point of Holocaust education in the USA is to inoculate the public against the nefarious influence of fascism.

If the situation were different, the Holocaust would be presented alongside other mass killings such as the genocide of the American Indians, the genocide of Armenians, The mass extermination of the Congolese under king Leopold, the mass slaughter of Chinese during the Japanese occupation of Manchuria, and the recent genocide of the Tutsis.

That said, my qualms over the content of American Holocaust Education are nothing compared to my resentment over the influence of fascism and the existence of mass killings.

Dave said...

Well, I don't know how much kids today know about World War II and the Holocaust, but 25 years ago, they could be ignorant on the subject. Teenagers of my experience tended to look at history courses as dull exercises in memorization, whose essential points could be forgotten after the final. History teachers in some schools, according to James Loewen in "Lies My Teacher Told Me," a scathing assessment of history textbooks, are often gym teachers, who are assigned history because of its relative ease.

In my own experience, I knew of a pal in basic training, whose history teacher was a football coach, and he taught the history of the US Marine Corps. This poor kid knew about Tun Tavern and Belleau Wood, but could not tell me why the First World War was fought.

Speaking of teachers and schools, that leads me to those I would demonize as "little Hitlers."

By the time I hit my senior year of high school in 1980, I was a paranoid, nervous, suicidal, emotional wreck, and my wars with teachers had only made it worse. My teachers used me as a combination whipping boy/punching bag/class clown, and when not ridiculing me as a moron, they were threatening me with transfer to Automotive High School for my "insolent attitude" towards biochemistry, or announcing I was the "stupidest person in class."

My response to this treatment (which only accelerated the cycle) was to accuse my teachers of being Nazis. I would angrily suggest, sometimes in typewritten letters to them and the assistant principal, that they were Nazis and Nazi sympathizers, who were simply operating in the traditions of the SS men they admired.

I would greet teachers with whom I was particularly aggrieved with the "Hitlergruss," as well.

However, I would cap these angry letters and behavior demonstrations by saying that their Nazi behavior and tactics were not something that should be condemned. On the contrary. I would argue that as they were teachers, their nasty and defamatory statements about and threats to me were justified, and so was their Nazism.

Hitler, I would continue, was a good fellow, his anti-Communism important in the late 1970s, and his intent to create a nation-state where enemies of the regime were cold-bloodedly butchered and everyone else marching forward as black-uniformed automatons in service to the Fuhrer was an ideal to be achieved.

When yanked down to the assistant principal's office (he was my chief enemy), I would greet him with the Hitlergruss, and then behave as if I was a Hitler Youth at last in the present of the Fuhrer, joyously agreeing that I (and all the other Jews) should be killed, and beseeching this hapless bureaucrat to "lead us on to victory over Bolshevism and Jewry!"

So I was frightening the teachers, obviously, by presenting them as Nazis and me as a Hitler Youth. I was saying that they were Nazis...but that their adherence to Nazism was a good thing.

And the punchline was that as I was in Stuyvesant High School, the elite institution of New York's school system, nearly all the teachers (including this assistant principal) were Jewish.

What I was doing, of course, was quite deliberate. They terrified me and drove me to try to kill myself...I wanted to find the biggest possible club to smash them over the head. Turning them into SS Obergruppenfuhrers was the biggest one possible.

At the sound of my voice, these descendants of Jews who had fled the Tsars' pogroms of the 1880s, who had grown up during World War II in The Bronx or the Lower East Side, found themselves transformed into everything they most feared and hated.

And to make it worse for them, I was shoving into their face the philosophical concept that the Nazis -- these murderers who had wiped out their families back in Poland or Germany -- were good people.

Yes, it terrified them. Yes, it frightened them. Yes, it made me feel better to see the eyes of a math teacher in a Kipoh widen with fear, his face go pale, and his hands start to shake.

But it did not improve my grades, my image with my pals or those teachers, or my self-esteem.

The assistant principal finally hauled me into his office with my mother and the school counselor, and sat across from me, asking, "Dave, what's the problem?"

After I let him have it (without strident imitations of Adolf at Nuremberg), he finally understood that I was an emotional and mental wreck, and with weeks to go before graduation, he took steps to get the teachers and the system off my back. It didn't help then I was too far gone...and I spent most of my college years as a self-loathing alcoholic wreck, whose main desire in life was to end it.

It's a battle with depression and low self-image I have fought for the past 25 years, often believing the world would be a better place if I had achieved my fantasy of killing myself in front of that assistant principal. I've written about this on my web page.

But this experience has enabled me to understand why and how people can demonized enemies as Nazis. It's easy. It's cheap. It's convenient. It gets attention. It's a very obvious and extremely negative image. It makes your opponent no longer just an opponent for a political office, job, girl's hand, or ball game, but into a terrifying evil threatening to destroy mankind, who must be defeated.

It also helps me understand why Jewish guys like Danny Burros, David Cole, and Nathan Greenbaum became neo-Nazis and Holocaust deniers. The Nazis stood for absolute power over life and death on a continental scale.

When you are filled with self-loathing and hatred for members of your fellow ethnic group, when you are impotent, powerless, and helpless, you can reverse that entire state of mind and curse by assuming the robes of people who held omnipotent power.

Nazism is synonymic in Western (and other) societies for absolute and unrestrained power, and those who wrap themselves up in it can feel that power for a moment.

So I tried to achieve both... demonizing my enemies as Nazis and then wrapping myself up in that mantel. Since I could not prove a lover in these piping times of peace, as Shakespeare's Gloucester says, I would prove a villain.

30 years later, I still dislike teachers in general, and assistant principals in particular, and trust them as I would adders with fangs bared (Shakespeare again, Hamlet this time), but I'm not as quick to label them or any other enemy as a Nazi.

On the other hand, I still don't recite the Pledge of Allegiance when called upon to do so at events. I found something hypocritical about my teachers gravely facing the flag at Assembly, reciting those words before and after stomping me around like a hockey puck.

To let them know I felt at those Assemblies, I would instead recite the "Fuhrer Oath" required of all German military personnel after 1934, which my teachers would catch and hear.

I still do that, I'm afraid. Every time they do the Pledge at some official function now, I just go into a flashback.

And that's all I have to say about that.

Uriah Robinson said...

The verdict in the trial of RAF Fl Lt Malcolm Kendall-Smith for disobeying orders was given today. Kendall-Smith had compared the US forces in Iraq and their actions with the Nazis.

He was found guilty and "The judge told him: "You have, in the view of this court, sought to make a martyr of yourself and shown a degree of arrogance which is amazing."

Kendall-Smith a medical officer age 37 was apparently only a Fl-Lt a low rank, perhaps his apparent lack of historical knowledge was not his only weakness.

enneamuse said...

Rather than Hitler, let's start talking about Stalin and Stalinism and the torture and terror of that regime. Might have been a worse monster than Hitler even.