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Saturday, February 07, 2004

WHAT HITLER SHOULD TEACH US FOR TODAY I know that I just recently wrote that I wanted "no more Hitler please", so I bet you'll be wondering why I am going to bang on about it myself just shortly afterwards. But bear with me, it matters. Until I read this by Omer Bartov in the New Republic, I hadn't known that Hitler wrote a second book following Mein Kampf, that then primarily dealed with his ideas on foreign policy. Now, we all know that hawks quote the lessons of Munich too often, but I think it's important to underline what I mean by these lessons. For examply in the run-up to last year's invasion of Iraq, Hitler was quoted all over the place, both by the pros and the antis. My personal reference point about Hitler wasn't the argument that Saddam is the new Hitler, or as the doves maintained he's not as bad as Hitler (not yet, and how much better was Saddam, really so much better as to be of no concern?). My argument is one about how liberal countries view tyrannical enemies, both foreign and domestic. This is in essence the myth of the reasonable opponent, a direct consequence of democratic politics where misleading statements, empty promises and quite blatant lying are a regular feature of politicians' behaviour. The dangerous consequence is that we can become blind to the fact that politicians can mean what they say, that there is no divergence between rhetoric and intent. For example, Slobodan Milosevic didn't say he was going to expel or exterminate all Albanians in order to trick the Serbs into voting for him; he said it because he meant it, and then tried doing it. But still the yearning to negotiate with him and find a compromise was widespread and spawned a peace movement of sorts. Now, Milosevic was of course not quite as bad as Hitler, but the structural phenomenon of the Western mind just not getting it was similar. As Bartov explains about Hitler:

He was also a pathological mass murderer who caused the death of millions and the destruction of Europe, and so it is important to know that he did precisely what he promised to do. For we still do not seem to have learned a simple crucial lesson that Hitler taught us more definitively than anyone else in history: some people, some regimes, some ideologies, some political programs, and, yes, some religious groups, must be taken at their word. Some people mean what they say, and say what they will do, and do what they said.
Most liberal-minded, optimistic, well-meaning people are loath to believe this. They would rather think that fanaticism is merely an "epiphenomenal" fa├žade for politics, that opinions can be changed, that everyone can be corrected and improved. In many cases, this is true--but not in all cases, and not in the most dangerous ones. There are those who practice what they preach and are proud of it. They view those who act otherwise, who compromise and pull back from ultimate conclusions, as opportunists, as weaklings, as targets to be easily conquered and subdued by their own greater determination, hardness, and ruthlessness. When they say they will kill you, they will kill you--if you do not kill them first.
Reading Hitler's second book is useful, of course, for students of Nazism. But they will have already read it in part or in whole, and nothing that Hitler says here will come to them as much of a surprise. This is a book that should be read, rather, by contemporary journalists, political observers, and all concerned people who have the stomach to recognize evil when they confront it. For one of the most frightening aspects of Hitler's book is not that he said what he said at the time, but that much of what he said can be found today in innumerable places: on Internet sites, propaganda brochures, political speeches, protest placards, academic publications, religious sermons, you name it. As long as it does not have Hitler's name attached to it, this deranged discourse will be ignored or allowed to pass. The voices that express these opinions do not belong to a single political or ideological current, and they are much less easy to distinguish than in the 1930s. They belong to the right and the left, to the religious and the secular, to the West and the East, to the rabble and the leaders, to terrorists and intellectuals, students and peasants, pacifists and militants, expansionists and anti-globalization activists. The diplomacy advocated by Hitler is no longer relevant, but his reason for it, his legitimization of his "worldview," is alive and kicking, and it may still kick us.

There is lot in the essay all of which must be read by anybody concerned about or even only remotely interested in the world we live in.

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