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Comparisons to Hitler evocative but logically unsound, critics say

NCR Staff

In the back of the mind of every Western leader since World War II, every president or prime minister who has hesitated to send troops into battle, must lurk the image of Neville Chamberlain.

It was Chamberlain who as prime minister of England flew off to Munich in 1938 to negotiate “peace in our time” with Adolph Hitler. That peace proved illusory, and Hitler has since become the stock refutation of the pacifist position in the Western mind.

Perhaps inevitably, supporters of the NATO air campaign in Yugoslavia have called Milosevic “another Hitler” and have evoked memories of the Holocaust in referring to the suffering of the Kosovar Albanians.

Critics of the Hitler analogy, however, make two points: that by comparing every new bully to Hitler, we lose sight of the unique features of a conflict; and that even in considering World War II, there’s a case to be made for nonviolent alternatives.

“Hitler has become a metaphor for all vicious acts waged against defenseless people everywhere,” Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich told NCR.

“The problem with using Hitler that way is that it defeats logical analysis. It doesn’t require us to think anymore. In our haste to destroy the image of Hitler, we end up killing a lot of innocent people.”

Progressive historian Howard Zinn agrees. “It’s a very long jump from Hitler trying to take over Europe to Milosevic trying to hold onto a corner of his own country,” Zinn said. “I think we need to focus on the specific features of each situation rather than inflammatory historical comparisons.”

Longtime peace activist Karl Meyer believes, too, that American national mythology has misread the lessons of World War II -- that violence, rather than being the only option in response to Hitler’s reign, may in fact have prolonged it.

“We tend to believe that the war stopped the Holocaust,” Meyer said. “It did not -- the Holocaust happened. To say that any strategy that contributed to the deaths of 6 million Jews, 40 million people total, ‘worked’ is a serious mistake.

“A nonviolent response, early on and systematic, could well have averted the depths of the tragedy.”

What kind of response? “The key is to realize that people like Hitler are psychological anomalies, a minority,” Meyer said. “So you go around him to the people.

“Don’t talk to them by pointing weapons at them. The world community should have said to the Germans early on, we’re not going to be your enemies. We should have taught people the German language so we could talk to soldiers who crossed borders, we should have broadcast on radio and on billboards that we will not engage in violence, that we will talk out our differences,” Meyer said.

“If the countries surrounding Germany had done that, a dictator with a conscripted army would not dare to send his army into such a situation.”

Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Gumbleton of Detroit agreed that nonviolence would have been a more effective response. “If we had walked into Germany as nonviolent resisters, unarmed, that would have stopped the death camps earlier.

“The truth is our leaders weren’t interested,” Gumbleton said. “The West refused to accept Jewish refugees, and we didn’t make the camps military targets until well after we knew about them.”

Gumbleton said he believes the Hitler analogy is only selectively invoked. “As long as we’re drawing parallels to the Jews of Europe, why don’t we show our people TV images of Mayan Indians whose villages have been scorched and family members killed by paramilitaries we supported over three or four decades? This is just blatantly hypocritical.”

Kucinich said that while the world must never forget Hitler, it’s time to stop invoking him as a talisman to ward off criticism of military engagement.

“As we move into a new millennium, we have to be careful in our desire to extinguish the specter of Hitler we do not replace it with something quite dreadful,” Kucinich said, “which is this instinctive rush to violence every time some new threat comes on the scene.”

National Catholic Reporter, June 18, 1999