Cliff May

Adolf Hitler was evil and perhaps a madman. But throughout history, there have been many evil madmen in many corners of the Earth. Few have attracted millions of passionate followers; fewer still have conquered Europe and committed genocide. So what made Hitler different and – for a time – effective?

Start with this short list: He understood propaganda, the dynamics of public opinion formation, what it takes to persuade. He comprehended the mechanics of mass movements, how to harness the dark desires of restive crowds. And there was nothing – no matter how vile or inhuman -- he would not do to achieve his ends.

This is not a matter for historians and political philosophers alone. Today, once again, free peoples have enemies who know how to manipulate words, images and ideas, are organizing mass movements, and are utterly ruthless. They are openly intent on conquest and genocide. We deny the parallels at our peril.

In a recent column, I noted that in 1933 many in Britain were adamant that they would not fight a war – not even to defend themselves against Hitler’s fanaticism. A friendly critic pointed out that the memory of World War I was then still fresh. Hardly anyone in Britain was untouched by the carnage.

True, but that fails to account for this fact: More than twice as many Germans as British were killed in the conflict. So why did so many in Britain conclude that War Is Not the Answer (as the bumper sticker on many Volvos these days has it) while so many Germans -- and Italians and Austrians who also lost significant numbers – were positively eager to use violence to get what they wanted?

If you agree that Hitler’s ability to nurse grievances and stoke ambitions played a decisive role, consider this: Osama bin Laden, Mahmud Ahmadinejad, Hassan Nasrallah and other militant jihadists are doing exactly the same today.

Alexander Ritzmann, a former member of the Berlin State Parliament now a Senior Fellow with the European Foundation for Democracy, points out that it requires a “strong narrative” to recruit members to a radical cause. The Islamists stress that Islam “was once a winner’s religion.” The Muslims began as a small group in 6th Century Arabia, yet within a few generations they ruled a territory that stretched from Spain to India. By the year 1,000, Islam was on top by all measures: health, wealth, literacy, culture, power. What went wrong?

To Islamists, it is an article of faith – literally -- that Muslims lost ground because they strayed from the road of righteousness, the path trod by the Prophet Mohammed and his companions. They allowed themselves to be seduced and corrupted by the West and its vices – materialism, individualism and lasciviousness among them.

Cliff May

Clifford D. May is the President of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.