Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who likes historical analogies, compares the appeasers of Germany in the run-up to World War II to his critics who stubbornly refuse to see in full the terrorists who want to destroy the civilized way of life, and us along with it.
The 1930s were "a time when a certain cynicism and moral confusion set in among the Western democracies." Men and women who should have known better refused to see what was writ large and plain before their eyes, and what Winston Churchill meant when he said that accommodating Hitler was "a bit like feeding a crocodile, hoping it would eat you last." The analogy to modern appeasement is not exact, but the faint-hearted who demand a quick withdrawal from Iraq are trying to appease a hungry crocodile. The French, as the Germans of the Weimar Republic had before them, wore blinkers looking at the crocodile. Those most blinded to the evil threat of Hitler were exactly those with the most to lose.
Many intellectuals and Democratic politicians of our own time resemble the Germans so soothed by rhetoric and intoxicated by the creativity of the 1920s and early 1930s that they could not see how all they held dear could be destroyed by Hitler. The Germans were afflicted with a terminal naivete, confronting the emerging fascists in their country, just as many Americans are confronting the "new fascism."
When Walter Rathenau, the Jewish foreign minister for the Weimar Republic, was assassinated in 1922 by right-wing thugs, an outpouring of grief enveloped one of the largest funerals in German memory. Thousands of fascists at that very moment raised their beer mugs in celebration of his death. Those in the liberal press of Weimar who called for stern measures against the fascists conspiring against the republic were ignored or discounted as unreasoning hysterics. The government did nothing to curb the anti-republican forces in the judiciary, the police or the state bureaucracies; all would contribute to the rise of Nazism.
When Hitler famously marched into Munich in 1923 with like-minded thugs calling for the dissolution of the "criminal government" of Germany, the minimum sentence for high treason was five years, the maximum, life. A sympathetic judge saw that Hitler served less than a year. When "Mein Kampf" was published in 1925, it was largely ignored, and the few who publicly noted his plans for the Jews and the republic were largely ignored as well. Not even the German Communists, who despised the fascists, deigned to unite against him, calculating that he was a mere minor threat. They could wait him out.
The Bush administration now concedes errors in Iraq, foremost among them failure to understand the reluctance of so many Iraqis to support a democratic government. While historical parallels are always imperfect, it's fair to observe that the Germans who supported Weimar also failed to understand how fragile their republican government could be. The Western democracies were slow to perceive that, too.
Just as anti-Semitism was harnessed to bring down Weimar, hatred of the Jews keeps trouble on the boil today in the Middle East. Anti-Semitism is the refuge of cowards who are eager to exploit the appetite for hatred of the Jews. Anti-Semitism in the '20s and '30s was respectable in Germany, just as it is fashionable today among certain intellectuals and creative artists, including some Jews. Describing the Israelis as the "new Nazis" invites no outrage among certain bright young (and old) things who decry bigotry in others.
Martin Heidegger, the German philosopher of the 1930s, complained about the "Judaization" of the German university. He defended himself, saying that he was no more anti-Semitic than many of his Jewish colleagues. It was a glib observation not entirely wrong, but few took on Heidegger for his outspoken anti-Semitism.
Noam Chomsky is widely respected today for his linguistic theories, but he is willing to join forces with those who deny the Holocaust. He wrote the foreword to the standard French-language textbook of Holocaust denial. He praises "Jewish History, Jewish Religion," a book by Israel Shalak, one of the most outspoken Jewish anti-Semites. Gore Vidal, who insists he's not an anti-Semite, wrote the foreword for that one.
"The appearance of political anti-Semitism in the Arab and Muslim world is of relatively recent date," writes Walter Laqueur in "The Changing Face of Anti-Semitism." He observes how the Muslims who preach hatred of the Jews have found friends in Europe: "Islamist anti-Semites have collaborated with European anti-Semites of the left and with the neo-fascist anti-Semites in convening various conferences, protest meetings, demonstrations and declarations."
Those who assisted the Nazi rise to power held diverse views and were motivated by different influences, both inside and outside Germany, and the rest of the world recognized the peril of Nazism only slowly and reluctantly. Islamo-fascism poses a similar danger for us now.