Misreading the Misreadings of History

“A majority of decent well-meaning people said there was no need to confront Hitler…. When people decided to not confront fascism, they were doing the popular thing, they were doing it for good reasons, and they were good people…but they made the wrong decision.”

Tony Blair spoke those words as UK Prime Minister in 2003. And the supposedly Hitler-like figure he alluded to was Saddam Hussein. I ran across this quote in a piece from The Wall Street Journal, The Trouble With Hitler Analogies by Zachary Karabell. I’d instead point out the trouble with those who feel troubled. The critic here, if he was like most in the mainstream media at the time, beat the drums for war in attacking Iraq.

That war, if you can call it that when from a safe distance the most powerful countries in the world bomb a small country to oblivion, was a war of aggression. It was illegal according to both US law and international law, whatever its legal standing may have been in the UK. Besides, the justification for the military attack on Iraq was based on a lie and everyone knew it was a lie, that is to say we have long been in a post-truth age (numerous military conflicts in US history were based on lies, from the Cold War to the Vietnam War).

Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction. The only reason we could even suggest that he did was because we had sold some to him back in the 1980s. But there was no way those weapons would still work at this point, since those biological weapons had a short lifespan. Worse still, whatever horrible things Saddam did in recent years, it pales against the horrible things he did while he was our ally. He used those US biological weapons against his own people back then and the US military stood by and did nothing, the US government implicitly supporting his authoritarian actions, as has long been the established pattern of US foreign relations. Our authoritarian allies do horrific atrocities all the time, for their own purposes and sometimes on our behalf.

What makes Blair’s statement morally demented is that he was speaking as an authoritarian imperialist flexing his muscles. Hussein, as a petty tyrant, was getting uppity and needed to be put back in his place. It had nothing to do with freedom and democracy, any more than World War II was motivated by such noble ideals. The US and UK went up against the Nazis because Germany (along with Japan) was a competing empire that became a direct threat, nothing less and nothing more. Having won that global conflict, the US then became a fully global empire and the greatest authoritarian power in history. Fascism wasn’t defeated, though, as the US became even more fascist over the following generations. This had to do with political elites such as the Bush family that made its wealth in doing business with Nazis and that later helped Nazi war criminals to evade justice by working for the US government.

Here is the real problem with Hitler analogies. If Hitler were here today and he had a different name, he would either smear his opponents as being like Hitler or he would dismiss those who dared to make such comparisons. Either way, the purpose would be to muddy the water and make impossible any public discussion and moral accounting. It is interesting to note that the author of the WSJ article indirectly defends the authoritarian forces in our society by blaming those who call names:

“Contesting today’s populist strongmen doesn’t require calling them fascists, a label that often deepens the anger and alienation of their followers. The only thing worse than forgetting history is using it badly, responding to echoes of the past with actions that fuel today’s fires rather than douse them.”

Basically, don’t antagonize the authoritarians or they might get mean. Well, they’re already mean. It’s too late for that. It’s another example of someone demanding moderation in a society that has gone mad. As I often wonder, moderate toward what? If we can’t even call authoritarianism for what it is as authoritarians rise to power, then what defense is there against what is taboo to speak of? There is none. That is the point. This is how authoritarianism takes hold in a society.

But to the author, one suspects that is not necessarily a bad thing. Authoritarianism, in this worldview, might be fine as long as it is used wisely and the mob is kept in check. The only problem with the second Iraq War wasn’t that it was authoritarian but that it failed in its own stated authoritarian agenda. What can’t be mentioned is the historical analogy of Hitler also failing in his authoritarian agenda when he turned to wars of aggression in a bid to assert imperial rule. The analogy, of course, ends there for the moment. That is because, unlike Nazi Germany, 21st century America doesn’t quite have the equivalent of an opposing power also aspiring to empire. Not yet. But Russia and China, if and when World War III begins, probably will be willing to play the role.

4 thoughts on “Misreading the Misreadings of History

  1. It’s always interesting to me to read how narratives are always being (re)read – thus Blair says “x” during “y” and it has another meaning when decontextualized.

    Same with both the “Hitler” analogy” and the misused “Hitler analogy” seeking to delegitimize the previous use of the analogy;-)

    Of course this is at the heart of the Postmod program – the distrust as Lyotard says of large scale meta narratives.

    Specifically regarding the US and England vs the Nazis I keep thinking about the use of Jessie Owens.

    Always presented as an example of slapping Hitler in the face the obvious other narrative is elided – why were people willingly attending a cultural event in Nazi Germany?

    Answer: Because the Nuremberg Race Laws were Germany’s attempt to catch up to the Apartheid system in America.

    Had the Germans not invaded France, France and England would have eventually reached an “understanding” based on the previous Munich agreement and instead of “Appeasement” it would have bee “diplomacy.”

    • One wonders, if not for the Nazi treatment of the Jews, that an equally bad or worse eugenics movement might have taken hold in the US. The early 20th century US was ripe for a fascist takeover. Besides the KKK and race wars, there was the Business Plot and also corporatism was becoming a powerful force. The Civil Rights movement would never likely have succeeded if not for WWII and the Cold War, both of which brought to the world stage a heavy weight of public shame to American racism.

      In defeating the Nazis, the mainstream narrative in the US was able to purge its own past sins. But this ignores that the eugenics programs in the US shockingly continued even after WWII. Still, eugenics could never quite take hold after the stigma of Nazism. The Nazis saved Americans from our own depraved collective nature because they took our sins from us, as it was the US that inspired the Nazi’s moral fall and that part is always left out of mainstream historical accounting. As such, the Nazis played out the moral drama for Americans, to see how it could have played out in our own country. Germans back then were the shadow of America.

      In an alternative history, if Nazis hadn’t become imperialists and simply oppressed their own Jewish population and left it at that, the other Western countries would have been fine with that. Besides, it would have given further justification to American racism. Fascism could have become the dominant ideology in numerous countries, as there was nothing about it that made failure inevitable. Taken on their merits, the Nazis really did turn around the German economy and built major infrastructure, not all that different than the US New Deal up to that point. Both Hitler and FDR promoted corporatism and kept labor unions in check. The two countries had similar ideological visions and social orders. If not for war, they would have made for better allies than enemies.

      • Can’t disagree with any of that.

        One of the points most likely to raise left wing hackles is to point out the moral contradictions and dilemmas of the devil being one’s friend – in the sense as you say, had the Nazis not gone so far it is unlikely the French and Brits (and then the US) would have gone to war.

        If Germany doesn’t attack France in ’40 but waits and then attacks the Soviet Union it is far more likely that neo fascist or directly fascist regimes take over in France and England or de facto fascist regimes with a thin veneer of “liberalism” so that in 40-41 France and England are to the Soviet Union as they were to Spain in 1936 publicly some what against “German aggression” but likely to enforce trade/arms restrictions against the Soviets.

        Given that, one then can imagine Japan not attacking the US but attacking the Soviet Union instead and America retreats into isolation or the Wall St. backed coup (stopped ironically by former marine general Smedly and J. Edgar Hoover – on FDR’s orders resulting in the FBI and the mafia cementing their relationship) succeeds and FDR is either removed or reduced to figure head.

        From there as you say American eugenics would proceed full speed.

        Tuskegee would have been replicated across the country.

        Instead of course we get various versions of official narratives from the crass a-historical mutterings of J Peterson or the more polished but still absurd revisionism of Saving Private Ryan, etc.

        History of course is far more complex but that’s harder to sell.

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