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Why Iran Hawks Are Obsessed with Hitler

09/09/2010 06:06 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Any professional historian worth his academic chair knows that no two historical periods are ever truly the same. No matter how widely the cliché is used, history does not repeat itself.

Many Americans, however, see things a bit differently.

Enter discussion of the Iranian nuclear threat and you will likely be transported back to 1938. The most significant player determining American foreign policy is not American, Israeli, or Iranian, but German -- and he has been dead for sixty-five years. The Iran debate is so haunted by the ghost of Hitler, one might think it possessed the bodies of Khameini and Ahmadinejad. Concessions to Tehran are framed as appeasement at Munich; the nuclear sites at Bushehr and Qom are the launching pads for the next Chelmno and Sobibor.

The use of Nazi analogies in the current debate over Iran is ubiquitous. Talk of Iran and Nazi Germany is not merely limited to fringe political elements or loud-mouth demagogues on conservative talk radio. It is repeated by cable-news talking heads; in the blogosphere; by politicians , academics and investigative journalists. Not merely the language of neoconservatives (R. James Woolsey, Tony Blankley, Ted Nugent are just the most recent examples), the weight of Nazi history burdens the hawkish Left too.

Of course there are quite a few American pundits and scholars who reject the analogy -- and the Obama administration has generally relied on this camp. But in terms of shaping public opinion, these less-hawkish voices are drowned out. Like so much else that has characterized the Obama administration thus far, its policy initiatives and achievements, however beneficial to the health (quite literally) of the nation, have not translated into public understanding or public support for those policies. The White House and its allies on the Left have been remarkably bad at political instruction. While the White House pursues diplomatic solutions vis-à-vis Iran, the "1938-ers," to borrow Tony Blankley's term -- those who build analogies between Iran and Nazi Germany -- dominate the airwaves; the analogy is repeated as mantra, ultimately shaping public opinion.

Certainly the Nazis have been -- and will always be -- a powerful political symbol of evil for Americans and non-Americans. Politicians and pundits (both Left and Right) will continue to appropriate Nazi history and imagery, usually to the detriment of its true historical significance, no matter how ugly, tasteless, and inappropriate the comparison. This phenomenon does not begin or end with the debate over Iran currently raging in the US; but its use in the current debate is so widespread that it requires attention, especially if we want to understand American public discourse as the West moves ever closer to military engagement.

By contrast, Hitler seems to rarely make an appearance in German discussions of Iran. In Germany, where reference to a "Jewish gene" by a single public figure sparks public outrage, where Holocaust denial is a crime, and where teaching the Holocaust is mandatory -- none of which is true for the U.S. -- discussion of Iran is not saturated in historical analogies to Nazism. Of course, this is not a hard and fast rule: Chancellor Angela Merkel has made the comparison as has the president of Germany's Central Council of Jews. And as Jeffrey Herf (who is quite warm to the analogy himself) recently pointed out, there are a number of German pundits and scholars who perceive the Iranian threat through the prism of fascism: Richard Herzinger of Die Welt, the political scientist Matthias Küntzel, Klaus Faber, and the leaders of the "Stop the Bomb" campaign for example. But these are minority voices, as these advocates themselves admit.

The difference between American and German public discourse is striking and available for any German with access to American media outlets to see. But why is this so? Why is the American debate over the Iranian nuclear threat so obsessed with Nazi History? And why is the analogy largely dismissed in Germany?

Certainly the most logical reason -- and one I have heard from several Iran experts in researching this piece -- is that the analogy is simply inaccurate. It is true that states are facing a very real and complicated problem that historians of the German 30s know well: should the international community give precedence to Iran's rhetoric or its actions and is the regime too ideological to be appeased? But beyond this parallel, the analogy falls apart. Suffice to point out that Iran today has none of the economic, military, or political might that characterized Nazi Germany by the late 1930s. Iran does not even rank among the top twenty economies in the world. The Pentagon's budget is more than double Iran's total gross domestic product; America's annual defense outlay is more than 100 times Iran's. In short, unlike Nazi Germany, Iran is not an equal player or a true threat (not even by a long shot). It could never win or even hope to win a true military encounter with the US (nuclear or not). That is not to say, however, that Iran is not a significant threat to the security of Israel and its Arab neighbors or that its apparent drive toward nuclear weapons should not be stopped or that it does not believe in the frighteningly anti-Semitic things it says or that it could not generate a tremendous amount of violence and pain in its drive to reshape the balance of power in the Middle East. Still: the analogy to Nazi Germany cannot withstand analysis. Simply put: Iran is its own beast.

But factual accuracy can only explain so much. If we follow this line of reasoning -- that Germans, unlike Americans, largely reject the analogy to Hitler on factual grounds -- then the "1938-ers" either do not know what they are talking about (possibly true for some, but not probable for most); or, more likely, the "1938-ers," are content to use the analogy's superficial parallels to scare their audience into awareness of just how evil the Iranian regime is, which the "1938-ers" sincerely believe. What then of their American audience who should know better?

Well, many readers are saying to themselves, Americans are not the brightest bears in the forest, now are they? This is, after all, the nation that re-elected George W. Bush in 2004. And to be sure, Susan Jacoby, Rink Shenkman, and many other American scholars have documented just how poor American historical and geopolitical knowledge is (it's abysmal). But again, lack of historical and geopolitical literacy is still not a sufficient explanation. Americans (of whatever political persuasion) are hardly the only nation on earth to believe in historically inaccurate narratives that buttress their political interests. Myths--the perception of Iran as a reincarnation of Nazi Germany is certainly a type of myth--buttress every political ideology and national identity and they rarely if ever correlate to truth. This is not a particularly American sin. The question is why this particular historical narrative finds so many ready ears in the US.

Israel, AIPAC (the American Israel lobby), and American Jews are other obvious, but incorrect targets. Most Israelis (though certainly not all), including its current leadership, perceive the Iranian regime as an existential threat. After all, the regime's international face, Ahmadenijad, called for Israel's extermination and has been a state-sponsor of terrorism (including Hamas and Hezballah) for years. Shall we trace the source of American Nazi rhetoric then to the influence of the pro-Zionist community?

Again, this theory only skims the surface of explanation. The source of American support for Israel does not, as many incorrectly believe, stem from the influence of the American Jewish community, much of which has a tortured and critical relationship to Zionism. American support for Israel is grounded in the tremendous power and influence of American Christian Evangelism, who regard the Jewish presence in the Holy Land as part of God's plan for the second coming of Jesus. True, many neoconservatives are Jewish and AIPAC is one of the most powerful lobbies in Washington, but neither keeps a stranglehold on American public opinion. Jews make up less than 2.5 percent of America's population; without the wide support of the broader Evangelical population, American foreign policy and its relationship to Israel would look very different.

Those who charge 1938-ers as propagandists for Israel, of course, are easy targets themselves. 1938-ers often condemn their (usually European) detractors with a litany of vices: anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism, Holocaust and general war fatigue; and, in the case of Germany: the desire to unburden the weight of its historical guilt or compromise its extensive trade.

Again, while some of these motives are true for some individuals, they fall short: for one, it ignores widespread German outrage over Iranian Holocaust denial, not least the Weimar city council's cancelation of the Iranian delegation refusing to visit Buchenwald. Germany is still Israel's closest European ally, even if at times critical of Israeli policy, and Germany has been the most vocal of European states in its condemnation of Iranian rhetoric. And while Germany could certainly do more to use its economic leverage to pressure Iran, it is clear that American pressure has helped place Iran's nuclear aspirations at the forefront of relations between Germany and Iran. Germany has been a crucial player in supporting the latest round of sanctions and, despite the most recent numbers, German businesses are increasingly wary of expanding trade with the increasingly unpradictable regime.

No, contrary to its surface appearance, the American obsession with Hitler is not actually about the danger posed by Iran. The obsession with Hitler is about returning to the lost glory days of World War II -- to what Americans call "the Greatest Generation," who, as 1938-ers (among many others) romanticize as proudly fighting against a clearly identifiable evil. It is about returning to a world where Americans could unify around a common purpose and a common enemy. Nazi rhetoric is about restoring honor and glory to America. When commentators compare Ahmadinejad or Khameini to Hitler, they are doing rather little to explain the true threats Iran poses. Instead, they emphasize how righteous any future conflict with Iran would be.

One should not neglect, of course, how different the American profit-driven media establishment is from its German counterpart. American media encourages and enables the spread of such analogies, regardless of factual inaccuracy, because as everyone knows, Nazi sells. But this narrative sells because Americans opine to return to an imagined world of national purpose and moral meaning. The desire to return to American glory sits easy with the Christian Evangelical drive toward hastening the end days, a narrative that situates a beleaguered Jewish people at the heart of the battle between good and evil. These narratives of lost glory and religious exuberance are alien to today's Germany, a nation that understands how nostalgia for war and a failure to emotionally demilitarize--well-known characteristics of the interwar period-- can lead to a path of destruction. Many Americans have yet to learn this lesson, even after ten years of the Bush White House.

Perhaps then a comparison to Nazi Germany is truly warranted after all, but for a very different reason.