Comments earlier this year of a Colorado teacher comparing President George W. Bush’s rhetoric to Adolph Hitler’s, and similar statements in 2002 by Germany’s justice minister, provoked heated and emotional reactions on all sides. This is not surprising, given the almost universal revulsion adhering to the memory of the Nazi regime and its crimes. Absent from much journalistic coverage of these comments and controversies is any dispassionate comparison of the two men and their regimes, policies and personalities. The following discussion of similarities and differences, while not exhaustive, is offered in hopes of bringing a little historical perspective to the debate.
First, the similarities:
Extra-constitutional assumption of power
Hitler was an Austrian citizen ineligible to hold German office until political machinations appointed him to a provincial office shortly before the 1932 elections. Although the Nazi party polled the largest number of votes in several elections held in 1932, it never won a majority and only assumed power after the passage of an Enabling Act that abrogated the existing German constitution.
George W. Bush’s U.S. citizenship has never been disputed, but many Americans, including legal scholars and lawyers such as noted prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi, have questioned the constitutionality of the Supreme Court’s unprecedented decision in Bush V. Gore that handed the presidency to Bush after the 2000 elections.
Attitude towards the law
While the Nazis observed a certain punctilio in maintaining a fictive legal basis for their activities, Nazi legal proceedings failed to meet any reasonable standard of fairness. When laws or treaties got in the way, they were disregarded.
Similarly, the Bush administration shows little regard for established treaties such as the U.N. Charter, the Geneva Convention and the ABM treaty, or U.S. laws such as the FISA statute and the ban on torture contained in Title 18 of the U.S. Code. The Bush administration strives to portray its initiatives as lawful by issuing “legal” opinions such as Attorney General Gonzales’s notorious torture memo, which misstates some of the medical definitions contained in Title 42 of the U.S. Code in order to “legalize” the infliction of pain by government personnel during interrogations.
The Enabling Act that consolidated Hitler’s grip on power in Germany was passed in the aftermath of the Reichstag Fire in early 1933. It has long been asserted that the Nazis themselves were responsible for the fire. There is no conclusive evidence for this assertion, but it is beyond dispute that the Nazis capitalized on the panic caused by the fire to ram through the Enabling Act.
Parallels have been drawn between the Reichstag Fire and the 9/11 attacks, which the Bush administration quickly exploited to gain passage of the Patriot Act and a marked diminution of Americans’ Fourth Amendment constitutional protections against arbitrary government action and unwarranted searches and seizures. Other legislation passed in the wake of the 9/11 attacks removed many civil service protections from federal employees, thus strengthening the grip of the dubiously installed Bush administration on power and removing a potential check on the abuse of that power.
Big Lie propaganda
In Mein Kampf, Hitler spelled out the basis of the Big Lie propaganda technique. He asserted that ordinary people will more readily believe a big lie than a little one because they lack the courage or ingenuity to perpetrate such a lie themselves, and, for that reason, assume their leaders would not concoct such a lie either. Hitler, of course, attributed the use of Big Lie propaganda to Jews and others he held responsible for the German defeat in the First World War. The Nazi regime itself perpetrated a number of big lies, the most fateful being the staged attacks used to justify the invasion of Poland and ignite the Second World War.
The Big Lie accusation leveled against the Bush administration is that it falsely claimed Iraq possessed, or would soon possess, useable nuclear weapons and had a role in the 9/11 attacks in order to dupe Congress into declaring war. The administration later admitted both claims were false, and blamed faulty intelligence from the CIA. However, CIA director Tenet, who purportedly provided the bogus intelligence, was not disciplined but was given a medal by the Bush administration upon his retirement.
Nacht und Nebel
The German words for Night and Fog. Hitler’s Nacht und Nebel decree, issued on December 7, 1941, resulted in the disappearance of many political enemies of the regime, both foreign and domestic. The intent of the decree was to dispense with even the minimal due process of Nazi military and civilian tribunals in the interests of expediting the triumph of the Reich over its enemies.
The Bush administration’s policy of secret rendition and indefinite incarceration of “enemy combatants”, including U.S. citizens, in offshore detention centers is also justified as a means to expedite the so-called war on terror and to neutralize enemies by denying them access to any court of law.
Blitzkrieg embodied the half-baked psuedo-Nietzschean ideology of the Third Reich and its emphasis on the “triumph of the will.” Since the accent was on shock and speed, reserves of men and materiel were not always sufficient, and the doctrine entailed an element of bluff. The French failed to call the bluff in 1940 with a protracted defense. The Russians successfully called it in the defense of Moscow in 1941 and at the battle of Stalingrad in 1942-43, and then raised it, with Allied assistance, by carrying the war back to Berlin and destroying the Third Reich.
“Shock and Awe” was the Bush administration’s version of Blitzkrieg, albeit on a much punier scale, in Iraq in 2003. Operation Iraqi Freedom met with initial success, but, as of 2006, the bluff appears to have been called by an escalating Iraqi resistance. The U.S., with insufficient military forces in the area, is facing the unappetizing choice of leaving Iraq in the care of an Iranian satrapy or wooing back the understandably peeved remnants of the former Baathist regime as a counterweight to the Iranians.
The OSS commissioned a famous psychological profile of Hitler during the Second World War. A number of traits noted in the profile would be familiar to observers of George W. Bush as well. Among these are:
– A sense of personal destiny. Hitler believed himself historically destined to lead the Third Reich. George W. Bush has spoken frequently in the past of having some sort of personal divine mission and of fulfilling a divine plan with his policies.
– A refusal to admit error. The OSS profile quoted a number of Hitler’s associates and underlings to the effect that his policy was never to admit a mistake. George W. Bush was famously unable to come up with an answer when asked if he could recall any mistakes he might have made. The admittedly erroneous basis for the war in Iraq has been attributed to underlings.
– A trait of stubbornness was remarked in Hitler, and has been noted in Bush.
– A penchant for simplification of complex issues. The OSS profile summed up Hitler’s approach as follows: “His primary rules were: never allow the public to cool off; never admit a fault or wrong; never concede that there may be some good in your enemy; never leave room for alternatives; never accept blame; concentrate on one enemy at a time and blame him for everything that goes wrongÃ¢Â?Â¦” This summation could also apply to George W. Bush’s assertions that “you are either with us or against us,” and his simple characterization of the enemy as “evildoers” without further detail or specificity.
– A habit of making important decisions by sudden insight or inspiration rather than by analysis or ratiocination was noted in the OSS profile of Hitler, and has been noted in the literature on George W. Bush.
So much for the similarities. Here are some of the more obvious differences between the Bush and Hitler regimes and personalities:
Maintenance of democratic forms
Hitler and the Nazis had nothing but contempt for parliamentary democracy or any other form of constitutional democracy, and explicitly propagandized against it. Any criticism of Hitler or his regime was immediately met by hysterical tirades, threats, and worse.
By contrast, George W. Bush loudly proclaims the desirability and superiority of democracy. His public response to the flap over the Colorado teacher’s comparison of his rhetoric with Hitler’s was, “people should be allowed to criticize me all they want, and they doÃ¢Â?Â¦look, there are some certain basic freedoms that we’ve got to protectÃ¢Â?Â¦the freedom of people to express themselves must be protected.” To date, there are no documented cases of persons being extra-legally or indefinitely detained as “enemy combatants” solely on the basis of criticizing the administration. Although the administration has initiated legal prosecutions of persons for allegedly aiding terrorism by their public utterances or other communications, these prosecutions have been largely unsuccessful. Occasional statements by Bush and other administration figures that criticism of the war in Iraq undermines national security by raising enemy morale do not appear to have intimidated many Americans. Vocal critics of the war, in and out of Congress, are legion, and their numbers are growing.
The Nazi regime was the totalitarian regime par excellence. German society was more completely militarized under the Nazis than under the Kaiser, and totally mobilized for the coming war. During the preparation and early phases of the war, the Nazi regime was able to increase civilian infrastructure and the civilian standard of living through deficit spending and the expropriation of victim populations.
By contrast, the Bush administration has not presently mobilized the nation either through universal conscription of military-age citizens, or through economic conversion for total war and increased taxation, as was done when the U.S. entered the Second World War. In the absence of plunder from Iraq, the civilian standard of living has been maintained solely by massive deficit spending.
Last, but by no means least, George W. Bush and his cohorts are not saddled with the Nazis’ loser ideology of racism. On the contrary, the Bush administration’s official ideology is egalitarian and democratic, and his cabinet exhibits considerable racial and ethnic diversity. The occasional outbursts of apocalyptic religiosity that scared the heck out of people during Bush’s first term have largely disappeared during the second, since, having been re-elected, he is no longer overly concerned about the religiously fanatical wing of his party.
In possession of the foregoing facts, reasonable people will differ on whether and to what degree George W. Bush’s personality and regime resemble Adolph Hitler’s. Increasing numbers of American’s across the political spectrum are becoming alarmed, with some reason, at the Bush administration’s assault on constitutional rights and constitutional government. However, this assault, at least at present, has yet to surpass the one carried out by that great liberal, Woodrow Wilson, during the First World War, when Americans were jailed simply for speaking out against U.S. participation.
Odious comparisons have always been part of political discourse in our country. If critics of George W. Bush’s presidency wish their critiques to convince, a little more specificity is in order before making the most odious comparison of all.