The only Americans who still approve of Bush’s follies are the same people who’d probably stand in line to see the musical “Springtime for Hitler. The Bush Administration, of course, has brought America into such disrepute across the globe that many abroad openly compare George Bush to Adolph Hitler. Such comparisons, needless to say, can seem fatuous. After all, Hitler orchestrated a world war that killed upwards of 50 million people, including the extermination of more than six million Jews. Bush, whatever his faults, is not in Hitler’s league. However, there are some disconcerting parallels between Bush’s regime and the Nazis that deserve attention. Highlighting these similarities is not meant to demonize the administration, but rather to make sure its less savory tendencies do not get further out of hand.
The following characteristics are associated with Hitler and the Nazis: 1) the Fuhrer was assumed to be infallible, 2) Nazi officials expressed no remorse or responsibility for their actions, 3) propaganda efforts were relentless, 4) the world was divided into us vs. them, 5) opponents and critics were always accused of pernicious motives, 6) the Nazis believed warfare was man’s natural state 7) the Fuhrer was the law, 8) laws were merely a veneer to cover the naked exercise of raw power, 9) the Nazis believed Germany was surrounded by enemies on all sides, 10) the Nazis believed Jews were fifth columnists, 11) and the power hungry Hitler surrounded himself with incompetent sycophants who fed his delusions of grandeur.
Hitler was a political genius. But most observers, particularly the philosopher Hannah Arendt, have been struck by the mediocrity of Hitler’s henchmen. Arendt coined the phrase “the banality of evil” to describe how unimpressive the Third Reich’s architects of evil were. For instance, Hitler’s personal deputy, Rudolph Hess, claimed at the Nuremberg trials to have completely lost his memory; Hitler’s foreign minister, Von Ribbentrop, was described even by his fellow Nazis as an airhead who never uttered anything other than stale clichés and vacuous platitudes; and Herman Goring, Hitler’s designated successor, was a bullying braggart who never could live up to his boasts. Goring, incidentally, grandly claimed at his trial that Germany would build him a martyr’s monument within thirty years time (another of Goring’s predictions that never panned out).
Sixty years from now it is quite possible historians will be talking about the banality of the Bush Administration. Bush is by no means a demagogue to the same degree Hitler was (if he was he would have made Muslims and immigrants scapegoats). But his habitual use of tautologies (“a leader’s job is to lead”), clichés (“as the Iraqis stand up, we’ll stand down”), and non-sequiturs (“We are fighting the enemy in Iraq so we don’t have to fight them at home”) is symptomatic of an arrested mental development. Likewise, the blathering Donald Rumsfeld and the recall-challenged Alberto Gonzales seem to exemplify ineptitude.
Hitler always shirked responsibility for his own failures of judgment. He insisted that invading Russia would be “child’s play” but blamed his generals when the German army got bogged down at Stalingrad. Then he refused to allow his commanders to retreat one inch, even when withdrawal made strategic sense. Not surprisingly, anyone one who questioned the Fuhrer’s “stay the course” strategy was labeled a defeatist.
Hitler, needless to say, claimed that he was liberating the countries he invaded. But Russia was a prime target because of its oil resources. The dirty little secret about Bush’s invasion of Iraq, of course, is the administration’s determination to establish permanent U.S. bases in Iraq while gaining lucrative oil concessions for American and British companies. No doubt, the Bush Administration claims it is going after al-Qaeda in Iraq (which didn’t exist in Iraq until after the invasion), but it has also branded every group in Iraq resisting the American occupation as terrorists. Hitler, too, justified his heavy-handed tactics against Russian partisans as a necessary campaign against terrorists.
Since the war in Iraq began as many as 650,000 Iraqis have been killed and more than 2 million have fled their homes. Estimates suggest that American forces have been directly responsible for roughly ten percent of the casualties. Thus, the vast majority of the violence involves Iraqis killing Iraqis. Therefore, although the Bush Administrations bears responsibility for its misjudgments, ineptitude, and corruption its crimes in no way compare to the premeditated and systematic slaughter of six million innocent human beings during the Holocaust.
Nevertheless, by any objective standard the Bush Administration has committed war crimes: waging aggressive war without U.N. authorization, flouting the Geneva Conventions governing the humane treatment of prisoners, and sanctioning torture against suspected terrorists. “The last refuge of a scoundrel,” as they say, “is a technicality.” And this has been the administration’s insidious modus operandi: stretch the law to the breaking point to make things look legal. For instance, the Bush Administration redefined torture (limiting it to techniques that lead to organ failure and death) so that water boarding became legal.
The invasion of Iraq, of course, was of dubious legality according to most international law experts. But since the administration had managed to extract a vaguely worded U.N. resolution threatening Saddam Hussein with “serious consequences” (if he didn’t comply with weapons inspectors) the Bush Administration would claim it didn’t need a second resolution explicitly authorizing the war. Most legal experts didn’t see it this way, but the fact that Bush – not Saddam – unilaterally put an end to the U.N. mandated inspection process should tell any fair-minded observer that Bush was bending the law like a pretzel to get the outcome he wanted all along.
War with Iraq was a forgone conclusion from the first day the Bush Administration seized power in a bloodless coup. The same legal sophistry the Bush Administration would use to redefine torture, neutralize Congress, and steamroll the U.N. was on display when partisan hacks on the Supreme Court turned the law upside down (and inside out) to insure a predetermined outcome that favored the head of their party. This was an early symptom of the scenario that played out in Nazi Germany, where the politicization of the justice system insured there was no justice.
The Nazis bent and twisted the law, but they could not have consolidated absolute power without cowing the people. Herman Goring explained how easy it was to dupe the masses:Naturally the common people don't want war; neither in Russia, nor in England, nor in America, nor in Germany. That is understood. But after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine policy, and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. ...Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is to tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.George Bush, Karl Rove, and the Republican juggernaut that took us into war against Iraq were following Goring’s playbook. The Bush Administration, not unlike the Nazi regime, has thrived on fear, deception, and demagouery. It has also created a non-entity – the enemy combatant – a class of people that has no legal rights. Similarly, Bush, like Hitler, has claimed virtually unlimited executive authory, as when the administration argued that the president could designate anyone an enemy combatant he chose (to be detained, tortured, or disposed of as the commander-in-chief saw fit). This is not the kind of power one associates with the leader of a democracy.
Hitler succeeded because he filled a psychological need within the German people for a strong leader and a father figure. Many observers have commented on the authoritarian parenting style that previaled throughout most of Germany at this time. This meant that a high percentage of Germans were raised to obey authority without question, to stifle empathy, and think in black and white. This made it easy for Nazi demagogues to demonize scapegoats and mobilize the masses in a war to “save civilization” from the Jews, the decadent democracies, and the barbarian hordes of Eastern Europe. Of course, Hitler and his henchmen very nearly succeeded in destroying civilization in their course of their misguided crusade to purify the world.
Bush’s War on Terror suffers from a similar self-defeating character. Any political party, program, or politician organized around negative emotions (like fear and anger) has a tendency to self-destruct. Joseph McCarthy, Richard Nixon, and George W. Bush are examples of American leaders who pandered to the electorate’s worst fears, essentially externalizing their own paranoia, but in ways they could exploit politically. Eventually, however, as the philosopher Hegel recognized, an individual with a negative identity needs enemies. That is, an ego constructed around fear, anger, and mistrust of some other will have to create new enemies, or destroy itself. Beware, Nietzsche warned us, of those perpetually looking for dragons to slay.
Hitler is in a class by himself – he seemed to have no remorse or conscience. It is disturbing to think that Bush and Cheney appear to have few regrets about the disastrous war they instigated. It is possible they are sociopaths, but it is more likely that they believe that admitting mistakes or expressing contrition would lose whatever support they have left with their base, which tends to view emotions like empathy as a weakness. Nevertheless, Bush’s refusal to demonize immigrants or ordinary Muslims (a tactic which could win him points with his base) suggests that Bush’s demagogic tendencies run only so deep. In other words, Bush may well go down in history as terrible president, but he is nowhere near being the moral monster Hitler was. Even so, the numerous disconcerting analogies between the Nazis and the Bush Administration are more than superficial.
The sociologist Theodor Adorno once described a personality style characterized by a proclivity to hate people who are different. What Adorno observed was more than standard xenophobia; it was a personality style simmering with rage, which viewed outsiders as the source of all the evil in the world. What this personality type didn’t recognize, of course, is that it was simply projecting its own negative emotions onto scapegoat.
Hitler tapped into this mindset in Germany during the 1930’s and 1940’s. He convinced Germans that they were fighting for their cultural survival in a world that was completely hostile to everything Germany represented. National Socialism was also a deeply irrational and anti-intellectual movement aimed at reviving a golden age of Teutonic heroism. Thus, the Nazi mythology was diametrically opposed to secular modernity.