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Unlearning History

In today’s New York Times, Ian Kershaw seems to suggest all this “never again” talk is bit alarmist. After comparing Adolf Hitler’s rise to power with some of today’s totalitarian threats, he concludes: “Mercifully, what happened in Germany in 1933, and it’s aftermath, will remain a uniquely terrible episode in history.”

After describing the Milosevic, Mugabe, Putin, Chavez, Musharraf, and Ahmadinejad regimes, Kershaw offers his reasons for optimism:

. . .neither in their acquisition of power nor in their use of it do modern authoritarian rulers much resemble Hitler. International organizations and institutions that did not exist in interwar Europe — the United Nations, the European Union, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund — also provide some barriers to the sort of calamity that engulfed Germany.

Milosevic didn’t resemble Hitler in his use of power? And nothing comes back to Kershaw when he hears Ahmadinejad’s daily promise to erase Israel from history? Moreover, Saddam Hussein is conspicuously absent from Kershaw’s reckoning. Could it be that he would have had an impossible time downplaying the comparisons between Saddam’s penchant for mass-gassings and country annexations with those of Hitler? As for the organizations he mentions, they are all, to greater or lesser extents, enablers of today’s totalitarians. If there’s any reason to think that modern fascists will continue to be marginalized and defeated it’s because the U.S. has made a habit providing that very service for the civilized world.

Ultimately, though, Kershaw is playing a game with the reader: it’s no longer merely states that pose a deadly fascist threat, but trans-national organizations (such Al Qaeda and Hizzbollah) working in concert with sympathetic countries.

Kershaw’s piece is intended as a big slap in the face to unilateralism and the doctrine of democracy promotion. Because Hitler’s rise occurred during German democracy in place between world wars, it demonstrates “the illusory assumption that democracy will always be a favored choice of a population torn apart by war. . .”

But, Sir Ian, wasn’t your point that today’s fascist threats are so unlike the one posed by Nazi Germany?


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