“Dorothy Thompson, who judged Hitler a man of ‘startling insignificance’ in 1928, realized her mistake by mid-decade when she, like Mowrer, began raising the alarm. ‘No people ever recognize their dictator in advance,’ she reflected in 1935. ‘He never stands for election on the platform of dictatorship. He always represents himself as the instrument [of] the Incorporated National Will.” Applying the lesson to the U.S., she wrote, ‘When our dictator turns up you can depend on it that he will be one of the boys, and he will stand for everything traditionally American.’”
David A. Bell writes a much-needed rebuke against the popular tendency to compare everything with World War II and Hitler. As he explains, “Comparing modern threats with World War II is neocon nonsense.” It may seem like harmless drama, but this kind of hyperbole has real consequences. As Bell points out, “References that were already misleading a generation ago have become dangerously absurd. The putative lessons of history have become imprisoning, rather than enabling. In this sense, we really do suffer from an excess of it.”
His discussion of the Munich lesson is particularly noteworthy. “Ever since, it has been de rigueur for Americans to justify action against alleged foreign threats with Hitler analogies, and to denounce the alleged appeasement of such threats with Munich analogies. Sometimes, the comparisons have been laughably inappropriate.” We see almost all foreign events through this lens and it has made us particularly war prone. We have come to see violence (or the threat of violence) as the most effective tool of foreign policy.
To read the other dangers posed by using inappropriate WWII analogies go here: Not Everything Is Munich and Hitler | The National Interest
In conclusion Bell writes, “But it can still help if as many people as possible take the time to remember just how false the comparison actually is, and if they keep in mind that a keen sensitivity to the parallels between the past and the present is not always a good thing. When it comes to the moral lessons of the terrible years the world lived through between 1939 and 1945, particularly those of the Holocaust, we must always remember. But when it comes to the strategic lessons of that era, we might do well, sometimes, to forget.”
I agree with Bell’s overall analysis, but I have to disagree with his solution: forget history. The problem is a result of superficial knowledge, bad analogies, and a desire to inflate the importance of one’s own issues by associating them with extreme examples (Hitler, genocide, slavery, etc.).
I haven’t read the book yet, but it sounds like a great read and all of the Amazon reviews except one gave it 5 stars. It’s on my reading list along with Rosenberg’s actual diary.
Read the brief article on the book here: Tracking an Elusive Diary From Hitler’s Inner Circle – The New York Times