Inappropriate Hitler analogies are tossed around so casually and so often, it’s easy to forget that not every comparison to the Nazi regime is completely off base.
Consider, for example, Philippine president Benigno Aquino’s February 5 statement during a New York Times interview regarding China’s aggressive territorial claims on a number of disputed islands in the South China Sea. “At what point do you say, ‘Enough is enough’?” Aquino told the Times. “Well, the world has to say it — remember that the Sudetenland was given in an attempt to appease Hitler to prevent World War II.”
Even Peter Beinart, who usually slams comparisons to Munich, agreed that “Aquino’s reasoning has some merit.” Beinart noted in a blog post for the Atlantic that “The South China Sea, like the Sudetenland, is strategically valuable…The Philippines enjoys a defense treaty with the United States, as Czechoslovakia did with France. Yet there’s good reason to believe that the war-weary Washington of 2014—like the war-weary Paris of 1938—would rather see Manila capitulate than risk world war. Above all, China today—like Germany in the 1930s—is a country converting its tremendous economic vitality into military might.”
Meanwhile, the U.N. Human Rights Council this week declared that North Korea is committing “crimes against humanity” that are in some respects “strikingly similar” to Nazi practices. No, there are no gas chambers or crematoria in Pyongyang (yet). But must every regime’s abuse reach Holocaust-level atrocities before we acknowledge that some aspects may be comparable?
The 400-page U.N. report describes the systematic torture and starvation of more than 100,000 North Koreans in dozens of internment camps. The “crimes” for which they are imprisoned range from disagreeing with a government policy to accidentally misspelling the name of North Korean dictator Kim Il Sung. North Korean women who become pregnant as a result of relationships with non-Koreans are declared to be defilers of the sacred Korean minjok, or race, and are subjected to forced abortions. It’s not identical to Nazi Germany, but the echoes are certainly disturbing.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, too, invoked the Nazi era this week. Members of Congress who start talking about Hitler are usually trying to score cheap political points at the expense of intellectual integrity. For example, when Senator Richard Durbin (D-Illinois) said the treatment of Guantanamo Bay prisoners is like what was “done by Nazis,” or when Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minnesota) said the 9/11 attacks were reminiscent of the Reichstag fire, because both events supposedly “put the leaders of that country in a position where he could basically have authority to do whatever he wanted.”
Cantor, by contrast, mentioned Hitler in order to make a serious point. Having just led a congressional delegation to the former site of the Auschwitz death camp, Cantor noted: “Hitler’s rise and conquest of Europe did not come as a surprise. We must not repeat the same mistake by reducing our preparedness, accepting the notion that we are one of many or ceding global leadership to others.”
That’s not a cheap attempt to demonize an opposing political party; it’s a legitimate argument about America’s role in the world. It is, in fact, not unlike the argument Secretary of State John Kerry made when he said that the question of whether the international community would act against Syria’s chemical weapons is “our Munich moment.”
Admittedly, most Hitler analogies are false and irresponsible. It’s no wonder they typically provoke a firestorm of criticism. Israel’s Knesset is even considering legislation to ban public comparisons to the Nazis. In the face of such overreactions, it’s helpful to remember that there really are some regimes whose policies bear at least a faint resemblance to those of the Nazis, and that there really are important lessons to learn from the 1940s so that the mistakes of that era will not be repeated.
Rafael Medoff is director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, in Washington, D.C. His latest book is FDR and the Holocaust: A Breach of Faith.