WHETHER or not you support the Bush Administration's plans to invade Iraq, we should all agree to place off-limits any further invocation of the Hitler/Third Reich analogy. The fair dame of History - a battered spouse in the best of times - should be spared one more black eye from those, like columnist Bill O'Reilly, who insist on likening Saddam Hussein to the late German dictator.
“The only difference between the two villains is the size of the moustache,” Mr. O'Reilly drolly observed in his Tuesday column. Each shared “virulent anti-Semitism,” “callous disregard for human life,” and an “identical lust for power.” Mr. O'Reilly goes on to argue that, because Hitler's appeasement in the 1930s paved the way for the slaughter of millions, we must avert the mistakes of the past today by overthrowing Saddam.
Mr. O'Reilly's comparison of Saddam and Hitler has become a commonplace rhetorical tool among the pro-war faction. As with all comparisons, this one should be treated critically, especially given the high stakes involved. Toward this end, we need to ask in what relevant respects Saddam and Hitler are alike, and, more importantly, how they are different.
First, are Hitler and Saddam “virulent” anti-Semites? Hitler obviously was. As early as 1920, the fledgling Nazi party published its platform, decreeing as one of its foundational missions the exclusion of Jews from the national state.
Is Saddam a “virulent anti-Semite” of Hitlerian magnitude? The answer is an unequivocal “no.” He undoubtedly nurses a burning resentment against the state of Israel, but anti-Israeli sentiment does not a virulent anti-Semite make. There are no signs of Auschwitz-style death camps in Iraq, nor do we have evidence of any plans for their construction. Moreover, if anti-Israelism is the criterion to justify armed invasion of another country, then we should add every Muslim state in the Middle East and Southeast Asia to our list of invadees.
Second, do Hitler and Saddam share the same “callous disregard for human life”? Both are clearly indifferent to spilling blood by the gallons.
Does this commonality, however, confirm the wisdom of attacking Iraq?
Saddam scarcely holds the monopoly on callous disregard for human life. Augusto Pinochet, the former dictator of Chile, installed in a bloody coup backed by our own CIA, is now believed to have murdered upwards of 10,000-20,000 of his own citizens, some of whom were wheelchair-bound cripples hurled out of airplanes at 15,000 feet. Interestingly, there were no calls to invade Chile during the Pinochet era.
Finally, is Mr. O'Reilly correct in his assertion that the two dictators have an “identical lust for power”? Hitler's ambition was to expand Germany's borders eastward. Increasingly as the war ground on, Hitler joined to this grandiose aim a second initiative: the racial “purification” of a German-dominated Mittel Europa through the murder or enslavement of “non-Aryan” peoples.
While Saddam's earlier ambitions may have been to preside over a pan-Arabic confederation of Middle Eastern countries, the realities of his military defeat and the virtual destruction of his army in 1991 have made this little more than a pipe dream.
Whatever his current power trip fantasies, the means at Saddam's disposal are as grossly inadequate to achieve his goals as a bucket is to carry away the water of the ocean.
Herein resides the primary difference between Hitler and Saddam.
Hitler was a racist ideologue in control of a formidable military and a country at the forefront of technological advancement; his intention to dominate Europe and remake its ethnic landscape was matched by his means.
Saddam is a tinhorn dictator at the head of a Third World country with an emasculated army. What slender strike-force capability he has is entirely neutralized by the presence of the U.S. in the Persian Gulf. He may dream grandly, but his are the dreams of a 90-pound weakling surrounded by giants.
Is Saddam another Hitler? Hardly. Peddlers of the strained comparison ought to find better arguments to support their pro-war cause. In so doing, they will not only be more persuasive, but will avoid giving Dame History another bloody lip.
Michael Bryant is Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice at the University of Toledo. He holds a doctorate in Modern European History from Ohio State University.