On Saddam Hussein and Adolf Hitler

John E. Moser
Assistant Professor of History
Ashland University

[Note: I originally drafted this as a letter to the editor of the Collegian, but then decided that the Ashland University community had heard quite enough of my thoughts on the Iraq situation.  However, far be it from me to let anything I write go to waste--here it is, in all its glory.]

[Update, 22 April 2003: I was curious why this article, which appears only here and which I did absolutely nothing to promote, has resulted in my receiving e-mails from all over the world--some of it fan mail, some hate mail.  I asked my latest correspondent, a Frenchman, how he heard about it, and he informed me that a prominent online magazine in France linked to it, with a caption that translates as "An American academic reflects on the similarities between Hussein and Hitler."  So, a hearty welcome to visitors to my humble site....]

A recent letter to the editor in the Ashland University Collegian admonishes readers to “[c]hallenge those who say Hitler in the 1930s and Saddam Hussein in the 2000s are the same.”  Since back in November, in a debate on the justice of war with Iraq, I explicitly drew an analogy between the two situations, it seems likely that this comment was directed at least in part toward me.  And since I believe it is a misrepresentation of my position—albeit an understandable and no doubt honest one—I feel compelled to respond.

At no point have I argued that Hitler was the same as Saddam Hussein; indeed, no serious person—particularly an historian—would do so.  History never repeats itself in exactly the same way.  However, if we conclude from this there is no ground for comparison between the two cases, we implicitly reject the possibility of historical analogy.  In other words, we deny that we can learn anything from history.  It is this notion that I cannot accept.

No, Saddam Hussein is not Hitler; but then again, the Hitler of 1936 was not the Hitler of 1942.  In 1936 Hitler had committed no overt acts of aggression against anyone; nor had he begun the systematic mass-murder of Jews.  Yet he had already committed flagrant violations of the Treaty of Versailles—violations that made his later atrocities possible.  He could have been stopped earlier, but he was not.

What is even more striking is the similarity between the antiwar rhetoric used in the 1930s and that which we hear today.  Then, as now, pacifists claimed that the proposed war would benefit big business (today it is the oil industry that is demonized; then it was the arms manufacturers and international bankers).  Then, as now, they reminded their fellow citizens that the proposed enemy had not attacked anyone.  Indeed, they characterized them not as aggressors, but as victims of oppression (of the Versailles Treaty in Germany’s case, of the economic sanctions imposed in 1991 in the case of Iraq).  Then, as now, the opponents of war charged that “old men make war, and they send young men to kill and die.”  Then, as now, they claimed that war “will impact jobs, social programs, and the welfare of us all.”  Then, as now, they pointed out that both soldiers and civilians will die, perhaps in large numbers.  If all these things are true today, were they not also true in the 1930s?  And, if so, did the world do the right thing in refusing to disarm the Nazi regime early on?

No, Saddam Hussein is not Hitler, but he is an evil man who has demonstrated time and again that he has no respect for the territorial integrity of his neighbors (as seen by his invasion of Iran in the 1980s and Kuwait in 1990), the will of the international community (as seen in his cavalier disregard of numerous UN resolutions), or even his own people (as seen in his massacre of the Kurds and other opponents of his regime).  Moreover, the evidence suggests that this man has chemical and biological weapons, and may be close to developing nuclear ones as well.  If the precedent of Hitler does not apply here, then what does?

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