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The Decade of Appeasement

Seventy-five years after Hitler and the Nazis came to power.

11:00 PM, Feb 6, 2008 • By JOSEPH LOCONTE
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As historian J.S. Conway argues, the acceptance of Nazi ideology as a substitute for authentic Christianity was not because of Hitler's persuasiveness or his repression. Rather, he cultivated the image of a pious believer and exploited the spiritual confusion and emptiness of ordinary churchgoers. "Nazism filled a vacuum in the lives of countless Germans, by offering . . . a dynamic political creed and a plausible explanation of Germany's post-war predicament," Conway writes in The Nazi Persecution of the Churches 1933-1945. "While the democratic parties advocated self-discipline and acceptance of Germany's new position in the world, Hitler promised apocalyptic victory over all her enemies."

Hitler had his international critics, of course, but the dominant mood was one of accommodation, a desire to avoid confrontation at all costs. Political and religious leaders not only spent much of the decade exonerating German aggression, but blaming themselves for it--from the Treaty of Versailles to the "un-coordinated enterprise" of market capitalism. Baptist luminary Harry Emerson Fosdick, for example, voiced a typical complaint: "We, the democracies, are just as responsible for the rise of the dictators as the dictatorships themselves, and perhaps more so." As late as November 1941, with much of Europe under Nazi control, the editor of the liberal Christian Century, Charles Clayton Morrison, worried more about "a coming Anglo-American world hegemony" than a Nazi triumph. Morrison rejoiced in the fact that Franklin Roosevelt's "Four Freedoms" speech had not mobilized Americans for war. Britain's struggle against Hitler should be seen as "a war for imperialism"--and rejected. After all, he claimed, "the American people were in no crusading mood."

Similar equivocations were served up to explain Nazi anti-Semitism. In 1933, shortly after Hitler became chancellor, the leader of the Federal Council of Churches (the forerunner of the National Council of Churches) urged a "less superficial appraisal" of the National Socialist Party--a shot at those who took offence at its anti-Jewish policies. Hitler's racist ideology drew criticism, but usually was dismissed as "bluster." Few bothered to read Mein Kampf, where his hatreds were laid bare. Even Hitler's ominous Reichstag address, in which he warned of "the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe," got little attention in the Western press.

And thus we return to the Iranian president. As Hitler justified rearmament to combat the "Zionist Marxist" menace of communism, Ahmadinejad links Iran's nuclear ambitions to "the filthy Zionist entity." As Hitler blamed the Jews for stirring up American and British contempt for his regime, Ahmadinejad calls Israel an agent of Western sanctions against Iran. In early 2006 he announced his intension to enrich uranium, in violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Shortly after that pledge came this dark prediction: "Like it or not, the Zionist regime is heading toward annihilation. The Zionist regime is a rotten, dried tree that will be eliminated by one storm." Elsewhere Ahmadinejad has spoken of the need to "wipe Israel off the map."

It's hard to see how talk like this fails to qualify as a violation of the U.N. Charter, Article 2, which prohibits member states from threatening the "territorial integrity or political independence" of any state. The Charter, in Article 5, offers a non-violent remedy for this behavior: expulsion from the United Nations. Yet no U.N. or European Union diplomats have ever suggested that the principles of the Charter be applied to Iran. Those who resist tough sanctions or military action argue that we can't be sure of the politics in Tehran. The extent or staying power of Ahmadinejad's influence remains unclear.

Yet we do know that since the Iranian president's arrival, Iran has been ignoring U.N. Security Council resolutions to stop its nuclear program. We know that promises of national renewal, hostility to the West, and a violent, apocalyptic vision of Islam have become interwoven in Tehran. We know that political opponents are tortured in prisons run by the judiciary and the Revolutionary Guards, and that free speech and peaceful assembly are fictions. We know the regime has launched an international campaign of holocaust-denial. And we understand, from awful experience, something about the blight of anti-Semitism. "The conditions that create genocidal violence are not unique," writes John Weiss in Ideology of Death: Why the Holocaust Happened in Germany. "As German history demonstrates, racist myths repeated over decades and manipulated to 'explain' the sufferings of dominant groups can generate overwhelming support for a powerful and murderous ideology."