LAST WEEK GERMANY marked the 75th anniversary of Adolf Hitler's rise to power, on January 30, 1933. Within a decade the Nazi juggernaut had devoured much of Europe, and its death camps had incinerated millions. No nation in Europe bears the shame of Nazism and anti-Semitism more heavily, yet none seems more determined to prevent their recurrence. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier no doubt spoke for many over the weekend: "The memory of the genocide committed by the Germans serves to keep us alert and fight anti-Semitism and racial hatred around the world."
This is a good thing, this mixture of grief and resolve. We will need more of it. For on the very same day last week, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad--in yet another bellicose political sermon--promised that Iran would produce nuclear energy within a year and that Israel would soon collapse. "I warn you to abandon the filthy Zionist entity," he said, "which has reached the end of the line."
All historical analogies are hazardous, of course. Yet it is not necessary to believe that the Iranian president shares Hitler's demonic fury, or that his brand of Shi'a Islam is a kind of Islamo-fascism, to draw useful lessons from Europe's decade of appeasement. Foremost among these lessons was the fatally naïve critique of Hitler, his anti-Semitism, and his designs on Europe.
A member of the SA, the Nazi terrorist militia, recalled the night Hitler was appointed chancellor. Berlin, he said, was transformed from a cold, gray, slumbering capital into a "seething, red, clear burning sea of torches." Thousands chanted Sieg Heil outside the balcony where Hitler stood to receive them. "The mood was a compound of triumph, aggression and strange exultant relief," writes historian Alex de Jonge. "Complete strangers embraced one another, saying, 'At last we are saved.' It was as if the German nation believed itself to have been released at a stroke from political chaos and economic misery." On February 1, in his first radio address to the German people, Hitler pledged that government leaders "would preserve and defend those basic principles on which our nation has been built up. They regard Christianity as the foundation of our national morality and the family as the basis of national life."
Church leaders would swell the ranks of the political faithful. The Protestant "German Christian Movement" welcomed Nazi involvement in their congregations. A coalition of Protestant groups, including Lutherans and members of the Reformed Church, issued an April declaration that was a paean to militant nationalism: "Germanism is a gift of God. God wills that I fight for Germany," they said. "Adolf Hitler's State calls to the Church, the Church has heard the call." Soon church bells bore Nazi swastikas, crosses were draped in Nazi flags, and a new priesthood--the "storm troopers of Jesus"--preached martial sermons of racial purity and holy martyrdom.
The Catholic hierarchy performed no better. Germany's Catholic Centre Party, backed by the Vatican, swiftly supported unrestricted powers for Hitler and the suspension of the Weimar Constitution. The editor of the Catholic journal Augsburger Postzeitung summarized the mood: "The positive attitude of the German Catholics to the new state is no longer impeded by religious scruples." The same might be said of the Holy See, which in April received Nazi leaders Franz von Papen and Hermann Goring with full honors. Within months Pope Pius XI signed a Concordat with Hitler. Intended as a shield for the church, the agreement lent Hitler international credibility, criminalized Catholic political activity, and demoralized bishops and priests who opposed Nazi rule.
Even as these proclamations and agreements were being made, Hitler confirmed his racist and dictatorial passions. The Reichtag fire became a pretext to nullify the rights guaranteed by the Weimar constitution, including freedom of speech and assembly. Police, SA, and SS thugs launched a wave of arbitrary arrests. Hitler staged a national boycott of Jewish shops, lawyers, and physicians. Opposition political parties and labor unions were banned. An orgy of book burning ensued. Within a year, Hitler combined the role of "Fuhrer and Chancellor," effectively ending Germany's experiment in liberal democracy.
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."
People of intelligence and good will can disagree over what should be done with this knowledge. Yet all would benefit by reflecting on what an earlier generation of leaders did--and failed to do--when their knowledge finally collided with their illusions.
Joseph Loconte is a senior fellow at Pepperdine University's School of Public Policy and a frequent contributor to THE DAILY STANDARD. He is the editor of The End of Illusions: Religious Leaders Confront Hitler's Gathering Storm.