History is an imperfect teacher. But when push comes to shove, it would be more prudent to take Hitler's Germany, as opposed to Mao's China, as a precedent for today's Iran
A young girl holds a placard comparing Ahmadinejad to Hitler, in 2009
Lawrence J. Haas
History is an imperfect teacher. The lessons from events of the past often contradict one another, leaving policymakers the challenge of deciding which ones are most relevant to the issues of today.
That challenge lies at the heart of the debate over what to do about Iran’s quest for nuclear weaponry.
On that issue, history offers conflicting lessons that derive from two earth-shaking events of the last century.
Event #1: Hitler’s rise, from which we learn:
First, confront threats before they materialize.
Nothing better symbolizes the dead-end policy of appeasement than British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s declaration, after a meeting with Adolf Hitler in late 1938, that he had secured “peace for our time.”
By the time Chamberlain met with Hitler, Germany’s Fuhrer had already re-militarized the Rhineland in 1936 (violating the Versailles Peace Treaty and the Locarno Treaties of 1925) and annexed Austria in early 1938 in what was known as the “Anschluss.”
In late September of 1938, with Hitler threatening to invade Czechoslovakia to take its Sudetenland, Hitler met with Chamberlain and the leaders of France and Italy. They agreed to let Hitler occupy the Sudetenland. That was supposed to satiate Hitler’s appetite for more territory.
It did not, of course. Hitler seized all of Czechoslovakia in March of 1939 and then invaded Poland in September, forcing Britain and France to declare war on Germany and marking the start of what would be history’s bloodiest conflict.
Second, take leaders at their word.
In his autobiographical treatise, Mein Kampf, and in other writings and speeches years before he assumed power, Hitler made both his hatred of Jews and his plans to attack Jewry abundantly clear.
Hitler ranted, but the world scoffed. Few imagined that Hitler could be serious about his plans, even as the Third Reich increasingly institutionalized Jew hatred in law; later, few believed the reports emanating from Germany in the1940s that Hitler was systematically slaughtering the Jews.
Today, Iran’s leaders are pursuing nuclear weapons while threatening to wipe out Israel, referring to the Jewish state in the vilest terms. Most recently, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, endorsed a doctrine that explains why it’s “legally and morally justified” to eliminate Israel.
“Israel is a cancerous tumor in the Middle East…” says a recent article by one of Khamenei’s top advisors, which he has endorsed and which has now appeared on many Iranian government and military websites. “The first step should be the absolute destruction of Israel. To this end, Iran could make use of long-range missiles. The distance between us is only 2,600 [kilometers]. It can be done in minutes.”
Hitler’s threats and the world’s response suggest that Israel, in particular, should take a far different approach to Tehran. That makes it easy to understand the rising alarm in Jerusalem and the growing calls for military action to cripple Tehran’s nuclear program.
Event #2: Mao’s rule, from which we learn:
First, don’t panic over rhetoric.
Frightening threats and vile rhetoric are hardly unusual on the world stage. It spews forth from dictators and demagogues alike. “We will bury you,” Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev warned President Kennedy during their meeting in Vienna, and he repeatedly threatened war over the U.S.-Soviet deadlock over Berlin.
China’s revolutionary leader, Mao Tse-Tung, also had a flair for bluster. Of nuclear war, he pronounced in late 1957, “I say that if the worst came to the worst and one-half of mankind dies, the other half would remain, while imperialism would be razed to the ground and the whole world would become socialist. In a number of years, there would be 2.7 billion people again and definitely more.”
Khrushchev did not, in fact, “bury” the United States, backing down, for instance, during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Beijing, too, has proven far less frightening over the years than Mao’s rhetoric might have suggested.
To be sure, today’s Beijing flexes its muscles in the region, conducts cyber warfare against the United States, and denies basic rights to its people. Nevertheless, over the years it has acted as far more of a traditional nation-state than a revolutionary one that would “raze” imperialism through nuclear war.
Second, don’t over-react.
With Mao ramping up his anti-U.S. rhetoric in the 1950s, President Eisenhower faced pressure both inside and outside his administration to launch a pre-emptive attack on China that would reduce its threats to U.S. interests.
The President overruled the hawks of his day in a move that, by way of hindsight, now seems prudent.
Critics of Israeli threats to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities often point to China as a cautionary tale. Like Beijing, they say, Tehran is more rational than its rhetoric suggests. It won’t nuke Israel, they say, because it knows that Israel would launch a brutal nuclear counter-attack that would devastate Iran.
So, Hitler or Mao? Germany or China? We can’t know for sure what Tehran represents. We are left, instead, to assess risks.
For Jerusalem, the risk of assuming Iran is another China and learning otherwise clearly outweighs the risk of assuming Iran is another Germany and eliminating the threat through military action.
That’s the way it must look in Jerusalem. For what it’s worth, that’s also the way it looks from where I sit.
Lawrence J. Haas was Communications Director and Press Secretary for Vice President Al Gore. He writes widely about foreign and domestic affairs