Hitler is hijacking the international conversation and that’s not necessarily bad

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL February 19, 2024
Image by Vishnu Vijayan from Pixabay

It’s getting kinda samey this focus on Hitler, but I’m not sure the history lesson is quite getting through.

First, it was UK foreign secretary David Cameron, in an op-ed published in The Hill.

Then it was Brazil’s President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

Both made references to Hitler. Lord Cameron warned the US Congress to pass the funding package for Ukraine because it would be imprudent “to show the weakness displayed against Hitler in the 1930s”.  History showed, he thundered, “the folly of giving in to tyrants in Europe who believe in redrawing boundaries by force”. Hitler, he pointed out, “came back for more, costing us far more lives to stop his aggression”.

Lula, as the Brazilian president is generally known, accused Israel of committing genocide in Gaza. He said: “What is happening in the Gaza Strip with the Palestinian people has no parallel in other historical moments. In fact, it did exist when Hitler decided to kill the Jews”.

Both Hitler references inevitably stirred up a storm.

US Republican congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, whose linguistic skills are not noted for sensitivity and subtleness, said the British foreign secretary could “kiss my a**”. She added, “I think he tried to compare us to Hitler… and if that’s the kind of language he wants to use, I really have nothing to say to him”.

Israel, meanwhile, responded with outrage, declaring antisemitic and “persona non grata” in the country.

Worth noting that it’s the “H” word that seems to have triggered such furious responses, tipping the conversation over into the zone of disengagement.

What happened? And why?

A 2021 paper by Elise R Ousseau of the University of Namur and Stephane J Baele of the University of Exeter examined the use of insults in the field of international relations and how some may prove to be more disruptive than others, sometimes, by design.

The paper bore a colourful title “Filthy Lapdogs,” “Jerks,” and “Hitler”: Making Sense of Insults in International Relations. It cited Turkish President Recip Tayyip Erdogan’s two instances of using the Nazis and Hitler in reference to alternately Germany and Israel. Both were meant to wound at a point somewhere deep within the national soul of the entity he targeted.

The authors write: “In calling German leaders and population ‘Nazis’, he could not possibly hurt more, given how Germany’s modern identity—and foreign policy—has been constructed in opposition to its past and the Holocaust”. They added: “Similarly, when he claimed that Israeli leaders were ‘surpassing Hitler’, he directly hit the very foundational component of Israel’s national identity and interpretation of its security environment and preferred foreign policy options. This is especially true when this state is insecure about its identity (e.g., as it undergoes important social change or following a pivotal moment in its history, such as a defeat or a radical shift in domestic politics)”.

They concluded: “Some insults resonate more strongly than others against the insulted state’s history, and predominant socio-historic myths and narratives”.

That sounds about right and would probably explain Israel’s extreme sensitivity to any comparison with the very person and system (Hitler and his Nazi government) that resulted in the grievous loss of millions of Jewish people.

Many will, of course, debate the rights and wrongs of Lula’s comparison between Israel’s punishing operations in Gaza and Hitler’s murder of European Jewry. That said, Lula’s assertion does, at the very least, bear examination rather than reflexive dismissal.

Less understandable by far is the curmudgeonly fashion in which the American Congresswoman responded to a reference that simply urged current political actors to learn the lessons of history.

Isn’t that the whole point of history?

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