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A Haunting Echo

All who condemn the 1930s appeasement of Hitler's Germany should reflect long and hard on whether a failure to act today against Iraq will one day be viewed the same way

November 24, 2002|Shlomo Avineri | Shlomo Avineri is professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

JERUSALEM — Let me start on a personal note: Three of my grandparents perished during the Holocaust in Poland. This is why I find it an unspeakable obscenity that my three grandchildren, who live in Jerusalem, may one day be exposed to gas attacks by Iraq -- they have already been issued gas masks. I am not alone among Israelis in having such feelings. Together with strategic considerations, thoughts like mine are ever present as Israelis contemplate the complex prospect of a U.S.-led military strike against Iraq.

During the Gulf War of 1991, Israel experienced 39 missile attacks by Iraq. So it's not surprising that today, most Israelis are deeply ambivalent about the prospects of military action against Saddam Hussein. On the one hand, they feel deeply threatened by Iraq and its development of nonconventional weapons. The elimination of a bloody and aggressive dictator like Hussein from the neighborhood would make Israel more secure, and so there is an almost unanimous support in Israel for toppling him, by force if necessary.

On the other hand, Israel knows that if a military campaign is undertaken, Hussein may respond, once again, by launching missile attacks against the Jewish state.

Israelis understand the reluctance to go to war; it should always be the last resort. There is sympathy here for a Europe which, devastated twice by wars in the last century, prefers negotiations to force. Even German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's stated refusal to join a United Nations-sanctioned action against Iraq is, paradoxically, understood by many Israelis. They may criticize the political wisdom of such a stance, but they also believe a pacifist Germany is better than a belligerent one.

Ultimately, though, Israelis cannot forget what happened when a brutal and megalomaniacal dictator was ignored for too long during the last century. Hussein is obviously not Hitler, but there are some haunting parallels that cannot be overlooked. European appeasement of Hitler in the 1930s is today viewed almost universally as a strategic mistake and a morally bankrupt act. Perhaps we should examine the lessons.

Imagine Europe in 1936. Nazi Germany had not yet attacked any country, but Hitler had:

* violated the Versailles Treaty, which limited Germany's military capabilities, and started rearming on a massive scale;

* publicly committed himself to reversing the territorial losses of Germany in World War I;

* reoccupied the demilitarized Rhineland, in blatant contravention of international agreements signed by Germany;

* abolished the democratic structure of the Weimar Republic and banned all political parties except his own;

* thrown tens of thousands of opposition members, Jews, Gypsies and gays into concentration camps;

* expelled Jews from public service, the professions, universities and schools and confiscated much of their property.

But because Hitler had not yet attacked any foreign country, his treatment of Jews and others was deemed an internal matter. Europe -- and the League of Nations, which Germany had in the meantime left -- ignored the catastrophe that was brewing. We now refer to that willful blindness as appeasement.

Imagine what might have happened had Britain and France followed a different path and launched a military strike against Germany, with or without a League of Nations mandate. Hitler's Germany, not yet the military power it would become in 1939, would have been quickly crushed. In the process, of course, numerous innocent Germans would have been hurt or killed, but Germany's later aggression against Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland, which caused huge numbers of casualties, would never have happened. There would have been no World War II, no Nazi occupation of Europe, no Holocaust. Last and perhaps not least, some 12 million ethnic Germans who were expelled after 1945 from Eastern Europe would still live today in their ancestral lands.

Declaring war on Hitler's Germany in 1936 would have been the correct course of action, morally and strategically, for the European powers. European pacifists would have opposed military action, but they too would have been spared the agonies of the following years and of a devastating world war.

In a way, Hussein's record today is worse than Hitler's was in 1936. Hussein has already invaded two of his neighbors (Iran and Kuwait), attacked Israel with missiles and used poison gas against his own population. His treatment of the Iraqi Kurds is much worse than Hitler's treatment of the Jews was by 1936. And Hussein may possess weapons of mass destruction Hitler hadn't dreamed of. With all the understandable reluctance to launch a war, shouldn't Europe -- and the rest of the world -- be considering these parallels? Wouldn't the world be a better place today if the international community in 1936 had possessed the will to stop Hitler?

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