Certain analogies, we now know, have become too controversial to make. When Senator Durbin stated that reports of American abuse of prisoners at Guantanamo and elsewhere might remind a listener of Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia, an outcry forced him to apologize. The "Hitler card" has been played against so many political figures of different hues that it has become a caricature. For all that, however, the history of Fascism and National Socialism does, sadly, provide some important parallels to what is happening in Iraq today, and what may happen elsewhere in the Middle East. They need to be explored.
The bloody riots following the destruction of a Shi'ite mosque late last week emphasized that Iraq has fallen into a state not dissimilar to Germany in 1932. Then, Socialist, Communist and Nazi militias roamed the streets, fighting one another, frequently to the death (but usually with much less dangerous weapons than the Iraqis are using today, and, if memory serves, with significantly fewer casualties.) Germany was not occupied by a foreign power but its people were suffering extreme economic distress--as many Iraqis seem to be--and its government had been ruling by emergency decree since 1930, when the first big Nazi and Communist election victories had made it impossible to form a stable parliamentary government. Two more elections in late 1932 first increased, but then checked, the growth of the Nazis, leaving them well short of a Parliamentary majority even though they had become the largest party. Then, in January 1933, the aged President, Field Marshal von Hindenburg, agreed to appoint Hitler as Chancellor in a coalition between the Nazis and the conservative German National Peoples' Party. Majority opinion did not believe, however, that this would lead to Nazi party control of Germany.
The Reichstag fire on February 27th gave the Nazis a unique opportunity. Recent scholarship tends to agree that one unstable anarchist, a Dutchman named Marinus van der Lubbe, set the fire without help, but Hitler immediately blamed the Communists and used it to declare a new state of emergency. He also took advantage of a previous coup d'etat in Prussia, the federal state that included more than half the country's population. One of his predecessors, Franz von Papen, had already managed to take over authority from the legal leftist government, and Hitler now appointed Hermann Goering as Prussian Prime Minister. Goering took a critical step: he deputized the entire Nazi SA, the Storm Troopers, to enforce the emergency decrees, round up Communists and other enemies, and send them to new concentration camps. Meanwhile, he busily went to work purging professional Republican officials from the Prussian police. A month later, a new election--carried out in an atmosphere of intimidation--gave the Nazi-Conservative coalition a majority in the Reichstag and allowed Hitler to secure an Enabling Act putting the Parliament effectively out of business. At the same time, a new Minister of the Interior extended the deputized role of the SA all through Germany. Within another six months the opposition had been completely terrorized.
The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and press reports suggest that the American push for democracy in Iraq has unwittingly had a similar result. An American-sponsored purge eliminated all Ba'ath party members from the security forces in 2003. Initial elections led to the formation of a Shi'ite dominated government and Shi'ite control of the critical interior ministry. It is now very clear, as the New York Times reported yesterday, that that ministry has essentially incorporated Shi'ite militias into its police forces during the last year. Acting under legal cover, those forces have arrested, tortured and killed Sunni opponents. They led the retaliation for the Samarra bombing last week, and Sunni leaders are calling for the right to form their own self-defense militias (as have the Kurds, whose militias are the law in the Kurdish region) in response.
This new crisis erupted in what was apparently a last-ditch American attempt to move Iraqi politics in a different direction. The formation of the new government, apparently, has been delayed because the American authorities in Baghdad--who are well aware of what has happened--are desperately trying to keep the religious Shi'ites from dominating the Interior and Defense ministries in the future. (Elsewhere interior ministries also played key roles in Communist takeovers after 1945, most notably in Czechoslovakia in early 1948.) In particular they have apparently hoped that Iyad Allawi, the relatively secular, CIA-connected Shi'ite who was our first choice as Prime Minister but whose party did very poorly in the last elections, might still play a key role. But statements to this effect by Ambassador Khalizad and British foreign secretary Jack Straw drew an angry rejoinder from Prime Minister Al-Jaffari, and now, Shi'ite leaders are blaming those statements for the attack on the Samara mosque. (While that accusation seems ridiculous, it will, alas, remain politically potent.)
The division within Germany in 1932-33 was political, as Nazis, Communists and Socialists put forth different visions of the countries' future. The division in Iraq is ethnic, religious, and largely territorial, and may therefore break up the country. But both, it seems, have gone too far to be papered over by political consensus. The Nazis won their victory in 1933 by using the instruments of legal power to terrorize their opposition with the help of their paramilitary forces. Shi'ites in Iraq seem to be doing the same.
Faced with this disastrous turn of events, the American media and the American government seem to be looking for the bright side. "Muslim Clerics Call for an End to Iraq Rioting," the Times headlined yesterday, but the story under the headline quoted various Shi'ite clerics as blaming Sunni political leaders and Ambassador Khalizad himself--whom one of them specifically identified as a Sunni Muslim--for the troubles! The President, meanwhile, remarked that we were likely to see a lot more "political bargaining" in Iraq, the kind of thing "that doesn't happen under dictatorships." Peter Rodman, the Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security affairs, declared that "we" do not believe "extremists" will succeed in fomenting a civil war. Condolezza Rice, meanwhile, returned home from a trip to the Middle East during which frightened Arab leaders warned that Shi'ite-Sunni violence could easily spread through more of the region as well. Rice again tried to blame Al-Queda operative Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi for the threat of civil war, although she later had to back away from that statement and acknowledge that some native Iraqis were at fault as well. The Administration is determined to stay the course, but even some conservative allies like William Buckley are jumping ship. Continuing sectarian violence in Iraq might easily convince most Americans that it is time to leave Iraq to the Iraqis.