Dana E. Abizaid
January 17, 2016

Recently Turkish President Recep Erdogan made an ill-advised reference to Adolf Hitler. In response to a journalist’s question regarding the potential for a strong presidency in Turkey, Erdogan stated “there are already examples in the world…You can see it when you look at Hitler’s Germany.” The backlash to Erdogan’s statement confirms what astute politicians already knew: only negative comparisons to Hitler are acceptable. These have been in great abundance in the last few decades. In fact, there has been a rush to compare any new figure or group that challenges the Western world order as a “new Hitler” or the worst since the Nazis. This even extends to the domestic front in US politics where, sadly, some influential Americans have made irresponsible remarks equating President Obama with the evil Nazi leader. Most notably, Mike Huckabee, former governor of Arkansas, presidential candidate and TV personality, commented on the Iran nuclear deal by stating, “Obama is so naive he would trust the Iranians and he would take the Israelis and basically march them to the door of the oven.” In an earlier high profile display of fatuity, then Georgia Congressman Paul Broun, said of president elect Obama, “We can’t be lulled into complacency…You have to remember that Adolf Hitler was elected in a democratic Germany.” Not letting the Historical record deter him (Hitler was never elected German leader), Broun refused to then keep silent and let people guess if he was really that ignorant. Instead, he spoke again and removed all doubt. “I’m not comparing him to Adolf Hitler. What I’m saying is there is the potential.” That said, any leader with a shred of integrity and decency would never make a positive Hitler reference. For well-established reasons Hitler sits atop the hierarchy of evil leaders in world History. However, the very fact that it is taboo to speak about the positive aspects of Hitler’s impact on Germany restricts a thorough understanding of why Hitler and the Nazis were able to accomplish what they did. Hitler was evil but evil was not the reason for his success. His policies led to great improvements in German economics, infrastructure, and science. Thus, Hitler received significant support from ordinary Germans and praise from the international community. This takes on greater significance when German losses in WWI and the draconian strictures of the Treaty of Versailles are taken into consideration.

Germany’s economy was in shambles in 1932. According to the BBC, there were 6 million unemployed Germans. By the late 1930s Hitler and the Nazis had virtually wiped out unemployment through a series of social, economic, and military programs designed to prepare the country for the next war. Hitler and the Nazis also made it a priority to improve German infrastructure, as anybody who has ever traveled on Germany’s vaunted autobahn knows. The roads won much support from German voters. In the scientific field, the Nazis funded the work of Werner von Braun that led to the development of the V-1 and V-2 rockets as well as jet aircraft. After the war, von Braun – a Nazi party and SS member - was incredibly able to reinvent himself as the head of NASA. In the US, at least, he is much better known for the moon landing than the thousands of British civilians killed by indiscriminate V-1 and V-2 attacks.

Despite these noted accomplishments, Hitler’s atrocities completely negate any short-term positive gains on the road to Götterdämmerung. Consequently, journalists and politicians rightfully lambasted Erdogan for making a positive comparison to Hitler’s achievements.

But what if Erdogan had cited other examples of strong leaders who committed grave human rights abuses on the way toward improved domestic development? For example, if Erdogan referred to Belgium King Leopold’s successful rape of the Congo that left an estimated 10 million Congolese dead, most journalists and politicians would probably have had to do a quick Google search for specifics. If Erdogan had referenced Stalin’s brutally effective Five-Year Plans the outcry would have been strong in the West but less stringent in the East, especially Russia, where a 2008 poll found Stalin to be the third greatest leader in Russian History. Had Erdogan pointed to the incredible power that the first 16 US presidents had in promoting and maintaining the cruel system of African-American slavery, many Americans would be appalled that a contemporary leader would acknowledge the vital role that slavery played in building the 19th century US economy.

Examining why comparisons to some leaders are acceptable while others are not makes for a revealing exercise in determining how and why we shape our Historical context. At the Istanbul International Community School, where I teach European History, I often wear a Stalin t-shirt to class when we study the repressions of the 1930s. In six years I have never been asked to justify why I wear a shirt with the image of one of History’s most ruthless murderers. To generate discussion amongst my students, I always ask, “Does anybody know why I am wearing my Stalin t-shirt today?” There are always well-intentioned responses like “We are studying Stalin” or “You are highlighting one aspect of Soviet propaganda.” I nod and say, “My Hitler shirt is in the wash.”

I, of course, do not own a Hitler shirt. But the focus question then becomes: why can I wear a Stalin shirt but would likely be fired if I wore a Hitler shirt? This question then extends to other symbols in the classroom, including US and British flags that represent both progress and imperial repression and portraits of Che Guevara – a noted blood thirsty murderer whose iconic image is ironically displayed across the Western world on t-shirts and posters that romanticize his sadism.

Although any positive reference to Hitler is unacceptable, these symbols and people should also receive critical scrutiny. The most important and rarely asked question is: why don’t they?