While I find those images on the Internet of a blunt little mustache digitally-scribbled onto President Bush’s upper lip feeble and unhelpful, still, there are parts of Bush’s character and behavior that strikingly resemble at least one major biographer’s interpretation of Hitler. Ian Kershaw’s two-volume life of Hitler puts great emphasis on his being a driving high-stakes gambler–with innate, animal-cunning about human psychology, few gifts of statesmanship or strategy, and little systematic learning–attributing most of his success and all of his failure to his compulsive quality.
When, for example, Bush waged his ferocious post-election pursuit of legitimacy through threats and court actions, finally securing appointment to office by America’s Supreme Court, it resembled the way Hitler, never actually elected, worked ferociously behind the scenes and on the streets at a time of great political instability to secure appointment as Chancellor by President von Hindenburg.
Several observers have commented that Bush’s recent stunt of flying to the deck of an aircraft carrier in order to make a televised speech might well have been copied directly from Hitler’s flight to the gigantic Nuremberg rally, his plane dramatically circling in descent towards a million people gathered in barbarian tribute, his purpose being to make a filmed speech. Whether Bush’s crowd consciously followed the script set down by Hitler nearly seventy years ago matters less than that the thinking is so similar, with the manipulation of dramatic, militaristic props for propaganda being identical.
Bush never goes anywhere where his stage crew has not first assembled giant flags as background. He always wears a sizeable American-flag pin on his lapel. This kind of totemic, obsessive use of flags was absolutely characteristic of Hitler.
Hitler was a troubled, difficult person, but there is no evidence of any genuine insanity or psychosis (see Dr. Fritz Redlich’s excellent study, “Hitler, Diagnosis of a Destructive Prophet”). It is precisely this fact that made him, and makes those like him, all the more dangerous. It is easy to dismiss a genuine lunatic.
Given any circumstances other than those of the unique and troubled period in which he embraced German politics, Hitler would have been an utter failure, likely to be laughed off the stage with his sputtering, eye-bulging speech and fantasy claims. He had never, except for extremely brief and intermittent times, before entering politics in the revolutionary ruin that was post-war Germany, made an honest living.
There is a close parallel here with Bush. Except when friends of his powerful father made attractive, low-risk, undemanding opportunities available to him, young Bush was a failure. He demonstrated no business acumen, no academic application, and he did a lot of aimless drifting, much like Hitler’s time in Vienna before the First World War. There are totally unexplained periods in Bush’s early adult life, an extraordinary thing for an American national public figure.
Even as governor of Texas, Bush showed no skill other than the kind of animal cunning one associates with some of the nation’s shabbiest politics. Many do not realize that the office of governor of Texas, despite sounding important, is a relatively weak office, so the people putting Bush forward at the time took a small risk of his doing any serious damage.
Bush was not a national figure when he was put up for the Republican presidential nomination. Yet, suddenly, he appeared on the national stage, pockets bulging with $77 million in campaign contributions, an amount that could render even Kermit the Frog a formidable opponent in America’s phony, advertising- and marketing-drenched politics. Of course, as quickly as these funds were depleted, they were topped up again.
The support of German industrialists was an important part of Hitler’s being able to sustain his slow rise to power. Many of these business people thought they would heavily profit from the success of the odd, theatrical little man they bankrolled. The one absolute certainty was that Germany under Hitler would rearm, massively and quickly, with lots of profitable contracts coming available. Bush’s measures for defense and security after 9/11, almost instantly swelled to tumor-like masses, offer an unprecedented opportunity for well-positioned people to make new fortunes.
Bush’s apparent ability to be charming face-to-face has been publicized by insiders wishing to humanize his public image. Well, that is a characteristic Hitler possessed in abundance: on the one hand, he could intimidate people with fits of horrifying anger, and yet, as many attested, he could be utterly charming. He could order wholesale murder and yet have a gracious, polite tea with his hardworking secretaries. Of course, the sense of charm assumed you did not have to spend great periods of time with Hitler as did the captive members of his immediate party entourage. For them, Hitler was reduced to a boring, repetitive self-proclaimed expert on everything who insisted on discussing everything, endlessly. One can only imagine the tedious conversations of a Bush comfortable with his cronies over a charred cow down in Crawford. We actually got an unintended glimpse of this private world when the BBC “accidentally” ran some television shots of Bush before a big speech sharing the kind of gestures and comments to smiling flunkies one might expect from a small-town, grade-school basketball coach.
Bush has demonstrated his capacity for vicious anger a number of times, despite his handlers working very hard to hide this from the public. His response to the nomination challenge of John McCain was manic. His response to the rightful and fitting challenges of France or Germany to his Iraqi policies has been ugly, with pathetic factotum, Colin Powell, given the job of announcing various gibes, slights, and threats in the aftermath (Harry Belafonte’s description of Powell, I regret to say, has proved devastatingly accurate). The closest parallel to Hitler’s behavior was in Bush’s approach to Iraq. It is clear that he was determined–despite all facts contrary to his claims, despite the heroic efforts of weapons inspectors, despite the voice of most of the world’s diplomatic community, and despite demonstrations by millions–to invade Iraq. The litany of false and even irrelevant claims made over and over combined with his lack of shame or embarrassment when found out time and again, closely mimics a behavior pattern of Hitler who more or less invented the “big lie” technique.
Even more closely resembling Hitler was Bush’s insane rush towards a huge, high-stakes gamble on quick success in Iraq. He displayed not an ounce of statesmanship. It mattered not at all that he put the UN, NATO, and the EU through a crisis and embarrassed longstanding allies to get what he wanted. Had the invasion bogged down into bloody street-fights and large numbers of Americans been killed, Bush could not have survived the political results. This was the purest obsessive, go-for-broke gamble.
What we witnessed leading up to the invasion bore uncanny similarities to the Munich crisis of 1938, but not the ones so many American commentators point to about a weak-willed Chamberlain appeasing a brutal dictator. People seem to forget Bush was making the threats, not Hussein.
Hitler was going to invade the Czechs, and that was that, but he was willing to toy with war-weary Western statesmen, to gain a bit of time or psychological advantage, and to appear open to argument before hurling his divisions over the border. So, too, Bush paused in invading Iraq, allowing Western statesmen to argue their case a bit and make various proposals, but he never listened to them, only hoping he might gain a few more allies, a shred of legitimacy, or a bit of psychological advantage.
This provides a very good example of how we do not learn from history. We are most of us always looking for exactly the same lesson from a vaguely similar historical situation, much as generals are said always prepared to fight the last war. But history, as has been accurately observed, is a flowing river which is not the same when touched a second time. Current events are never quite parallel with those of an earlier time despite superficial similarities. However, human character, patterns of behavior, and human interactions are things that may be profitably studied, being constant enough to make valid comparisons over time.
Here, too, is an example of how history can be manipulated to abuse political opponents. Critics on the left, in opposing the invasion of Iraq, have been accused of supporting a dictator. This is nonsense, of course, but like many bits of propaganda that become lodged into day-to-day understanding through endless repetition on television and in newspapers, it is nevertheless a powerful nonsense.
Too many people do not understand that the preponderance of forces in Germany before the Second World War were for peace. Hitler sometimes spoke of peace eloquently, but, as we now know, he had a rather odd definition of the word. When it looked like Germany was on the brink of war, great waves of despair went through Germany. All the bands and panoply of Nazi propaganda could not cover up people’s sullen reaction displayed even under dictatorship.
But when Hitler quickly defeated Poland and then quickly defeated France, the mood in Germany immediately changed. Hitler had achieved a relatively bloodless victory of stunning proportions. He became a hero, a national savior. And so with Bush’s massive, high-tech assault on pathetic little Iraq. Anti-war feelings and demonstrations did not rise so suddenly at the start of the much greater conflict in Vietnam, but with a quick, safe victory (safe for Americans, that is), Bush has become something of a shining figure. So much so, that at a recent dinner, a single dinner, Bush raised $18 million in campaign funds. Hitler’s manipulation of the idea of peace is paralleled in Bush’s manipulation of the idea of justice. Both are complete distortions. Bush’s genuine feeling for justice was perhaps best captured during the election campaign with his smug, joking response to a question about a soul on death row in Texas. For those with acute perceptions, still not dulled on a steady diet of synthetic emotions and cardboard ideas from television and Hollywood, there could be no surer sign of how potentially dangerous this man is.
JOHN CHUCKMAN lives in Canada. He can be reached at: email@example.com