George Will and the Collapse of Historical Knowledge


To paraphrase Aldous Huxley, “the only thing men learn from history is to endlessly invoke Adolf Hitler.” Although this pseudo-historical bugaboo had its roots in the cold war, the gratuitous invocation of Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich has become epidemic over the past dozen years among the foreign policy elite and their hangers-on as an all-purpose justification for whatever foreign policy the elite wants to execute.

Beginning in 1989, the U.S. government justified its invasion of Panama and arrest of former CIA hirling Manuel Noriega with the excuse that he was like Hitler. On the eve of Desert Storm, President George H.W. Bush decried erstwhile ally Saddam Hussein as “worse than Hitler.” With a change in administrations, the practice continued, this time to justify the overthrow of a ludicrously picayune rogue: to the Clinton administration, none other than Haiti’s Raoul Cedras acquired the evil attributes of the long-dead Beast of Berlin.

The decade-long breakup of Yugoslavia also assumed the sinister characteristics–at least in the fevered minds of the half-educated Beltway literati–of Hitler’s conquest of Europe. The elite gave no regard either to the circumstance that Yugoslavia was getting smaller, not larger, nor to the inconvenient fact that Yugoslavia was itself an artificial construct of Wilsonian idealism. Still less regard was paid to fact that the deaths in this civil war were hardly above the norm of killings practiced by U.S. allies like Turkey in Kurdistan or Indonesia in Timor (about the Sabra and Shatila massacres or My Lai the less said the better). In his speech justifying an attack on Serbia, President Clinton adverted to the alleged need for the United States to intervene in this conflict “in the heart of Europe”–a clear attempt to link Yugoslavia (a mere backwater at the Southeast fringe of Europe ) with the Munich agreement and the origins of the Second World War.

Against this contemporary background of cardboard Fuhrers and bogus crises, George F. Will has lately put all his mock erudition and tedious moral dudgeon at the service of the war party. His recent column [Reference 1] asserts that the defective and incomplete arms inspection regime of the Allied Control Commission after World War I permitted Weimar Germany to secretly rearm. Therefore, Mr. Will implies, the current arms inspection of Iraq is hopelessly futile, and its naive pursuit will inevitably beget a rampant and victorious military conqueror in the form of Saddam Hussein.

The reader also draws the inference that those who favor inspections over pre-emptive war are not merely fatuous optimists, but almost criminally negligent appeasers in the manner of Neville Chamberlain. This conclusion is reinforced by the melodramatic manner in which Mr. Will ends his piece: the final two words are “Adolf Hitler,” ending very much like a child’s “just so” story, or, if you will, the urban legend which the teller dares the listener to doubt. What is wrong with this historical analogy? One hardly knows where to begin. Mr. Will evidently means to suggest Iraq and Weimar Germany are equivalent threats by stating that the two countries are roughly the same size. By this measure, Chad or Outer Mongolia must have frightening military potential. Concrete comparison, rather than emotional suggestibility, yields the following data

Weimar Germany, despite the Versailles sanctions, comprised the second-largest industrial base on earth. In certain critical fields, such as chemistry, physics, and metallurgy, it led the world. By the early-twentieth century standards of industrial development–the production of coal, steel, or industrial chemicals–Germany was either first in the world or second behind the United States. No other country had as many Nobel Prize-winning scientists as Germany.

A summary indication of Iraq’s military/industrial potential may be gleaned from the following passage: “. . . Iraq’s real gross domestic product (GDP)-that is, its GDP adjusted for inflation-fell by 75 percent from 1991 to 1999. In the late 1990s the country’s real GDP was estimated at about what it was in the 1940s, [emphasis added] prior to the oil boom and the modernization of the country. As a result, per capita income and the people’s calorie intake plunged from the levels of relatively better-off Third World countries to those of the desperately poor Fourth World states, such as Rwanda, Haiti, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Somalia.” (2)

So the economic indicators of this alleged hegemon on the Euphrates are more nearly those of such basket cases as Rwanda than those of Weimar Germany or the Soviet menace.

Mr. Will refers in his column to the clandestine training methods of the Reichswehr as a basis for its subsequent expansion into the Wehrmacht. But what does the German Army of that time, almost universally acknowledged as the most professional officer and NCO corps in the world, have to do with a demoralized, robotic, and inept Iraqi officer corps leading a brutalized, unwilling conscript rabble? Does their lamentable performance in Desert Storm somehow evoke Operation Barbarossa or the Wehrmacht’s conquest of France and the Low Countries?

Likewise Weimar Germany’s relative strength vis-a-vis its potential adversaries compared with Iraq’s current situation. As stated, Germany was the second largest industrial base in the world. The United States, its only industrial better in the 1920s, might as well have been on the moon for all that it was able to affect the contemporary balance of power in Europe. Post-Versailles America had an army that was well below the first rank, and behind such martial midgets as Sweden or Romania.

By contrast, today the United States alone comprises close to 50 percent of world military spending. Its putative rival Iraq spends about a tenth on the military compared to what it did a decade ago. Its remaining weapons are largely obsolete 1970s vintage Soviet bloc hardware (without spare parts or contractor support), and its delivery means of purported weapons of mass destruction are roughly a dozen SCUDs, themselves a derivative of 60-year old V-2 technology.

It is also hard to conceive of the history of the 1920s as being one where the Entente powers would have been able to designate half of Germany a no-fly zone and bomb German military installations at will. The Entente also lacked orbiting satellites, multi-billion dollar signals intelligence interception capabilities, and other technical means that the United States now routinely employs against Iraq. If the implication is that these technologies, developed to surveille the eight million square miles of the Soviet Union, are inadequate to handle Iraq, one can only conclude the U.S. taxpayer has been duped.

It is not surprising that crackpot analogies like Mr. Will’s have gained traction in the United States anno 2002. A recent National Geographic survey found that in the dumbed-down post-literate age “only about one in seven–13 percent–of Americans between the age of 18 and 24, the prime age for military warriors, could find Iraq” on a world map. (3) The adage says that in the land of the blind the one-eyed man is king. Accordingly, a half-educated discourse on the Weimar Republic by a kennel-fed establishment literatus like George Will sounds like real erudition to people who can barely find Canada on a map.

As the conservative political scientist Michael Oakshott wrote, historical analogies must be drawn with sensitivity and attention to historical facts, because an analogy is not a mathematical proof or a logical syllogism:

There is no process of generalization by means of which the events, things and persons of history can be reduced to anything other than historical events, things and persons without at the same time being removed from the world of historical ideas . . . In history there are no “general laws” by means of which historical individuals can be reduced to instances of a principle, and least of all are there general laws of the character we find in the world of science.

Let us heed Mr. Oakshott’s caution. Otherwise, a tendentious or partisan reading of history could derive any number of Third Reich analogies. For example, future generations of shallow and ill-educated people might conclude that since both Josef Goebbels and George Will never served in the military, and both wrote tirelessly in favor of war, and both practiced the lower forms of journalism, there must be a functional equivalence between the two. But who would now suggest such a far-fetched analogy?

Werther is the pen name of a Northern Virginia-based defense analyst. He can be reached at:

(1) “A Retrospective on Disarmament by George F. Will, The Washington Post, 15 December 2002.

(2) “Iraq Economy,” a country profile at

(3) “Global Goofs: US Youth Can’t Find Iraq,”

(4) Experience and Its Modes, Michael Oakshott, 1986.