Wednesday, July 23, 2008

How not to understand Ahmadinejad

July 23, 2008

Over the weekend I finally finished a book that I began in August 2007 and had hoped to complete before Pessah - Saul Friedlander's The Years of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1939-1945. It's the kind of tome I had to put down from time to time (sometimes for weeks on end) before returning to it.

While the book is compelling, the subject matter is dismal.

Jews are not the only ones in history to have endured unspeakable suffering. But the Holocaust is unique in that it was systematically carried out by a civilized, industrialized, bureaucratic European power, with broad popular support - and it was catalyzed by an organizing principle: "scientific" racial supremacy.

The Nazis propagated and exploited their racism throughout occupied Europe, though with varying degrees of success. The Italians under Mussolini largely obstructed anti-Jewish measures; the Poles did not even pretend to be grief-stricken at what was happening on the other side of the ghetto walls.

Throughout much of the Shoah, notes Friedlander, the attention of the Labor Zionist leadership which controlled the yishuv was focused on nation-building, not rescue efforts. Diaspora leaders, for their part, were loath to be seen as turning WWII into a "Jewish issue."

By the fall of 1942, Washington, London, the neutral countries, the Red Cross and the Vatican all knew that the methodical and total destruction of Europe's Jews was well under way. All have alibis to explain why they allowed events to take their course.

FRIEDLANDER writes with - I wouldn't call it dispassion - remarkable restraint, allowing readers to draw their own sobering conclusions. Two lasting impressions his book left me with concern Adolf Hitler and Heinrich Himmler.

Der Fuehrer was not insane, and save for the final months of the war, he was in perfect command of his faculties. What drove his policies was a world view that demanded the annihilation of European Jewry - which explains why the resources needed to implement the Holocaust often received precedence over those needed to defeat the Allies.

In this sense, though Germany lost the war, Hitler largely accomplished his life's goal: a Judenrein Europe.

Friedlander also dissuades us from the perilous inclination to view the top Nazi echelon as comic-book villains. From Hitler on down they certainly had their, shall we say, peculiarities. But Friedlander makes it clear that you don't have to be bonkers to be evil. A quote from Himmler, Hitler's No. 2 (insofar as the execution of the Holocaust was concerned) hammers home this point.

For Himmler, killing Jews was not so much a thuggish pleasure as a "difficult" burden. In pep talks he gave to Nazi officers charged with carrying out the destruction of European Jewry, he repeatedly "offered encouragement and justification."

"On October 4, 1943 he described the extermination of the Jews as 'the task which became the most difficult of my life… The difficult decision had to be taken to have this people disappear from the face of the earth." [emphasis added]

I FINISHED Friedlander's book about Germany, and picked up the weekend newspapers with their coverage of Iran. The international community - the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany, with the EU in the vanguard - had given Teheran two (more) weeks to comply with demands that it suspend uranium enrichment.

When it comes to the "lessons of history," I'm an agnostic. Determinists like Abraham Lincoln believed that "What has once happened will invariably happen again, when the same circumstances which combined to produce it, shall again combine in the same way." Relativists such as E.H. Carr, on the other hand, claimed that none of us can write or read about the past, or draw lessons for the future, in a completely objective manner. For Carr, the "lessons of history" are so general as to be of limited utility.

I TEND to agree with Carr. There is a big danger in making decisions about Iran largely through the prism of the Holocaust.

Like Hitler, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is not a lunatic. Unlike the fuehrer, his leadership is not undisputed; he is not worshipped by frenzied masses, and no one suggests he will be Iran's leader-for-life.

Presumably, he does reflect the hateful world view of Iran's entire leadership when he calls for the Jewish state to be "wiped off the map"; says "Zionists" are "the most detested people in all humanity"; and declares, as he did on June 2: "You should know that the criminal and terrorist Zionist regime, which has 60 years of plundering, aggression and crimes in its file, has reached the end of its work and will soon disappear off the geographical scene."

But we can only speculate about whether Iran's leaders are genuinely apocalyptic - and thus immune to standard nuclear deterrence. We can only speculate about whether their desire to destroy Israel is paramount, akin to Hitler's determination to destroy European Jewry at all costs. Are the mullahs coldly, rationally willing to sacrifice their power, their people and their country to achieve this overriding mission?

The doyen of Middle East scholars, Bernard Lewis, asserts that the notion of mutual assured destruction (MAD) constitutes an inducement rather than a deterrent to Iran's apocalyptic Islamist regime. Perhaps.

In that case, I wonder why the Iranians haven't simply procured an off-the-shelf nuclear weapon from North Korea or Pakistan. And why have they not attacked Israel with other types of weapons of mass destruction - like chemical and bacteriological - already presumably at their disposal?

None of this is to suggest that Iran is not terribly dangerous, or that we shouldn't pull out all the stops to prevent it from gaining nuclear weapons. Even a non-apocalyptic nuclear Iran is a real and present danger to Israel, the region and the world.

FINALLY, sanctions offer another example of the limited utility of historical parallels. After Hitler came to power in 1933 and persecution of the Jews intensified, American Jews led a boycott campaign against German products and services. Its impact was negligible, arguably even counterproductive.

The opposite is the case today. Hard-hitting sanctions offer a very real prospect of success. In fact, the mild sanctions now in place have already contributed to the regime's unpopularity; driven it to ration petrol (Iran's refining capacity is limited, so gasoline has to be imported); and resulted in a 26 percent inflation rate.

It may be that the best - not to mention safest - way to bring the mullahs to their knees is via the economic and political isolation of Iran.

But whatever the international community decides, if it fails to summon the necessary will to compel Iran to end its nuclear weapons program, the catastrophic consequences could make for horrifying history.

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