It is a laughable routine of the mass media to demonize all of the leaders of U.S. enemies as latter-day Hitlers. Saddam Hussein was a Hitler. Hugo Chavez in Venezuela was a Hitler. Gaddafi in Libya. Assad in Syria. Hillary Clinton recently equated Putin in Russia with Hitler.
Finally, however, we may have an actual instance where a U.S. adversary actually is a bonafide Hitler. But it’s not in the way we may think. The adversary is ISIS in Syraq and its equation with Hitler is not because it is committing genocide. Rather, it is for the way ISIS came to power–with U.S. nurturing–and then turned on its master.
The conventional wisdom about Hitler was that he acquired power as a result of “appeasement” by the British and, to a lesser extent, French governments. In this telling, Neville Chamberlain was a fool, a dunce who didn’t understand that giving in to a bully only makes him bolder. Not until it was too late did the world understand the irredeemable evil of Hitler.
This version of history was written by British historians even before World War II was over. Its purpose was to exonerate their nation’s government for the staggering devastation it brought into the world. Winston Churchill helped legitimize this narrative in the years after the War.
But a more distanced and nuanced reading of the history suggests that, far from being duped by Hitler, the British were, in fact, actively abetting him in his acquisition of power. This, in the hopes that he would use that power to destroy the Soviet Union, much as the Kaiser’s armies destroyed Russia during World War I. Only when Hitler cut a deal at the last moment with Stalin, to cover his eastern front, did Western leaders finally repudiate him.
Immediately after World War I, the U.S. and Britain led the White Counter Revolution, invading Russia to overthrow the newly installed Bolshevik regime. The invasion included forces from France, Italy, and Japan but failed in its mission. This was the first tip-off in the modern world of the West’s visceral antipathy to communism. But it was not the last.
Hitler came to power in 1933 with the promise that he would “deal with” the communists, which he promptly did. In 1935, the British destroyed the collective security regime of the League of Nations by cutting a bilateral deal with Hitler which allowed him to dramatically expand his navy. The Naval Treaty allowed for a greatly expanded German navy, much larger than was permitted in the Treaty of Versailles. It was a huge propaganda and military coup for Hitler.
When Hitler invaded the Rhineland in 1936 (forbidden in the Treaty), France offered to confront him if England would join her. It was France, after all, which had the most to lose with the German army on its border. England, under Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, refused to support its “ally” and allowed Hitler to win a towering propaganda victory without firing a shot.
German generals opposed the invasion, but when Western powers didn’t challenge it Hitler’s reputation as a political genius soared. He recorded in his diary that “If they had stood up to us we would have had to run away like a dog with its tail between its legs.” It was the last time he could be confronted without force.
Next, in 1938, Hitler annexed Austria in the Anschluss. This event formed the backdrop for the movie The Sound of Music. It was strictly forbidden in the Treaty of Versailles, but again, the British refused to join the French in opposing it. The new British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain stated publicly that he understood the desire of the German people to be re-united.
The height of the traditional narrative of appeasement occurred at Munich, where the British, French, and Italians handed Hitler the Sudenland, western Czechoslovakia where some three million German people lived. Prior to Munich, Chamberlain said of Hitler, “I have the greatest respect for this man.” Just before leaving for Munich, Chamberlain wrote to the king, stating “Herr Hitler plans to take Czechoslovakia and continue east.” East would be Russia.
As Hitler became more and more bold in his aggressions in Central and Eastern Europe Stalin tried harder and harder to secure a mutual assistance pact with Britain and France, the better to contain Germany. Both nations refused Stalin’s offers of assistance. When asked whether Russia might, indeed, be a strong ally against Hitler, Chamberlain replied, “I have very serious reservations about that country.”
From the moment Hitler came into office the British did all they could to abet his acquisition of power. Faced, as they were, with two vile enemies–communism and fascism–they chose what they considered the lesser of the two. Fascism, while a dictatorship, was still capitalist. It still respected private property. Communism did not, and Hitler looked like the best bet to destroy communism. All he needed was a free reign.
Of course, Stalin knew that Hitler’s goal was the conquest of the Slavic race. Hitler had written exactly that in Mein Kampf. So, in August 1939, Stalin cut a deal with Hitler, the Berlin-Moscow Non-Aggression Pact. They agreed to divide Poland between themselves, with neither side attacking the other in the bargain. Importantly, the Pact protected Hitler’s eastern flank, avoiding the two-front war that had doomed German fortunes in World War I. It left him free to attack the West at will.
In this way, ISIS is legitimately like Hitler. It is a creation of the West, in this case, the U.S., and its Sunni allies in the Middle East–Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Turkey, Ba’harain, and the United Arab Emirates. It was nurtured as an outgrowth of al Qaeda in Iraq. It was funded under the fiction that it contained “moderate rebels,” ones who could be controlled by the west and were even potentially small-d democrats. Its marching orders were to destroy the Shi’ite-leaning regime of Bashar Assad in Syria, paving the way for the removal of the Shi’ite regime in Iran and Saudi/U.S. domination of the Persian Gulf, location of 60% of the world’s known oil reserves.
But just as Hitler turned on his creators, ISIS broke its leash and turned on its. It is laughable to portray ISIS as a threat to the U.S. But it is potentially deadly to the corrupt sheikdoms that helped birth it and that defile the true teachings of Islam. It is to protect those shiekdoms–the U.S.’s allies–that the U.S. must now take up the fighting directly.
Chamberlain’s blunder in abetting Hitler proved one of the greatest strategic miscalculations in diplomatic history. It led directly to World War II. It is too early to understand the cost of the West’s abetting the creation of ISIS, but it is already much greater than planned.
Robert Freeman is the author of The Best One-Hour History series which includes World War I, The Vietnam War, The Cold War, and other titles.