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Upon his first visit to one of the liberated death camps, Allied Supreme Commander Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower said, "There are those who ask what are we fighting for. Let them come here and see what we are fighting against."
Eisenhower's remark contains an important insight: Sometimes it is more essential that one define the nature of evil than that one define what is good. About the latter, there will inevitably be many opinions. But they need not prevent a consensus from coalescing around the definition of evil.
I was reminded of that point last week as I watched The Third Jihad, the third in a trilogy of documentaries on the threat of radical Islam produced by Raphael Shore and Wayne Kopping. Toward the end of the documentary, one of the experts interviewed, former CIA intelligence officer Clare Lopez, declared: "The real war is between the values of freedom and barbarism. If we are not willing to recognize the battle as one for our civilization, we might as well give up right now."
The last time the West faced such a civilizational threat, many refused to recognize the nature of the conflict. In Troublesome Young Men, Lynne Olsen offers a gripping account of the group of youthful Conservative backbenchers who eventually ousted British prime minister Neville Chamberlain and brought in Winston Churchill in his place, nearly a year after the outbreak of World War II.
England entered that war totally unprepared, and lagging far behind Germany in every respect apart from its navy. Even after Britain declared war following the Nazi invasion of Poland, Chamberlain pursued it halfheartedly and dreamed of an imminent peace. Britain and France bombed only German military targets, narrowly defined. Meanwhile, Luftwaffe pilots in Poland followed orders to "close [their] hearts to pity," happily machine-gunning women and girls picking potatoes, bombing churches and hospitals, and strafing toddlers being herded to safety.
THE PARALLELS between today and the earlier period are eerie. Chamberlain, like US President Barack Obama today, enjoyed an overwhelming majority in Parliament. His party whips enforced party discipline with an iron hand - think Rahm Emanuel - and backbenchers who stepped out of line jeopardized their political futures.
In another interesting parallel, Chamberlain enjoyed almost across-the-board fawning support from the press and the BBC. That included self-imposed censorship on the information reaching the British public. After the Anschluss, British papers carried no pictures of the hundreds shot in the first days after the Nazi takeover, of the tens of thousands arrested and sent to concentration camps, or of Nazi soldiers forcing Jewish doctors, lawyers and professors to scrub streets and clean toilets on their hands and knees. When reporters asked Chamberlain about such matters, he snapped at them for believing "Jewish-communist propaganda," and that was the end of the matter.
The British press ignored both the massive German arms buildup prior to the war and the pitiful state of British preparedness. Both before and after the conflict started, it suppressed mention or quotations from Hitler's speeches that would have conveyed a much different impression of his goals. As a British TV character tartly observed 40 years later: "It is hard to censor the press when it wants to be free, but easy if it gives up its freedom voluntarily."
Chamberlain never read Mein Kampf, in which Hitler laid out in startling fashion both his future plans for the Jews and for German conquest. Far from viewing Hitler as an evil man, Chamberlain believed him to be a "gentleman," with whom he could do business. He was more than once shocked to find that Hitler had lied to him, even though that too was foreshadowed in Mein Kampf. Said future prime minister Harold Macmillan: "He didn't believe people existed [who would] say one thing and do another... It was pathetic, really."
According to Olsen, Chamberlain "could never bring himself to believe that [Hitler and Mussolini] wanted to go to war. Clinging to the security of his ignorance, he created a peace-loving image of them that defied reality." For a decade, the English and French did nothing in response to fascist aggression in Abyssinia (Ethiopia), Austria and Czechoslovakia, and precious little even in the wake of the German invasion of Poland.
France and England thereby encouraged Hitler to believe they were too weak to prevail - a judgment in which he was very nearly right. That should have taught us - but did not - that those who hope to avoid war via appeasement inevitably end up fighting later on worse terms.
At no point did Chamberlain recognize that Hitler constituted a mortal threat to Western civilization. As a consequence, he displayed far more ruthlessness in fighting those within his own party who dared challenge his policies than he did in fighting Hitler.
THE INABILITY to recognize Hitler as evil incarnate is the most frightening parallel to today. President Ronald Reagan was reviled by Western elites for calling the Soviet Union the evil empire, as was President George W. Bush for grouping Iran, North Korea and Saddam Hussein's Iraq together as the axis of evil.
The West still remains incapable of acknowledging evil or giving credence to the pronouncements of evil men. Ayatollah Khomeini long ago made clear that he was prepared to see Iran go up "in flames," if the worldwide rule of Islam were thereby furthered. Mutual assured destruction, says Bernard Lewis, the greatest living authority on Islam, is for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad "not a deterrent but an incentive." Surveying the scene in Beslan, where Chechnyan Muslims killed nearly 300 Russian schoolchildren, one of the speakers on The Third Jihad puts the point succinctly: Why should those who don't hesitate to send out their own children to be killed hesitate to kill other peoples' children?
Yet the highest wisdom in the West today is to not take seriously the threats of Ahmadinejad or the speculations of the Iranian leadership about the mathematics of a nuclear exchange with Israel. The mullahs are anything but mad, Roger Cohen assured us in The New York Times two months ago, in explanation of why the US should not succumb to Israeli hysteria about the Iranian nuclear threat. (At least Cohen now admits to being a dupe with respect to the Iranian leadership, though I've yet to see a retraction of his description of Israel's stranglehold on American foreign policy.)
Obama has no taste for confrontation with radical Islam. He cannot even admit to its expansionist aims. To do so might necessitate a response beyond nice words. He has yet to show any of the heat when discussing the Iranian regime's mowing down of its citizens that he musters when discussing Israeli settlements.
Evil, it seems, is one of the few words that does not roll trippingly from his tongue.