ABOVE THE FOLD: The British foreign minister’s abuse of history

Who wants to tell their children that they stood by and watched or aided the Nazis?

Boris Johnson  (photo credit: REUTERS)
Boris Johnson
(photo credit: REUTERS)
When British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson invokes the name of Adolf Hitler and proceeds to draw a parallel between the greatest murderer of Jews in modern times and the actions of the current president of Russia, Vladimir Putin, we should sit up and take note.
Clearly the British foreign minister wants us to take notice. But his assertion that Putin will use the upcoming World Cup the same way Hitler used the 1936 Berlin Olympics is nothing short of absurd. The World Cup is the most watched event in the world – and the numbers continue to grow every year. It is said that more than half the people on earth will watch the World Cup this summer. That means that every other person in the world will be turning their gaze upon Russia.
In preparation for the international attention the Olympic Games would bring to Germany, the Germans, under Hitler’s directive, cleaned up their act.
They ripped down their antisemitic propaganda. Posters and signs were nowhere to be seen. Despite the report they offered to the United States, which was investigating Germany’s behavior during the Games, they purged their teams of all but a few Jews and claimed that qualification was open to anyone, including Jews, and that there was no discrimination.
For Hitler, the Olympics was a vehicle through which he would prove the superiority of the Aryan race.
Putin is many things, but he is no Hitler.
Yes, Putin has grabbed Crimea and part of Ukraine. Yes, Putin is expanding power and influence around the world and especially in the Middle East. Yes, Putin is snubbing his nose at the West and in particular the US. Yes, Putin is a cold and calculating power-hungry despot. But none of this turns him into Hitler or even makes him Hitler-like.
Boris Johnson’s historical metaphor was an irresponsible use of history, and perhaps even an abuse of history.
In 1874 Nietzsche wrote a short pamphlet entitled “Ultimately Meditations.”
The second section of the pamphlet is entitled “On the Use and Abuse of History.” That section is probably the most important and relevant part of Nietzsche’s entire opus. It has value and resonance even today, 150 years later.
The German philosopher and essayist argued that people, especially politicians, abuse history for their own sake, that they distort history to advance their own view of the world. Nietzsche was, of course, responding to the rise to power of Otto Van Bismarck and the explosion of German nationalism.
He penned this pamphlet against the backdrop of a world that was filled with Wagner’s music, and parades celebrating pride in the fatherland.
His point was essential. History needs to be preserved. We must learn from history. History needs to be respected – not abused.
Nietzsche wrote that “[w]hile life needs the services of history, it must just as clearly be comprehended that an excess measure of history will do harm to the living.” For Nietzsche, “excess” meant distorting history. It meant misunderstanding history and reshaping it for your own needs.
The reality is that lessons of history are often culled from exaggeration and misunderstanding. What society remembers is not necessarily historically accurate and almost every culture and social group and has been guilty of using and abusing history, however inadvertently. No matter how diligent we may try to be, bias intervenes.
The Holocaust is especially prone to such abuse, and in these past few weeks we have been inundated with examples.
Joining the ranks of Boris Johnson is the father of Poland’s prime minister, a man who is himself a member of the Polish Sejm, the lower house the Polish Parliament.
Kornel Moraweicki, father of Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Moraweicki, asserted that Jews voluntarily went into the Nazi ghettos. The statement fits how he would have liked events to have transpired. While it is convenient, it is wrong – it is a total abuse of history. And it dovetails easily with the greatest of all modern-day misuses and abuses of history: the current Polish Holocaust law.
That Polish law is a canard that transforms Poles into victims by removing them from the role of responsible party as possible perpetrators or bystanders.
There were non-Jewish Polish victims of the Nazis, but the vast majority of Poles were bystanders and many were perpetrators. This new law altered the historical reality for Poles.
It is easier to morally justify yourself and explain your actions and inaction to your children and grandchildren decades after the fact when you are a victim instead of a bystander or perpetrator.
Who wants to tell their children that they stood by and watched or aided the Nazis? Vladimir Putin is no saint. And Boris Johnson used his Hitler analogy to make a point. But when you misuse and abuse history, your point is often lost.
The author is a political commentator.
He hosts the TV show Thinking Out Loud on JBS TV. Follow him on Twitter @ MicahHalpern.