The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
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The Totalitarian Present

As with fascism and communism before, we’re underrating ideology and “split modernity” in confronting our enemies.

Published on September 1, 2009

As uncomfortable as it may make some tolerant and well-intentioned souls, an intellectually respectable case can be made that radical Islam constitutes the third variant of totalitarian ideology politics in modern history. The first version emerged in fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. The second was that of modern communism in the Soviet Union and elsewhere. While these first two versions succumbed to military might and ideological exhaustion, respectively, the political, ideological and military battle with radical Islam remains undecided.

One way to illustrate the case for radical Islam as Totalitarianism Mark III (and perhaps draw some practical conclusions from it), is to focus on three points of comparison and contrast between the Nazi and communist eras and that of contemporary political Islam: the problem of underestimating the power of ideology; modernity and anti-modernity; and the issue of preemption in context.

Underestimating Ideas

Karl Bracher, for many years the leading German historian of the Nazi regime, called attention to what he termed “the problem of underestimation” of the causal impact of totalitarian ideology. Bracher argued that before 1933, during the era of Western appeasement in the mid- to late-1930s, and even during the war itself, many of Hitler’s politically influential contemporaries refused to believe that his ideological assertions were actually the basis of his policy. For varying reasons, Marxists, conservatives and liberals defined sophistication as the ability to see past Hitler’s ideological statements to his deeper, more genuine motivations. Hence these “sophisticated” thinkers underestimated the prescriptive intent of his publicly expressed views in foreign policy. (Churchill’s willingness to take Hitler at his word was, of course, the exception that proved the rule.) The enduring merit of Hannah Arendt’s postwar classic, The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), lay precisely in its challenge to the reductionist approaches to ideas common among Marxist, liberal and conservative analysts.

The problem of underestimation remains with us. When Osama bin Laden declared war on “Jews and Crusaders” in 1998, Washington was obsessed with the presumably more earth-shaking issues of the Lewinsky scandal. Even more striking is that after the attacks of 9/11 and those elsewhere in the world, it is still difficult to convince the American political and intellectual establishment to take the ideology of radical Islam with the seriousness it deserves. Part of the current form of underestimation is due to partisan division, for which the Bush Administration bears some responsibility. Yet part is also due to habits of mind that are perhaps not so distinct from what passed for political sophistication in the mid-20th century and which have also become components of contemporary American liberal perspectives.

On September 5, 2006, President Bush delivered what a non-partisan observer would have been right to view as a well-informed, thoughtful speech on “The Global War on Terror.” In just over 5,600 words, he described the ideological dimensions of the terrorism inspired by Islamic extremism. The President said, “We know what the terrorists intend to do because they’ve told us—and we need to take their words seriously.” He drew on documents from the world of Islamist terrorism to present its totalitarian worldview, its strategy and its tactical flexibility in considerable detail. But the President’s attempt at a serious presentation didn’t elicit an equally serious response from the political opposition and the press. The next day, the New York Times reported that

[t]he speech used a classic strategy of Karl Rove, Mr. Bush’s chief political adviser, who specializes in turning a candidate’s weakness into a strength. In this case, Mr. Bush’s weakness is that Mr. bin Laden has not been captured—a point that was quickly picked up by Democrats. Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts said that if Mr. Bush had ‘unleashed the American military to do the job at Tora Bora four years ago and killed Osama bin Laden, he wouldn’t have to quote this barbarian’s words today.’1

The focus of attention shifted from the accuracy of the President’s claims about Islamic extremism to the presumably partisan motives for giving such a speech in the first place.

In the last decades of the Cold War, no one was surprised that many American liberals frowned on sharp and vocal criticism of communist regimes and communist ideology. But there is a surprising irony in contemporary Western political and intellectual life. Many liberals, including the Democratic Party leadership, have been reluctant to acknowledge that radical Islam has more in common with fascism than it does with the attack on liberal democracy from the radical Left. Like the fascists from earlier times, radical Islamists attack every component of the liberal tradition: the Enlightenment, the great democratic revolutions, the principle of the separation of religion and state, full equality for women and, in recent decades, for homosexuals, and yes, of course, opposition to anti-Semitism. How strange that Franklin Roosevelt’s armed anti-fascism should live on so strongly in mainstream American conservatism but find few advocates among his American liberal successors. Bracher’s problem of underestimation is thus not of historical interest alone. It contributes to a contemporary difficulty of defining American interests. President Obama has sought to envelop his domestic initiatives in the legacy of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. Surely he ought to see that Roosevelt’s foreign policy legacy is no less relevant to the American response to the challenge of radical Islam.

Reactionary Modernism

During the 1960s and 1970s, vigorous debate took place in the disciplines of history and social theory regarding the view, common to Marxism and structural-functionalism, that a society was a unified entity and that modernization was a no-less-unified process. Against that view, historians of modern Germany, as well as their counterparts in Italy and Japan, pointed out the obvious: Germany and Japan had become modern in the realms of economics, science and technology while still displaying distinctly anti-liberal political and intellectual traditions. German history alone demonstrated that a capitalist economic system had no necessary relationship to democratic political institutions. It had coexisted with dictatorship as well.

Illustrations of this thesis have provided lasting contributions to social theory. The late German sociologist Ralf Dahrendorf, in his classic work Society and Democracy in Germany (1965), called Germany, not the United States, “the first new nation” because its kind of industrialization, with a weaker liberal tradition and stronger authoritarian state structures, became more common around the globe than the Anglo-American blend of economic, scientific and political modernity. In the United States, Daniel Bell’s The Coming of Post-Industrial Society (1973) and The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (1976) made the point that modern societies displayed a “disjunction of realms” between politics, economics and culture. These separate spheres influenced one another but nonetheless had autonomous histories. Anthony Giddens in Britain and Niklas Luhmann in West Germany argued that 20th-century social theory needed to grapple with these disjunctions and ruptures, and acknowledge that societies need not be all modern or all anti-modern but could be, and often were, both at the same time.

In 1984, I wrote Reactionary Modernism: Technology, Culture and Politics in Weimar and the Third Reich, a work that drew, in part, on these developments in social theory. I called National Socialism in Germany a form of “reactionary modernism” because its leaders combined a great enthusiasm for modern technology with a rejection of the Enlightenment and the values and institutions of liberal democracy. The anti-democratic right-wing intellectuals of the Weimar Republic and then the Nazi leadership, as well, embraced parts of modernity and rejected others.

As it happened, I drafted that book just as Ayatollah Khomeini was calling on his fellow Iranians to “return to Islam” with the assistance of cassette tapes flown back to Iran from his Parisian exile. He exemplified my thesis. The attack of September 11 carried out by the Hamburg cell, composed partly of engineering students, represented an ideal-typical reactionary modernist act. The perpetrators used modern passenger airplanes as weapons, yet hoped to enter a decidedly premodern paradise as a result of this deed. Just as fascism and Nazism arose from segments of a society overwhelmed by the pace of modernization and sought to combine modernity and tradition, so Islamic fundamentalists have used Western technology in an effort to destroy the West. Al-Qaeda’s use of the Internet to spread its fundamentalist message and Iran’s determination to build nuclear weapons in service of an ideology that also rejects Western political and intellectual modernity are both variations of reactionary modernist ideology and politics.

In this sense, Europe’s past does compare, despite key differences in language, culture and context, with Saddam Hussein’s more secular form of totalitarian dictatorship as well as with the distinct, but selectively modern, variations of radical Islamism. Our own time is another chapter in the history of reactionary modernism, one that is taking place largely outside Europe, but that recalls the paradoxes of modernization that historians have noted in Germany, Japan and Italy.

One more point of comparison bears noting. In modern history, anti-Semitic conspiracy theories to “explain” history and politics have been essential components of totalitarian movements. The Nazi leadership viewed the Jews in Europe and beyond as a powerful, unified political actor called “International Jewry”, which it claimed was responsible for World War II. According to Hitler and Goebbels, the Jews had launched that war to exterminate the German people. It was this paranoia that offered the central propagandistic, publicly repeated legitimation for the Holocaust.2

In recent decades, too, radical Islamists have made unambiguous anti-Semitism a greater factor in world politics than at any time since 1945. Their attacks on the “Zionist-Crusader alliance” recall the methods the Axis powers used to attack the United States as both a capitalist and a “Jewish” power. For the Nazis then and for radical Islamists now, New York and Washington, D.C. are the leading metropoles of capitalism and Jewish power. While the Nazis claimed that Roosevelt was a marionette and “stooge” of the Jewish “wire pullers” operating behind the scenes, the Islamists (and, sadly, some secular analysts in the United States) argue that an “Israel lobby” was responsible for the war in Iraq.

The attacks on the Jews as the hidden driving force of global history is also a component of a crisis of modernization in rapidly industrializing societies. Global capitalism, liberal democracy and cultural secularization challenge traditional religious explanatory templates. The conspiracy theories associated with radical anti-Semitism represent an effort to replace this complexity and confusion with a powerful and simple explanation of events. The more complex the changes wrought by globalization, the more appealing paranoid politics becomes. As Andrei Markovits, among others, has argued, anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism are mutually reinforcing impulses.3 They share fear and hatred of a powerful foe and a desire to destroy or “wipe out” that enemy.

The Problem of Preemption

Any preemptive war rests on a judgment that cannot be definitely proven or falsified—namely that a war now will be a lesser evil than the prospect of allowing an opposing power to survive and become more dangerous. The decision to go to war must rest on a set of judgments that project ideology, past behavior and capabilities into the future.

The historian Williamson Murray directly addressed this issue in an important book, The Change in the European Balance of Power, 1938-1939: The Path to Ruin (1984). Assessing the military options open to Britain and France in 1938, he made a powerful case that, even without the Soviet Union, the two leading European democracies could have destroyed the Nazi regime and its armed forces in a preemptive war. At that time the Nazi regime had not completed its military build-up. The British Navy could have cut Germany off from vital energy and raw material supplies in Scandanavia, while the Reich would not yet have occupied countries in Europe with other mineral and food supplies.

Let us suppose that Williamson was right and that Britain and France had won a preemptive war in six months or less. While such a war would have been costly in lives, it would have paled in comparison to the ravages of World War II, and it would have prevented the mass murder of Europe’s Jews. On the other hand, not one of Hitler’s speeches and not a single document in the files of the German government at that time would have offered definitive proof that Hitler intended to invade most of the countries of Europe, including the Soviet Union, that he was going to launch a race war on the Eastern Front, or that he intended the Holocaust. Few of the millions of documents historians have examined since 1945 about Nazi Germany’s war crimes and crimes against humanity would have yet been written. Hence, some significant proportion of European and world opinion surely would have interpreted such a war as an illegitimate aggressive war launched by the British and French “imperialists” against peace-loving Germany, whose only desire had been to see the League of Nations resolutions concerning national self-determination applied to Germans in German-speaking Europe. Moreover, precisely because such a war of choice could have been avoided, it would have been enormously controversial and divisive on the home front.

So much went wrong after the invasion of Iraq in March 2003 that it is easy to forget how plausible a threat Saddam Hussein posed, considering only the publicly available knowledge about his regime, his ideological goals, his past actions and associations with terrorists, and his manifest intentions. In view of these factors, as well as the consensus among Western intelligence agencies in 2002 and early 2003 about Iraqi weapons programs, the case for preemption was a powerful one. If Saddam’s regime were still in place today, the credibility of the United Nations to enforce its own resolutions would now be on par with those of the League of Nations. Oddly, many advocates of international law then and now pay scant attention to this point.

Moreover, had Saddam remained in power, he would still possess huge oil reserves and hence billions of dollars to finance a sizable pool of scientific and engineering talent to build weapons of mass destruction as the sanctions regime inevitably collapsed. By 2003, Saddam Hussein had murdered many more people than Hitler had between 1933 and 1938, and offered far more evidence of what he might do given the opportunity. He no longer deserved the benefit of the doubt. As it was plausible to assume that Saddam Hussein would eventually possess nuclear weapons, President Bush had to choose between a war against his regime before he acquired them or probable acquiescence to the existence of a nuclear-armed Iraq in an oil-rich region boiling with Islamic extremism.

Political leaders suffer from a temptation to cherry-pick historical comparisons. The Bush Administration was no exception. If Saddam’s regime really was as totalitarian as it was said to be, then it should have followed that its destruction and replacement would be very difficult because it was a government with many dependents. Instead, most Administration principals analogized the regime to those oppressing Eastern Europe before 1989 and Afghanistan before 2001. Donald Rumsfeld’s refusal to invade with a larger force evoked the technocratic mindset of Robert McNamara, another Secretary of Defense who was also more adept at understanding high-tech weapons than the ideas, culture and institutions of another country. Nevertheless, it is illogical to assert that these disastrous judgments change anything about the perceptions and argument for preemption. Just as societies can be modern and not modern at the same time, any given political leadership can behave logically and illogically at the same time as well.

Some opponents of the war in Iraq, then and now, have argued that defeating the Taliban or containing Iran was more important, and that the war has had the unintended but predictable result of enhancing Iran’s power in the region and replacing Sunni with Shi‘a dominance within Iraq. Such criticisms underestimate the dilemma President Bush and the United States faced in 2003. For all of the differences between al-Qaeda, the Taliban, the Iranian regime, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Hamas and Hizballah, they all occupy points on a continuum of extremist politics. Saddam was the most secular yet also most powerful. Had he succeeded in eventually eroding the United Nations sanctions regime, he would have become more powerful still.

In World War II, the United States also did not have the luxury of choosing to fight only one of the Axis powers that threatened the democracies. Germany, Italy and Japan had each embraced parts of the modern world but rejected others. In that era, totalitarianism wasn’t uniform. So too, in our time totalitarian politics, now mostly couched in religious language, has appeared in a number of different countries with different local circumstances at roughly the same time. This is the dilemma that now confronts President Obama in the form of Iran’s approach to nuclear weapons. In view of the history just discussed, it would be naive and even arrogant to assume that the Iranian government does not mean what it says about Israel, the United States, Europe and its aspirations in its own part of the world, or to assume that blandishments and nice words from the United States would lead Iran’s current leaders to change their deep-seated convictions. An American foreign policy in the legacy of Franklin Roosevelt is one that will do all it can to prevent this Iranian regime from acquiring nuclear weapons.

As before, this is an era of totalitarian politics. It is not identical to the previous era, of course. Yet before we dismiss the effort to connect past and present, it behooves scholars, journalists, policy analysts and political leaders to think about the salience of ideology, the paradoxical embrace of modernity by atavistic movements, and the very real dilemmas of preemption. The beginning of wisdom in this effort is to engage in the very unpleasant endeavor of taking seriously the words of those who despise our political traditions, institutions and moral values. Those who wish to harm us may be weak; quite possibly they are weaker than many of us thought a few years ago. But that can always change. Therefore we must never underestimate their ideology. Ideas, even bad ones, can be powerful indeed.



1Sheryl Gay Stolberg, “Looking to Elections, Bush and Democrats Spar on National Security”, New York Times, September 6, 2006.
2See my The Jewish Enemy: Nazi Propaganda During World War II and the Holocaust (Harvard University Press, 2006).
3Andrei Markovits, Uncouth Nation: Why Europe Dislikes America (Princeton University Press, 2007).

Jeffrey Herf is professor of modern European history at the University of Maryland, College Park. His publications include Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World (forthcoming, Yale University Press, 2009); The Jewish Enemy: Nazi Propaganda During World War II and the Holocaust (Harvard University Press, 2006); and Reactionary Modernism: Technology, Culture and Politics in Weimar and the Third Reich (Cambridge University Press, 1984).