There are so many examples of diverse manipulation of Hitler’s name in Western societies and elsewhere that only a few examples can be given here.
Equating American presidents to Hitler probably started with Richard Nixon. At the time comparisons to the German Nazi dictator still sparked strong reactions. In 2002, German minister Herta Daübler-Gmelin referred to Hitler when she said that “president George W. Bush was exploiting the possibility of a war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in order to diminish his domestic problems.”
Then-German chancellor Gerhard Schröder did not include Daübler-Gmelin in the new cabinet that he formed a few weeks later.
Such insults, which are used to both attract attention and insult people, have been mainstreamed and are even used by national leaders.
Three Mexican presidents, including current President Enrique Pena Nieto, compared US President Donald Trump to Hitler. A small American organization, the Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect – which abuses the name of the best known Holocaust victim for political purposes – posted a list of alleged similarities between Trump and Hitler on Twitter.
Included among politicians outside the US who have been compared to the Nazi leader is German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Her visit to the Czech Republic in August 2016 sparked massive protests against her approach to the migrant crisis. Protesters waved placards depicting her as Hitler.
One also finds admiration for Hitler, outside neo-Nazi circles. The Lebanese singer Najwa Karam has sold 50 million records. She was the Arab “face” of the major French cosmetics firm L’Oreal and served as a judge on the Arab version of American Idol, Arabs Got Talent. Asked on Lebanese TV’s Talk of the Town to choose attributes from six famous men to create the “ideal man,” she chose Hitler for his “persuasive” speaking ability. An American white supremacist changed his last name to Hitler in 2017.
Hitler’s name is also used in antisemitic slurs. In February 2011, a Palestinian magazine published an article by a 10-year-old Palestinian girl, who recounted a dream in which Hitler told her: “Yes. I killed them [the Jews] so you would all know that they are a nation who spreads destruction all over the world.” This magazine was subsidized by UNESCO. After protests, UNESCO stopped funding the publication in December 2011.
In 2015, a Maltese European Union official, Stefan Grech, was accused of shouting antisemitic hate speech and assaulting a (non-Jewish) EU employee. Grech allegedly hit the employee over the head with a plaque of dictator Benito Mussolini while calling her a “dirty Jew” and saying, “Hitler should have finished off the Jews.”
Dutch Chief Rabbi Binyamin Jacobs recounts that at a memorial meeting for Holocaust victims, Dutch youngsters shouted “Heil Hitler” during his speech. This is part of a more general appearance of the Hitler salute. Its use may vary from indirect Holocaust promotion to identification with him in neo-Nazi movements.
In July 2017 a Scottish man appeared in court because he had taught his girlfriend’s dog to do the Nazi salute when prompted by statements such as “Heil Hitler” and “Gas the Jews.” He posted the story on YouTube, where it was viewed millions of times. The man later apologized to the Jewish community. In March 2018 he was found guilty in court of a hate crime.
Partial whitewashing of Hitler’s crimes is also found outside neo-Nazi groups. In 2005, a Dutch Protestant preacher Kees Mos, in a respectable church in the upscale Dutch town of Wassenaar, stated, “The Jew in us is a traitor according to the Gospel of Matthew.” Mos added, “The sin of the Jew is that he refuses to be human.” He went on to say, “We have painted Hitler in the past decades as a monster, but monsters do not exist.”
A similar motif was used by Bjorn Hocke, a prominent elected representative of the German right-wing AfD party. He called Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial “a monument of shame.” He also denied that Hitler was absolutely evil. Hocke remarked that “we know that there is no black and no white in history.”
One of the most bizarre examples of Holocaust equivalence occurred when in 2016 Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte compared himself to Hitler. He said that Hitler massacred three million Jews – an incorrect number; the real figure is six million – while he wanted to kill three million drug addicts in the Philippines.
Historical events and figures usually fade as time passes. The apparent increased mention of Hitler’s name in the public domain cannot be explained only by the growth in antisemitism. This and the desensitization to its use are among many indicators of the gradual breakdown of normative behavior in Western civil societies.
The author is emeritus chairman of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He was given the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Journal for the Study of Antisemitism, and the International Leadership Award by the Simon Wiesenthal Center.