You’d think experienced politicians would know that you don’t use analogies involving Hitler or the Nazis to make a political point unless you’ve got a clear, relevant and closely argued line of reasoning. Even in those cases the consequences of going nuclear by pressing the Hitler button can backfire badly. The debate can switch away from the controversy in question as the media focus on the Nazi jibe. Usually it’s a simple choice. You can keep some measure of control over the debate, or you can invoke the Nazis.
Ken Livingstone blundered into this particular rhetorical mantrap the other week with his assertion that Hitler was at one point a Zionist. The left’s rather uncomfortable history regarding Israel, Zionism and Jews isn’t my concern here, however. That is just one of the issues Labour needs to sort out in its long march back to power.
What prompted this blog was Boris Johnson’s much trumpeted comparison between Hitler’s ambitions for Europe and the 21st century European Union. In fairness to Johnson he wasn’t saying the EU is in any way similar to the Nazi regime, merely that the EU’s vision of Europe is consistent with a long and sorry history of failed attempts to recreate a European state.
“The whole thing began with the Roman Empire,” he says. “I wrote a book on this subject, and I think it’s probably right. The truth is that the history of the last couple of thousand years has been broadly repeated attempts by various people or institutions – in a Freudian way – to rediscover the lost childhood of Europe, this golden age of peace and prosperity under the Romans, by trying to unify it. Napoleon, Hitler, various people tried this out, and it ends tragically,” he says.
Well, so far so reckless. It’s a point of view with which I’d disagree, but I don’t find it offensive, just silly. Dragging Hitler into the debate over our EU membership is rather like flinging a decomposing rat onto the table during a meeting. Whatever point is being made is rather lost while people recoil. Debate ends and disgust takes over.
Aside from the obvious objection that the EU’s vision of a closer Europe isn’t merely a difference in tone, but is a radically different vision of the destination, Johnson’s analogy disintegrates when it is picked apart in the context of the UK’s referendum on EU membership. That becomes clear when you consider Johnson’s follow up to the quote above.
While Mr Johnson is not arguing that the bureaucrats of Brussels are Nazis attempting to bring back Hitler’s Reich, his comparison is startling. Clearly, he sees parallels between the choices that confronted his beloved Churchill, and Britain, during the Second World War and the decision facing voters next month.
“This is a chance for the British people to be the heroes of Europe and to act as a voice of moderation and common sense, and to stop something getting in my view out of control,” he says.
“It is time for someone – it’s almost always the British in European history – to say, ‘we think a different approach is called for’.”
Johnson sees the Brexit campaign as analogous to the UK fighting for the soul of civilised Europe in the Second World War. I can see why he thinks that is an attractive picture, but he has got the argument exactly the wrong way round.
Hitler’s vision for Europe wasn’t a superstate running from the Hebrides to the Urals in which Britain was a western province. Hitler looked east, and he expected Britain to remain a maritime nation, with its non-European empire. Hitler’s navy was a tiny force compared to the Royal Navy and, pre-war, was never seriously intended to challenge Britain. Hitler’s admired the British Empire and, uncomfortably for modern Britons, saw it as a model for German rule of eastern Europe. German would dominate mainland Europe, and Britain would withdraw from any involvement, or interference in that German sphere of influence.
It was only Britain’s determination to remain involved in mainland Europe by declaring war in 1939 then refusing to negotiate peace in 1940 that turned the war into a fight to the finish and persuaded Hitler that Britain must be invaded and crushed. The comparison between the Nazis’ European vision and that of the EU fails most obviously because invasion and mass murder are fundamentally different from peaceful union and co-operation, rather than alternative means to the same end, as argued by Johnson. But the comparison fails even on its own narrow terms; the vision of the Brexit campaigners would result in a Britain detached from mainland Europe, lacking influence in a structure increasingly dominated by Germany. Such a Europe, with Britain isolated and irrelevant to the big events on the mainland, has more in common with the Nazis’ European vision than the current EU of which Britain is a member with considerable, if erratic, influence.
The British Empire is long gone, thank goodness. This is not the 18th century. A Britain outside the EU and isolated from the European mainstream wouldn’t be a maritime nation swashbuckling around the high seas. Britain would be a confused, more insular place, unsure of its role in the world, having antagonised and irritated its friends and erstwhile partners, while the USA is increasingly looking to its west, across the Pacific.
The Brexiters have no clear and credible vision for the future, only a yearning for a past that can never return. Does Johnson know this? I’m not sure he cares. His vision for the future is one that will enrich and empower one Boris Johnson. Everything is subordinate to that vision. His invocation of the Nazis was politically inept and, I fervently hope, will fatally undermine his personal and political campaign. I want to see a Britain committed to Europe. That is our future, and it is consistent with our past to a far greater extent than Boris Johnson is prepared to concede.