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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

The new Adolf Hitler?

By Timothy Garton Ash

March 29, 1999
Web posted at: 11:28 a.m. EST (1628 GMT)

TIME magazine

In the war over Kosovo, one weapon is being used by both sides: Adolf Hitler. Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic accuses the West of acting like Hitler and appeals to his people's proud memories of the Partisan war against Nazi forces. And isn't the German Luftwaffe engaged in the NATO bombing? Meanwhile, in justifying that bombing, U.S. President Bill Clinton says, "What if someone had listened to Winston Churchill and stood up to Adolf Hitler earlier? How many people's lives might have been saved? And how many American lives might have been saved?"

So Clinton, we understand, is Churchill. But hold on. Who has been the American President for the past six years while this Milosevic-Hitler has been rampaging through the former Yugoslavia? And whose Administration has been seeking peace in our time by negotiating with him? So perhaps, after all, Clinton is not Churchill but the British Prime Minister whose policy of appeasement Churchill fiercely criticized in the 1930s: Neville Chamberlain.

Tricky things, historical analogies. They tend to cut several ways. But they also help clarify thought, if only by showing up the differences between then and now. Let's try five for size:

1) Kosovo as Kosovo, the Milosevic version: Once again the Serbs are engaged in a heroic defense of Kosovo, as they were against the Turks in the great battle of 1389. Today Serbian propaganda appeals constantly to this mythology of martial sacrifice. There's only one problem: the Serbs lost the battle of Kosovo in 1389.

2) 1999 as 1914: Clinton used this one too, recalling that World War I started in this part of Europe. Here the differences are revealing. In 1914 the great powers of Europe lined up on opposing sides. Today they are united--except for Russia, but it won't go to war for Serbia.

3) Milosevic as Hitler: Well, not exactly. Milosevic is the most dangerous European leader of the 1990s. He is a menace, a thug, a postcommunist villain who has cynically manipulated nationalism. He has blood on his hands. But his state does not have either the power or the ideological will to conquer Europe. While Germany under Hitler grew ever bigger, Yugoslavia under Milosevic has shrunk. The element of truth in this analogy is President Clinton's point about appeasement: the longer you put off standing up to aggressive dictators, the higher the price. If we had called Hitler's bluff when he remilitarized the Rhineland in 1936, 50 million lives might have been spared. If we had stood up to Milosevic when his forces besieged the Croatian town of Vukovar in the fall of 1991, perhaps a quarter of a million men, women and children might still be alive. But we--West Europeans and Americans--didn't, and so we now face the prospect of...

4) Kosovo as Vietnam: Yes, but whose Vietnam? The Vietnamese people in this analogy are actually the overwhelmingly Albanian population of Kosovo, and the analogue to the Viet Cong is the Kosovo Liberation Army. Kosovo is the Serbs' Vietnam, not ours. If NATO really does eventually destroy Milosevic's army from the air, as General Wesley Clark has threatened (although he hasn't explained how this can be done without inflicting extensive civilian casualties), then the K.L.A. will soon be riding into Pristina as if into Saigon. Then the remaining Serbs living in Kosovo will probably flee. Milosevic knows this. He knows such a loss is the one thing that might finally turn the fury of people in Serbia proper against him. That's why he is unlikely to give up swiftly, which leaves us with...

5) Slobo as Saddam: Yes, alas, the closer to the present, the more plausible the analogy. Air power alone will probably not depose the Serbian dictator any more than it did the Iraqi one. The bombing has not yet achieved even its first proclaimed objective of stopping Serbian atrocities in Kosovo.

So, analogies past, we reach the unique dilemma of the present. One may feel a bit like the proverbial pedestrian at the crossroads who is asked the way by a motorist and says, "I wouldn't start from here." The story of wrong turnings goes right up to Rambouillet. Yet here is where you always have to start. Having recently studied the situation in Kosovo and Serbia at first hand, I reach a drastic conclusion. I hope against hope that the bombing will stop the murderous rampage and bring the Serbian side back to the negotiating table. But if, as I expect, it does not, then there is only one way for NATO not to be seen on its 50th anniversary as either impotent or complicit in a savage ethnic war. This is to assemble a large international force that will physically occupy Kosovo, make it an international protectorate and stop Serbs from killing or expelling innocent Albanians--and, as important, vice versa.

This would be a nightmarish task, of course, and a very grave international precedent. However, at this stage of Europe's worst crisis in the whole decade, all we may be left with is a choice of nightmares.

An Oxford historian, Garton Ash is the author of six books, including History of the Present, which will be published by Random House this fall.


Cover Date: April 5, 1999

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