Comment: Why we are not wrong to compare Milosevic to Hitler

It was public pressure that prevented Chamberlain backing down in the face of Hitler's aggression

Ken Livingstone
Wednesday 21 April 1999 00:02 BST

FERGAL KEANE'S article in Saturday's Independent was a powerful denunciation of Slobodan Milosevic's catastrophic impact on all the peoples of the former Yugoslavia. But his objection to comparisons between Milosevic and Hitler are wrong, though Fergal is obviously right to point out that, unlike Hitler who had slaughtered half the world's Jewish population before his death, Milosevic "does not care one way or the other about the survival of the Albanian race".

Those of us who have made the comparisons between Milosevic and Hitler are not comparing the situation at the end of Hitler's period in power, but the methods by which he rose to power and engulfed Europe in war. Like Hitler with the Jews, Milosevic has inflamed and exploited the fears of some Serbs about their Muslim and Croat neighbours in order to rise to power. As with Hitler's demand to extend the boundaries of Germany to incorporate all Germans living in neighbouring lands, so Milosevic invaded first Slovenia and Croatia, followed by Bosnia, in order to incorporate all Serbs in a state under his control. Now he is driving the Albanians out of Kosovo in order to find living space for Serb refugees who are the consequence of his wars of aggression.

When Milosevic first sent his armoured columns into Slovenia and Croatia in 1991 I was the first member of Parliament to call for air strikes to defeat his aggression. Air strikes alone at that point might have been enough to deter his future plans, or even lead to his overthrow in Belgrade.

Unfortunately the response of Britain and America was to hope that the problem would go away. Those of us who had no doubt about Milosevic's long-term strategy watched the Tory foreign secretary Douglas Hurd's Chamberlainesque performances in the House of Commons with contempt. Recognising as a weakness our aversion to any decisive action, Milosevic ploughed on to unleash the worst genocide in Europe in 50 years, as his thugs butchered their way through the Muslim and Croat populations of Bosnia.

Once again Britain and America were loath to intervene and it was only when television captured the image of starving Bosnians in concentration camps that the world, including Russia, decided they must stop the slaughter. The same pattern was repeated in Kosovo.

Just as the world objected to Hitler's attacks on German Jews throughout the Thirties, so once again we deplored the suppression of the Kosovan parliament but were not prepared to take action throughout the last decade as almost all the Albanian Kosovars were stripped of their rights to education and work in their own land.

The Nato intervention against Milosevic is a response to growing public revulsion at the way that George Bush, Bill Clinton and John Major stood by and did nothing to help the people of Kosovo throughout this last decade, and a determination that it should not happen again. This is an eerie echo of the situation when Germany invaded Poland and it was only the greatest public pressure that prevented Chamberlain from backing down in the face of Hitler's aggression.

It is these facts that have led many of us to draw parallels between Hitler and Milosevic based on hard historical facts. But Fergal Keane makes another charge, which is that the Holocaust was "the greatest evil of our century", "the crime of crimes", and that Hitler was "a singular figure of evil" who "made all other war aims secondary to the extermination of the Jewish race".

It is simply not the case that the extermination of the Jews was the primary war aim of Hitler. Indeed, the systematic genocide of the Jewish people was not even planned until well after the start of the Second World War. Hitler's immediate war aims were to secure dominance in western Europe, and to drive out all the Slavic and Jewish peoples of Eastern Europe to create Lebensraum for "overcrowded Germany". This was why Hitler desired a deal with Britain in which he would leave the British Empire intact if we were prepared to leave him with a free run of Europe.

Like Fergal Keane, I was brought up to believe that the Holocaust was a unique evil surpassing anything before or since in human history.

While I understand the pain and horror that has led so many to make this claim, it is a myth that prevents us from understanding how easy it is for politicians and the people they lead to sink into genocidal evil. As Hitler drew up his plans for the destruction of Judaism, he wrote: "after all, who now remembers the Armenians?" This was a reference to the policy of the Ottoman Empire, which decided at the start of the First World War to eliminate the Armenian minority who occupied what is now north-eastern Turkey. Not only does almost no child learn of the Armenian holocaust, but we still tolerate the present Turkish government's systematic denial of the existence of a Kurdish minority in south-west Turkey.

As the Hutus of Rwanda unleashed their project to eliminate the entire Tutsi race, the world saw that these were not simply the plans of a few dictators but involved tens of thousands of ordinary Hutus who were prepared to chop their neighbours to death. In one case the terrifying spectacle of a Catholic nun leading the butchery was a clear sign that a belief in Christian doctrine is no safeguard against being drawn into the slaughter.

When we consider Pol Pot's slaughter of one-sixth of his people in Cambodia, Stalin's attempts to eliminate or displace several minorities living within the Soviet Union, the bloodletting between Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs that has been unleashed on more than one occasion in the Indian subcontinent, it is quite clear that within this century alone genocide has been a frequent instrument of policy.

Throughout the Cold War both sides were prepared to tolerate abominable regimes; in President Roosevelt's immortal words, "they may be sons of bitches but they're our sons of bitches".

Now, Jack Straw's decision to extradite General Pinochet and the intervention to stop Milosevic eliminating his Albanian minority could be the first steps to creating a global resolve that those with power are not allowed to abuse it with impunity within their own borders. We need to take military action, but we should also avoid the use of depleted uranium shells and anti-personnel cluster bombs. We can then start to convince the world that Nato's actions in the Balkans have honourable objectives.

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