The Vocabulary of Fascism

Just in time for the November elections, the White House is again trying to make the case that the “global war on terror” has this in common with World War II: the enemies are fascists bent on world domination. President Bush said in August that the United States is “at war with Islamic fascists who will use any means to destroy those of us who love freedom, to hurt our nation.” Defense Secretary Rumsfeld said that the administration’s critics are trying to appease “a new type of fascism.” Bush and Rumsfeld are right on message: the Associated Press reports that “Islamic fascism” is indeed the Republican buzzword for the fall campaign.

In fact, that term often has been the administration’s baton for clubbing the opposition whenever an election approaches or another outrage surfaces about Iraq. Calling out fascists also has been an easy substitute for evidence that the “war on terror” has achieved anything except create more hatred of the United States.

But what Bush and company have not done is make a substantive case that there are ideological links between terrorism by Islamic fundamentalists and 1930’s fascism. As Daniel Benjamin of the Center for Strategic and International Studies told talk show host Thom Hartmann, “There is no sense in which jihadists embrace fascist ideology as it was developed by Mussolini or anyone else who was associated with the term. This is an epithet, a way of arousing strong emotion and tarnishing one’s opponent, but it doesn’t tell us anything about the content of their beliefs.”

Since Bush and Rumsfeld have opened up the issue, it’s fair to assess whether the administration itself has ideological links with fascism. This is not a new topic, to be sure: Bush has gotten his fair share of comparisons to Hitler. Most of these have been ill conceived in terms of effect: Bush has not ordered Muslims into death camps en masse, outlawed opposition parties, or used overt lebensraum logic to justify invading two countries.

But in terms of language, the administration’s link to the Nazis deserves serious scrutiny. What follows is a sampling of how the administration’s messaging stacks up with that of the Third Reich on war, national security, and executive power.


Allies and Enemies  

“Over time it’s going to be important for nations to know they will be held accountable for inactivity. You’re either with us or against us in the fight against terror.”

–  George W. Bush, 2001

“My party comrades, today the swastika forces the world to take a position for or against us. The world must decide, it has no choice. There can be no compromise.”  

–  Dr. Robert Ley, Nazi Reich Organization Leader, 1939


Executive Authority

“In light of the President’s complete authority over the conduct of war, without a clear statement otherwise, we will not read a criminal statute as infringing on the President’s ultimate authority . . . . Congress lacks authority under Article I to set the terms and conditions under which the President may exercise his authority as Commander-in-Chief . . . .”  

–  Memo by Judge Jay Bybee, head of the Bush administration’s Office of Legal Counsel, U.S. Department of Justice, 2002

“The authority of the Fuehrer is not limited by checks and controls, by special autonomous bodies or individual rights, but it is free and independent, all-inclusive and unlimited . . . .”

– Adolf Hitler, 1934


International Law

“In my judgment, this new paradigm [of the stateless terrorist] renders obsolete Geneva’s strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners . . . .” 

–  Alberto Gonzalez, then White House Counsel (now Attorney General), 2002

“Geneva Conventions? Obsolete rubbish.”

–  Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, chief of staff of the German Army, 1939


International Opinion

“Our job is not to conduct international opinion polls, but to defend the American people.”

– Dick Cheney, 2004

 â€œAny attempt to criticize, judge or reject my actions from the rostrum of international presumption has no foundation before history and personally leaves me stone-cold.”

–  Adolf Hitler, 1939



“Problem: The current guidelines for interrogation procedures at GTMO [Guantanamo] limit the ability of interrogators to counter advanced resistance. [Approved] category II techniques [include] (1) the use of stress positions (like standing), for a maximum of four hours. . . . (5) deprivation of light and auditory stimuli . . .  (7) the use of 28-hour interrogations . . . (9) switching the detainee from hot rations to MREs [meals ready to eat]. . . (12) using detainees’ individual phobias (such as fear of dogs) to induce stress.”

–  Memorandum signed by Donald Rumsfeld in 2002 with the note, “However, I stand for 8–10 hours a day. Why is standing limited to 4 hours?”

“Third degree may only be applied if it is clear from preliminary investigation that the prisoner can give information on important facts, as social or subversive to the State and to the Reich, but will not disclose what he knows, and the information cannot be obtained by investigation . . . . Third degree can, according to the circumstances, consist, among other methods, of very simple diet (water and bread), hard bunk, dark cell, deprivation of sleep, exhaustion drill, but also in the administration of flogging (for more than 20 strokes a doctor must be consulted).” 

–  Heinrich Mueller, Chief of the Gestapo, 1942



“Weakness and drift and vacillation in the face of danger invite attacks. . . . Only America has the might and the will to lead the world through a time of peril, toward greater security and peace.” 

– Dick Cheney, 2003

“A defenseless nation is a danger to peace. Its defenselessness all too easily invites the attention of easy attacks by foreign armies.”

–  Rudolf Hess, Nazi Party Deputy Fuehrer, 1934


Preemptive War

“I don’t think it makes any sense if you’re serious about prosecuting the war on terror, if you’re serious about defending the nation, if you believe as I do and the President does that the best defense is a good offense, that you’ve got to go on offense and go after them over there where they plot and train and plan so we don’t have to fight them here at home.”

–  Dick Cheney, 2004

“For perhaps many a person will ask himself the question, why are we fighting at such great distances? We are fighting at such great distances in order to protect our homeland, in order to keep the war as far removed from it as possible . . . . It is therefore preferable to keep the front line at a distance of 1,000 and if necessary 2,000 kilometers from the borders of the Reich, than to hold that front somewhere near the border of the Reich and to be forced to hold it there.”

–  Adolf Hitler, 1942


Prisoners of War

“Under Article 4 of the Geneva Convention, Taliban detainees are not entitled to POW status . . . . To qualify as POWs under Article 4, al Qaeda and Taliban detainees . . . would have to have worn uniforms or other distinctive signs visible at a distance . . . .” 

–  Ari Fleischer, White House Press Secretary, 2003

“[English and American] sabotage units in civilian clothes or German uniform have no claim to treatment as prisoners of war.” 

– Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, German Chief of Military Intelligence, 1942

(Here both the Nazis and the Bush administration ignored a key provision of the Geneva Conventions, which requires that all prisoners be given prisoner-of-war status until a court determines otherwise.)



“We don’t lie. We don’t need to lie. We do empower our operational commanders with the ability to inform the Iraqi public, but everything we do is based on fact, not based on fiction.” 

–  Major General Rick Lynch, spokesman for the Multinational Force in Iraq, on the U.S. military’s practice, with Bush administration approval, of planting news stories in Iraqi newspapers that are written by U.S. soldiers posing as freelance journalists.

“Its [propaganda’s] task is the highest creative art of putting sometimes complicated events and facts in a way simple enough to be understood by the man on the street . . . . Good propaganda does not need to lie, indeed it may not lie.” 

–  Joseph Goebbels, Nazi Propaganda Minister, 1934



“In the absence of any textual provision to the contrary, we assume self-defense can be an appropriate defense to an allegation of torture.”

–  Memo by Judge Jay Bybee, head of the Bush administration’s Office of Legal Counsel, U.S. Department of Justice, 2002 

“In the occupied territories, where occupation personnel were daily threatened by attempts on their lives, more severe methods of interrogation were permitted, if it was thought that in this manner the lives of German soldiers and officials might be protected against such threatened attempts.”

–  Dr. Robert Servatius, defense counsel for accused Nazi war criminals at the Nuremburg trials, 1946



“And in this long run, we can be confident in the outcome of this struggle . . . because we have on our side the greatest force for freedom in the history of the world: the men and women of the United States Armed Forces.”

–  George W. Bush, 2006

“Our enemies claim that the F?hrer’s soldiers marched as conquerors through the lands of Europe—but wherever they came, they brought prosperity and happiness, peace, order, reliable conditions, a plenitude of work, and therefore a decent life.”

–  Joseph Goebbels, Nazi Propaganda Minister, 1945


Us Versus Them

“But my most important job these days is to protect the homeland, is to protect America against nothing but a bunch of cold-blooded killers. Protect our country against people who hate us because of what we love. They hate us because we love freedom. They hate us because we love the idea that people can worship an almighty God any way they see fit. They hate us because we speak our mind, we allow public discourse and dissent. They hate us because we have a free press. And so long as we love freedom, they’ll hate us.” 

–  George W. Bush, 2002

“No one can doubt that the warmongering cliques in London and Paris want to stifle Germany, to destroy the German people. . . . They hate our people because it is decent, brave, industrious, hardworking, and intelligent. They hate our views, our social policies, and our accomplishments. They hate us as a Reich and as a community.”

–  Joseph Goebbels, Nazi Propaganda Minister, 1939


History is our most reliable judge of leaders. Napoleon, Andrew Jackson, Stalin, Pinochet, Efrain Rios Montt—all had what appeared at the time to be perfectly logical arguments for their draconian steps in defense of their nations. Today, hindsight tells us that their crimes were monstrous.

Likewise, without a historical reference, it’s a losing battle to debate this administration’s individual wartime policies. Bush likes to say, “We just disagree, that’s all,” or “That’s just politics,” when opponents object to the summary disappearance and torture of alleged terrorists, planting of false media stories, or advocacy of an all-powerful executive branch.

Bush’s deeper message is that it’s up to the voters to choose from competing value systems: due process versus good intelligence, press freedom versus the need to promote support for the troops, checks and balances versus absolute Presidential authority to act quickly to protect the country. The administration will always win these arguments politically because they know that scared citizens—whether Germans in 1936 or Americans in 2006—will choose security over democracy, ends over means. Hitler, after all, was made Fuehrer by the will of the German voters.

Rather, when challenging individual administration policies, we need to state the obvious: the President, like Hitler, is using war to further personal and national power and is using Hitler’s language to convince us to go along. History has passed judgment on the autocratic, ultranationalist, expansionist thinking that drives the Bush administration, as it did the Third Reich. That verdict was rendered at Nuremburg: the Nazis, despite their sophisticated legalisms in defense of their innocence, were war criminals.

We have reason to boil over when we hear Bush talk as though he were the world’s commander-in-chief, dismiss Red Cross requests to visit secret U.S. prisons overseas, and defend his lawyers’ opinions that there is no check on his authority.

It’s because we’ve heard it before.


Steven Yoder is a writer based in Willow, New York.


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