One of the sillier defenses of yesterday's appearance by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at Columbia University came from the man who initiated the Ahmadinejad speech. Over the weekend, John Coatsworth, acting dean of Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs, suggested that had Columbia invited Adolf Hitler to Columbia in 1939, he would not have underestimated the will of the American people and would have avoided declaring war on the US. Bret Stephens addresses this in today's OpinionJournal:
Let's assume, however, that Hitler had used the occasion of his speech not just to dissimulate but to really air his mind, to give vent not just to Germany's historical grievances but to his own apocalyptic ambitions. In "Terror and Liberalism" (2003), Columbia alumnus Paul Berman observes the way in which prewar French socialists--keenly aware and totally opposed to Hitler's platform--nonetheless took the view that Germany had to be accommodated and that the real threat to peace came from their own "warmongers and arms manufacturers." This notion, Mr. Berman writes, rested in turn on a philosophical belief that "even the enemies of reason cannot be the enemies of reason. Even the unreasonable must be, in some fashion, reasonable."
So there is Adolf Hitler on our imagined stage, ranting about the soon-to-be-fulfilled destiny of the Aryan race. And his audience of outstanding Columbia men are mostly appalled, as they should be. But they are also engrossed, and curious, and if it occurs to some of them that the man should be arrested on the spot they don't say it. Nor do they ask, "How will we come to terms with his world?" Instead, they wonder how to make him see "reason," as reasonable people do.
In just a few years, some of these men will be rushing a beach at Normandy or caught in a firefight in the Ardennes. And the fact that their ideas were finer and better than Hitler's will have done nothing to keep them and millions of their countrymen from harm, and nothing to get them out of its way.
These what-if games can be a lot of fun and offer all sorts of debatable outcomes. This, however, doesn't to anyone with any sense of what Hitler was doing in 1939, 1938, or pretty much since the reoccupation of the Rhineland. Stephens addresses the contemporaneous response to Hitler from Academia and Literaria, so let's remind people of the other historical realities.
Hitler spent the years before the war making speeches intended for outside consumption. He talked about the German desire for peace; he reminded foreign audiences incessantly of all Germany had lost during the previous war. Germany had no desire to bleed all over again, Hitler insisted, but it wanted its proper status in the community of nations recognized.
The more Hitler talked like this, the more appeasement minded the West became. They talked about his reasonable attitude and the unfairness of the Versailles shackles, while ignoring both his manifesto in Mein Kampf and his domestic rhetoric. Hitler had done more than just talk, too, by 1939. He had rearmed in violation of treaties, he had conducted an Anschluss in his annexation of Austria, and he had already dismembered Czechoslovakia in direct opposition to his promises at Munich in 1938.
And let's not forget that by 1939, both the Nuremberg racial laws and Krystallnacht were historical facts.
An invitation to Columbia in 1939 would have only perpetuated the fraud that Hitler had worn almost threadbare in Europe by that time. It would not have convinced Hitler to deviate from war, but would have assured him that America was just as spineless as the democracies he detested in Europe. And in any event, Hitler declared war on the US to honor his treaty obligations to Japan, which Coatsworth seems to have forgotten.
The parallels between the 1939 hypothetical of Coatsworth and the appearance of Ahmadinejad yesterday do seem striking -- and they refute any defense of Columbia's staging of Iranian propaganda.