Morsi as Hitler: The analogy that won't die

Despite sound advice not to, some Egyptian officials and Tamarod activists are persisting in comparing the ousted Muslim Brotherhood president Mohammed Morsi to Adolf Hitler, the key variable being that they both came to power through democratic means. An actual comparison to the two leaders is kind of interesting, but to those who say Morsi could have turned out like Hitler had he not been toppled, I would say: This analogy does not offer the lesson that you think it offers.

Corrollaries of Godwin's Law notwithstanding, there are times when it's useful to invoke Hitler. Let's say, for example, that your argument partner says it's impossible for an dog lover to be cruel to humans. Well no, you'd say, Hitler loved dogs. But if you try to make the opposite argument -- that there's something wrong with liking dogs because Hitler was a dog lover -- then you should face all the scorn that the Internet can muster.

Logically, the Morsi-as-Hitler arguments pass this test. They don't say that all leaders who come to power through democratic means are likely to turn out to be Hitler, merely that it's possible -- and thus, a coup to overthrow them is not always going to be a bad thing. It's in terms of historical prediction, that Morsi was actually likely to turn out like Hitler, that the comparisons fall flat on their face.

Firstly, to clear one thing up, Hitler was not elected. He was chosen as Chancellor (roughly, the prime minister) by the elderly President Paul von Hindenburg on the urging of the failed conservative ex-chancellor Franz von Papen. The Nazis, the largest party in parliament, had a claim on the right to try to form a government.

But here the analogy breaks down. Von Hindenburg was a field marshal, and von Papen a monarchist with ties to the aristocracy, and together they represented that segment of the German state and elite -- in particular the officer corps -- that was heartily sick of democracy. Most of them hated the Weimar republic's political chaos, despised pluralism, feared the window that democracy gave to Communists, and generally looked back to the good old days of the Kaiser. The Nazis made quite clear that they intended to abolish Weimar pluralism and the elite was all for it. "If Hitler wants to establish a dictatorship, the Army will be a dictatorship within the dictatorship," Defense Minister Kurt von Schleicher is reported to have said.

This is important because it explains what Hitler was able to do once he became Chancellor in January 1933. Von Hindenburg essentially abolished civil liberties via the Reichstag Fire Decree -- presented as a response to a Communist revolutionary plot. Hitler used that to ban the Communists, arrest much of the remaining opposition, bully the remainder of parliament into making him de facto dictator via the Enabling Act, then complete his suppression of the opposition. All this happened within six months of Hitler taking office. The conservative elite, the armed forces, the police, and much of the non-Nazi public went along with him every step of the way. By mid-1933, Germans were legally required to salute each other in the street with a rousing "Heil Hitler."  (A lot of individuals instrumental in Hitler's rise who had the idea that they could control the Nazi leader fell out with him -- von Schleicher and von Papen, for example -- but Hitler continued to court the institutions and the institutions continued to back him.)

We may compare this to Morsi's Egypt. By September 2012, Freedom and Justice party officers were regularly being torched across the country, and the police were openly indicating that they weren't going to protect them. Marx's tragedy/farce quip is overused but it applies spot-on to Morsi's version of the Enabling Act, the November 2012 Constitutional Decree, in which the Egyptian president granted himself far-reaching powers over a state that basically ignored him, and ended up having to flee his own presidential palace and withdraw his decree within two weeks. (It's also highly questionable whether Morsi intended the Constitutional Decree as anything more than a short-term measure to push through a flawed, but still basically pluralist and democratic constitution.)

There are a number of other factors that differentiate Egypt from Germany -- it had just gone through the triple trauma of World War I, hyperinflation, and global depression. (For anyone inclined to mention the Egyptian pound dipping to seven to the dollar, this is what a billion-mark banknote looks like). Any account of Hitler's rise to power must also take into account his astounding abilities as a public speaker. 

But, the difference that speaks the most to Egypt's current experience is that German state institutions were on board with Hitler's plan to abolish pluralism and the separation of powers. It's worrisome when a leader doesn't respect democratic principles, but it's a lot more worrisome when the state, and especially the armed forces, don't do so.

To go back to the beginning, and the appropriate use of historical analogy, the experience of Germany in the 1930s does mean that you have to have the cooperation of state institutions to stomp out the opposition. Sometimes, the army collapses due to internal mutinies, the officer corps is swept away, and the new regime can create new armed forces like Red or Revolutionary Guards that are steeped in its ideology -- as in Russia in 1917, or Iran in 1979. Such mutinies frequently happen when groups of conscripts are ordered by officers to fire into crowds. This is another thing for Egypt to keep in mind.