It's been a bad year for dictators. It all begin in January with the Arab Spring; from Tunisia to Egypt to Libya, and perhaps extending eventually to Syria, leaders who had oppressed their people have found themselves removed from power by the very subjects they once held in such contempt. And then, to top it all off, the year has ended with the death of North Korea's Kim Jong Il, the most grandiose, and truly the most insane, of all the leaders on the world stage. Whatever else took place during 2011, the fact that men such as Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Hosni Mubarak, Muammar al-Qaddafi, and Kim are no longer in power and able to tyrannize their people will be remembered as among the most significant.
There are, of course, lessons to be learned from all this. One of them is that these men, odious as they may be, are anything but reincarnations of Adolf Hitler. This will not stop U.S. neoconservatives, and the politicians influenced by them, from searching for other malevolent leaders on whom to pin the Nazi label. So long as Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad continues to speak publicly, they will insist that once again the world is threatened by an expansionist madman and that our only recourse is to stop him before he unleashes his forces.
But for all his dreams of glory, Kim Jong Il was no Hitler. And the decidedly ignominious, if not pathetic, way that once powerful leaders in North Africa and the Middle East lost their power should remind us it is one thing to run corrupt and oppressive regimes -- and another entirely to deploy an astonishingly powerful military apparatus in the service of world conquest and the elimination of an entire race of people. The hawkishly inclined want us to believe that the United States cannot have an enemy unless he is deemed to be a carbon copy of the bad guy against whom the good war was fought. But Hitlers, thankfully, are rare.
Our ally in that good war was another dictator, Josef Stalin, whose name is often forgotten in those parallels to our current predicament. However, the toppling of the communist regimes he formerly commanded represent another historical analogy that weighs heavily on today's world. Just as in 1989, we are frequently told, the masses are rising up and sweeping out those who had oppressed them for so long. This exuberant vision of how totalitarianism came to an end is more attractive than the exhausted invective of how appeasement brought it into being. Yet those who cheer on the protesters share with those who exaggerate the power of their oppressors the conviction that the world of yesterday offers instruction for the realities of today. A moment's reflection should indicate otherwise.
Unlike today's nasty characters, the totalitarian leaders of the 1930s and 1940s threatened our way of life for two main reasons. Nazism and communism offered an alternative to liberal democracy that, at least for a time, attracted significant numbers of people to its ranks. In addition, those in control of such regimes -- brutal tyrants at home -- were also determined expansionists abroad: Hitler had designs on as much of Europe as he could grab, and Stalin was prepared to take the rest. Were anything like totalitarianism to occur again, we should intervene wholeheartedly to stop it and exhaust every avenue to help those determined to overthrow it.
But nothing like totalitarianism can or will happen again. The dictatorships of the 1930s were the product of a series of unique historical forces coming together in remarkable fashion to make political extremism possible. There was, first and foremost, the violent stalemate known as World War I, which encouraged conspiracies and raised the possibility, in both Germany and Russia, of violent destruction. The rapid inflation of the 1920s convinced Germans that the end was nigh and the subsequent Great Depression contributed to popular unrest everywhere. Germany, like the Soviet Union, was a recently formed state with uncertain borders. Ideological opposites, Hitler and Stalin desperately needed each other: Each justified his rule by stoking fears of other totalitarian dictators in the vicinity.