ISIS and Hitler

If you say you’re a pacifist, you’ll usually get two questions right away: “but what about Hitler?” and “you wouldn’t protect your family if somebody broke into your house to rape and kill them?” I’m going to ignore the second and focus on the first because there is a strong parallel to how people are responding to ISIS.

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ISIS is doing a lot of terrible things to a lot of people, much like Hitler did. Nobody is going to deny that other than ISIS supporters (a small portion of Muslims). Reiterating how terrible those things are is not an argument for why they need to be killed. We agree there is a problem. The question is how to deal with that problem.

Here’s the parallel most are ignoring, though: ISIS is doing those terrible things because they genuinely believe that it is the only way to protect themselves and people like them. World War II Germany was very similar.

It is interesting that people never ask pacifists why we wouldn’t engage in World War I. Nobody tries to defend World War I. It happened entirely out of imperialist tendencies that clearly saw other nations as inferior and other parts of the world being for nothing more than conquest. They may not have been as blunt with their rhetoric as I just was, but pretty close.

At the time, they even referred to WWI as “the war to end all wars” because they were so confident that asserting their dominance would translate to nobody standing up to them again. This war was to achieve peace through victory, peace through domination, peace through empire.

Most will acknowledge up to that point but often ignore the decisions that came in the aftermath. The victorious side gathered in Paris to discuss how to proceed. It is important to note that Germany and her allies had little or no voice in this process. Neither did most of the colonies that everyone was fighting over. The powerful sat down together and decided how the rest of the world was going to get in line with their vision including new borders and heavy reparation payments on Germany.

The direct killing of each other with weapons may have ended, but this was nothing more than a continuation of the same attitude. I’m sure they had good intentions. They probably did legitimately think that it was the best way to create peace. I don’t want to paint them as evil, just trapped in a certain mindset that we often default to.

There was peace… for about a generation. What went wrong with this plan to end violence through violence? I’m sure some would argue that the problem was that the Allies were not strict enough. They did eventually lighten the payment load and allowed Germany a small army again. I don’t think cracking down even more would have changed anything, though, and it probably would have made it worse.

In reality, people will always fight back against that kind of oppression. Do a quick thought experiment: flip the outcome of World War I and pretend that Germany and her allies won instead. Do you still believe that the best way to create peace for everyone involved would be for the victor to be as harsh as possible? Do you have any more sympathy for the German people who started another World War because they thought that was the only way to free themselves? This doesn’t excuse their violence, but it does remind us of their humanity.

The world is not as simple as the good guys and the bad guys. Usually the good guys are people like us while the bad guys are people who are different (nationality, ethnicity, class, gender, orientation, etc.). Then we claim that obviously the good guys have the right to kill the bad guys. In other words, we do many of the same things with the same mindset we condemn them for having.

ISIS has a similar story. Middle Eastern history all the way back to the carving up of the Ottoman Empire leads up to this. Repeatedly the U.S. and her allies have taken a similar approach to what the Allies took to Nazi Germany: just kill them all and scare them into submission. Force the Palestinians out of their homes to make room for Israel. Continue to arm Israel and let them off the hook for a lot of human rights abuses against Arabs. Sell weapons to both sides of the Iraq-Iran War. Invade Iraq on made up charges of weapons of mass destruction (to Bush Sr.’s credit, he was smart enough to stop the first war as quickly as possible).

It has never worked. Sometimes it delays the problem, but usually when it comes back it comes back worse. Hussein was a terrible dictator, but there was no way ISIS would have happened on his watch, so was the violent approach to “help the Iraqi people” really that good of an idea?

So how would pacifists have responded to Hitler? How do we respond to ISIS? Those two groups probably would not have happened at all and definitely would not have had the same popular support if Christians actually looked like Christ, the Prince of Peace, in the first place. Remember that Hitler was a Christian, at least in name, as were almost all Germans and almost all of the Allies and most who have contributed to the Middle East’s instability today.

However it is we do respond, it will be remembering the humanity in them. It will be remembering that Jesus died for them just as he died for us. It will be remembering that they bear the image of God, even if certain actions bury that image below hatred. And it will look like the God we believe stood up to evil not by killing them but by dying for them, calling an end to these violent cycles.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.