Adolf Hitler is like that bad tooth you can’t keep your tongue off, though it hurts to touch it. Seventy-two years postwar, he keeps surfacing. He fascinates. All the way up and all the way down the age scale — from Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso, 76, who last week praised Hitler’s “motives,” to the teen and barely post-teen girl band Keyakizaka46, who last Halloween performed in Nazi drag — he fascinates.
There is no one in world history quite like him. Artist-manque, philosopher-manque, actor-manque, revolutionary-manque — everything about him was manque, until he turned the tables on his mockers.
“He was a sort of clown,” Hitler scholar Hugh Trevor-Roper told journalist Ron Rosenbaum, author of “Explaining Hitler” (1998). “He looked ridiculous. He had this Charlie Chaplin mustache and he made these ranting speeches and people didn’t take him seriously.”
Maybe that’s part of his enduring appeal. The laughingstock had the last laugh.
The “thousand-year Reich” he promised lasted 12 years. In defeat he sank lower than any of the other genocidal titans of the 20th century. Stalin and Mao were both discredited, but neither became, as Hitler did in the world’s imagination, a symbol of absolute, unspeakable, subhuman evil.
Maybe that’s another part of his enduring appeal. Extremes beguile.
In Japan’s near neighborhood there rules a dictator who has at least this in common with Hitler: an appearance that would inspire laughter if his power didn’t inspire fear. Like Hitler, North Korea’s Kim Jong Un doesn’t look the part he plays. Like Hitler, he understands the art of winning respect regardless. No Japanese politician has so far praised his motives, and a Japanese pop band has yet to perform in Kim costume. But it’s early days. If we don’t live to see it, our children might.
Years before rising to power, Hitler wrote a book declaring precisely what he would do when his time came. It came, and the book proved prescient. Whether any similar clarity exists in Kim’s mind is unclear. Whatever he wants, the biggest obstacle in the way of his getting it is U.S. President Donald Trump, whose thinking, though voluble, is also unclear. It makes for a highly unstable, fearfully unpredictable standoff. As Israeli security expert Boaz Ganor tells Bungei Shunju magazine, “The puzzle has two missing pieces: Kim and Trump.”
Kim seems to be enjoying taunting the U.S., Japan and South Korea with his growing nuclear arsenal. Trump has threatened “fire and fury” if Kim goes too far. Japan, America’s firm security ally and host to American military bases, is assumed to be on Kim’s list of potential targets. A North Korean test missile that overflew Hokkaido last week caused schools to close and deepened a mood of anxious waiting for one scarcely knows what. Hiroshima and Nagasaki are the precedents that naturally spring to mind, but a more likely outcome might, in the long run, be even worse, speculates Sapio magazine in its August issue.
Hiroshima and Nagasaki were ghastly. Cities became seas of fire. Incinerated people died in agony. Survivors were scarcely to be envied. The scenario Sapio sketches is quite different, almost benign by comparison, you might think — wrongly.
You’ll be going about your business until suddenly you become aware, to your utter astonishment, that there is no business to go about. Everything has stopped. The thought of a nuclear attack doesn’t occur to you. You heard nothing, felt nothing, feel nothing. The technical term is nuclear electromagnetic pulse; the cause, a nuclear bomb exploding 30-400 kilometers above the Earth’s surface. The “Little Boy” that destroyed Hiroshima, by contrast, exploded 580 meters overhead.
There’s no visible fireball, no audible explosion, no proximate radiation. But gamma rays rain down from above, stripping electrons from molecules in the atmosphere, causing the electronic infrastructure on which our very lives depend nowadays to grind to a halt. Computers: dead; telephones: dead; communication: dead; transport: paralyzed; hospitals: useless; food: rotting; cash: unavailable; police and firefighters: immobilized — pray you’re not stuck in an elevator. And this not just for a day or two but irrevocably, no end in sight, and not just locally but spread over thousands of kilometers. An American study that Sapio cites foresees 90 percent of the U.S. population dying within a year of such an attack.
It takes a Kim Jong Un, or an Islamic State, to remind us how fragile our security is. Right now, much of the world is feeling very insecure. Kim and IS have terrorism in common but then part company. Kim leads a state; IS only calls itself one. Kim has nuclear weapons; IS, for now, doesn’t. IS does what it does in God’s name; Kim’s own name is warrant enough for him. IS pursues a “caliphate” that would rule Muslims worldwide. Kim, so far as is known, has no ambitions beyond his own borders.
Kim, moreover, labors under constraints that are inoperative against IS and the “lone wolf” terrorists who strike under its influence. Kim and his nukes can do a lot of damage — or a lot of good, as he might say — but it would mean the end of him and his regime. Islamic terrorists are willing martyrs. Kim — again, so far as is known — isn’t.
Masaru Sato, the journalist who interviewed Ganor for Bungei Shunju, brings the talk around to the Tokyo Olympics. “A very attractive target,” says Ganor, recalling Munich 1972: the murder of 11 Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists. Might, for example, Kashmiri terrorists attack Indian athletes in Tokyo? Or Chechen terrorists Russians? Or Uighur terrorists Chinese? “Japan is not directly involved in any of those conflicts” — which wouldn’t, of course, matter.
Beyond assiduous intelligence and police work, Ganor says, the key to security is “public awareness.”
“You can’t have a police officer on every corner,” he says. “But if the public is sufficiently aware of the danger terrorism poses, there are that many more eyes and ears on the alert. Look at Israel. If there’s an unattended bag anywhere in a city, within two minutes someone will have called the police.”
It’s a very edgy way to live. Israel is used to it. Japan is not. To many Japanese, Aso is simply a harmless bumbler; Keyakizaka46 is merely cute.
Michael Hoffman is the author of “Land of the Kami: A Journey into the Hearts of Japan” and “Other Worlds.”