LONDON. — London.-- The facile comparisons between Saddam Hussein and Hitler that propagandists trundled out during the recent war to persuade the historically illiterate were rightly ignored by all sensible people.
But Hans Magnus Enzensberger, the German poet and writer, has suggested a subtler and far more frightening connection. Writing in The Guardian recently, he made the startling observation that ''the Germans were the Iraqis of 1945.''
Nihilistic, manipulative personalities like Hitler's, he concedes, are part of the normal human spectrum, ''as failed artists or serial killers, in the next street or in a far-off village. . . . Hitler was not
But only very special conditions allow such people to gain supreme political power, and he sees those circumstances arising again in the Arab world. ''As long as millions of people passionately yearn for [Hitler's] return,'' writes Mr. Enzensberger, ''it is only a matter of time before their wish is fulfilled.''
Mr. Enzensberger stresses that Hitler's real purpose was not conquest. At every level below the fully conscious, Hitler wanted to die, and to take everybody else with him.
As he said at the end of his career: ''The German people do not deserve to survive.'' And the Germans of the '30s and '40s were a perfect match for his obsession, so filled with humiliation and despair that they let Hitler and his death-intoxicated fascists lead them into disaster.
If you think this ''psychological'' interpretation of what Hitler was really up to (and what the Germans of the time really welcomed) is merely speculative, go back and read what Hitler himself wrote. And if you think that was an aberration, listen to Mr. Enzensberger.
''The precondition for [a Hitler or a Saddam] finding followers who yearn for destruction is a long-standing despair of millions of people, a collective humiliation which has corroded their self-respect to the core. If the Germans had a better memory, they would recognize themselves in the Arabs here as well.''
OK, everybody sit down. He is not accusing the Arabs of being Nazis. He is simply observing that Hitler rose to power because the German people had come to see themselves as perpetual losers, history's victims. That conviction had been growing for at least 300 years, and after the defeat of 1918 it utterly overwhelmed them and delivered them into Hitler's power.
This is perfectly orthodox history -- but as Mr. Enzensberger adds, ''the parallel with the peoples of the Middle East is all too obvious. When a collective no longer sees any chance of finding compensations for the humiliations, real and imagined, heaped upon it, it will commit all its psychic energies to hate and envy, resentment and thirst for revenge.''
Behind which lurks, of course, the wish for death -- not just death for the identified enemy of the moment, but for everybody. As Mr. Enzensberger points out, those who imagined they could deal with Hitler's ''legitimate concerns'' by negotiation simply missed the point.
''Such an approach implicitly assumes that all the participants are interested in their own survival. In this assumption, the world grossly misjudged Hitler. He alone knew what he wanted: a terrible end.''
So is Mr. Hussein another Hitler? Contrary to Mr. Enzensberger, I think not. Although he obviously shares much more than a mustache with the late German fuehrer, Mr. Hussein shows just a bit too much interest in his own and his regime's survival.
At crucial moments in the war Mr. Hussein started and lost -- the points where you would have found Hitler closing off all avenues of retreat and dreaming of Goetterdaemmerung in his bunker -- the Iraqi leader was visibly haggling with himself over how many concessions were necessary to save his skin. He is clearly not made of the stuff of martyrs.
And is Iraq like the Germany of the '30s? Not really.
Apart from having only a fifth the population and a twentieth the relative economic clout in the world, contemporary Iraq is not nearly as homogeneous a place as Hitler's Germany. Most of its peoples -- Sunni Arabs and Kurds and Shiite Arabs and Turkmens and half a dozen more -- are filled with despair and self-loathing, but their resentments and their fantasies are not the same.
Yet there is some real foundation for Mr. Enzensberger's basic point, which is that the Arab world is drifting dangerously close to the frame of mind that led the Germans to turn to Hitler. And there is nothing racist about this fear at all (unless you think it racist to suggest that Arabs are vulnerable to the same failings as Germans).
Throughout the Arab world there are plenty of people whose sense of being perpetual losers is like dry tinder waiting to be ignited by a truly death-driven demagogue. Look, for example, at the Palestinians, whose willingness to believe absolutely any old nonsense that chimes with their fantasies of revenge is alarmingly reminiscent of German gullibility 50 years ago.
That is the consequence of the past century's history, not just of the past six months. Not responding forcefully to Saddam Hussein's aggression in this instance would almost certainly have just made matters worse. But not responding to legitimate Arab grievances now could be one of the worst mistakes we ever made.
It is not only the Arabs he worries about, either. As Mr. Enzensberger says; ''perpetual losers can be found on all continents. Among them the feeling of humiliation and the desire for collective suicide is increasing by the year.''
His warning rings true for a good deal of the Third World. So if we do not change the terms of the North-South relationships quite soon, it is likely to be a tricky couple of decades.
Gwynne Dyer syndicates a column on world events.