The Eeriest Parallel: Hitler and Osama
Comparisons to Hitler are a tricky and even dangerous thing, since the sheer enormity of the Nazi dictator’s crimes against humanity—in particular, his effort to exterminate an entire group of people, the Jews—and the virulence of his hatred tend to diminish even the most monstrous evil done by others. Yet there’s an inescapable, almost unsettling parallel between the leader regarded by many as the personification of the previous century’s evil and Osama bin Laden, perhaps the most feared and hated figure in this one. After all, the demise of bin Laden at the hands of U.S. Navy SEAL commandos comes exactly 66 years to the day—May 1, 1945—that a radio station in Hamburg, Germany, first announced Hitler’s death in his Berlin bunker.
While the news of bin Laden’s death triggered a spontaneous public celebration at Ground Zero in New York and outside the White House in Washington, the reaction to news of Hitler’s death apparently was more subdued. As a May 2, 1945 New York Times article describes, when word that Hitler had died broke just before 5 p.m., pedestrians rushed to newsstands and to a bulletin board outside the Times Tower on 43rd Street to find out the details. But the surge soon dissipated, and trays of hastily-printed “extra” editions of newspapers—that era’s equivalent of Twitter—found few buyers. Instead of cheering revelers waving American flags and chanting “U-S-A!” many of the New Yorkers interviewed by the Times in 1945 responded with shrugs of disinterest, cynical disbelief, or even anger. As Times writer Meyer Berger noted:
Skepticism was by far the dominant reaction. There was no cheering, only subdued gloating. The comparative few who discussed the reports aloud seemed to find profane speech most fitting. Eight of ten persons took the attitude: “It’s another Nazi fake,” or “They’re trying to palm off a Hitler double.”
In some ways, that reaction was understandable, since the precise details of Hitler’s demise were murky—the Germans insisted he had died in battle, while Gen. Dwight Eisenhower’s initial intelligence suggested Hitler had succumbed to a stroke. Even Louis Lochner, the former chief of the Associated Press’ Berlin bureau, published an opinion piece in which he argued that Hitler probably was still alive and in hiding. Even the publication of Hugh Trevor-Roper’s The Last Days of Hitler in 1947, which detailed the dictator’s suicide, didn’t dispel the rumors.
Six and a half decades later, in contrast, bin Laden’s death was announced to the world in a TV appearance by President Obama, and the Al Qaeda leader’s identity reportedly was verified by computer analysis of photographs and analysis of his DNA (here’s a Scientific American blog post explaining how the ID may have been done.)
And just as bin Laden’s death was mourned by some—the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reports that the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas condemned the killing and eulogized the Al Qaeda leaders as an “Arab holy warrior”—some outside Germany were saddened by Hitler’s death, as well. The Associated Press reported in 1945 that the Portuguese fascist regime declared a public day of mourning, and in Ireland, a neutral nation with extreme antipathy toward Germany’s enemy England, Prime Minister Eamon de Valera called the German legation to express his condolences. (As this 2007 Sunday Times article details, de Valera’s sympathy for the Nazis extended to offering to help an SS officer wanted for torturing and killing French resistance fighters to escape justice.)
But the analogy is limited, since Hitler and Osama bin Laden had more contrasts than similarities. Hitler was the impoverished offspring of a luckless small farmer and beekeeper, while Osama was born into wealth, as the offspring of a construction magnate favored by the Saudi royals. Hitler was beaten habitually by his father, while Osama seems to have been mostly ignored by his. Hitler was average in physical stature—five feet ten inches and 155 pounds, according to Thomas Fuchs’ A Concise Biography of Adolf Hitler—while Osama’s FBI wanted poster lists him at between six feet four and six feet six inches tall. Hitler was a mediocre student rejected by Vienna’s Academy of Fine Arts, while the more intellectually talented Osama reportedly received an undergraduate degree in public administration from King Abdul-Aziz University in Jeddah in 1981. Both men had some military experience—Hitler received a first-class Iron Cross for bravery as a Gefreiter, or private, in the German army in World War I, while Osama reportedly saw at least some combat against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s, though his role primarily was as a financier for the Afghan resistance. The Austrian-born Hitler, for all his proclamations of German greatness, spoke German poorly and relied more on histrionics than eloquence as a speaker. Osama, in contrast, impressed journalist Abdel Bari Atwan with his mastery of classical Arabic, according to The Osama bin Laden I Know, an oral history by Peter Bergen.
The two mass murderers did have some psychological similarities, according to this survey of studies on Hitler and various similar psychological analyses of bin Laden written by experts in the wake of the September 11 attacks. Both men believed they were carrying out divine missions, and both were diagnosed from a distance as being afflicted with narcissistic personality disorder. One psychologist who analyzed Hitler on behalf of U.S. intelligence during World War II concluded that he exhibited “paranoia and hypersensitivity, panic attacks, irrational jealousy, and delusions of persecution, omnipotence, megalomania, and messiahship.” He accurately predicted that Hitler would commit suicide when confronted with imminent defeat. The author of the survey on bin Laden analyses says that he “shared similar states of mind with other infamous cult figures, including 'polygamist prophet' Warren Jeffs and self-proclaimed messiah Michael Travesser (Wayne Bent). Certainly, bin Laden saw himself as a messiah, the savior, of his own Muslim people, and perhaps, of humanity.”