Who's Hitler today?

An amusing post over at Beautiful Atrocities points out briefly that "in the future, everyone will be Hitler for 15 minutes." And then it illustrates the utter truth of that statement. In fact, if you're lucky, even you may find yourself "worthy" of being called "worse than Hitler." (Indeed, one pundit--whom I'm not a fan of--was, I must admit, not too far off when when she quipped, "You know you haven't made it in public life if you haven't been compared to Hitler." I guess that means I haven't made it yet.) I used to think that overblown comparisons to Hitler and/or the Nazis were mainly a province of the left, but this is clearly no longer the case, as Rick Santorum (one of the biggest embarrassments to the Republican Party) so clearly shows. It would appear that Hitler has become an equal opportunity bad historical allusion. Heck, when people start comparing smokers or Hilary Duff to Hitler or Nazis, you know things are getting out of hand!

This all reminds me of Godwin's Law, which, contrary to the popular misconception of it, merely states quite simply:
As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.
In fact, it is a custom in many Usenet newsgroups that, when analogies or comparisons involving Hitler or the Nazis come up, the discussion thread is over and the person who first made the comparison should be declared the loser of any debate going on. States the Godwin's Law FAQ:
So, what this means in practical terms:
  • If someone brings up Nazis in general conversation when it wasn't necessary or germane without it necessarily being an insult, it's probably about time for the thread to end.
  • If someone brings up Nazis in general conversation when it was vaguely related but is basically being used as an insult, the speaker can be considered to be flaming and not debating.
  • If someone brings up Nazis in any conversation that has been going on too long for one of the parties, it can be used as a fair excuse to end the thread and declare victory for the other side.
Of course, one must realize that Godwin's Law applies to questionable or inappropriate analogies to Hitler or the Nazis (Rick Santorum's overblown rhetoric or this comparison of Martha Stewart to Hitler in the service of reviewing television biopics on her and Hitler, for example), not to appropriate comparisons. It is certainly appropriate to bring up these topics in the context of discussing Holocaust denial, neo-Nazis, fascism, eugenics, and World War II history, for example. There are of course other situations where such analogies are entirely appropriate. Indeed, virtually all Holocaust deniers are Holocaust deniers because of anti-Semitism or a sympathy for the Nazi philosophy; and they often falsely invoke Godwin's Law when someone points out their obvious anti-Semitism or their defense of Hitler. However, far too many people use these flimsy analogies as a kind of "nuclear option" to throw at their opponents, to demonize them as "fascists," as so richly demonstrated in the post I referenced.

Personally, I wince whenever I hear such comparisons, and view the arguments or assertions of people in a much harsher light than I might have, had they not brought up such inflammatory excess--even when I might be otherwise inclined to agree with them. The reason is that most people who throw such comparisons about in verbal combat have clearly not thought about them carefully and either make no effort to explain or justify the analogy or make only perfunctory (and often historically inaccurate) justifications. (There are occasional exceptions--and here--such that, even when I don't necessarily agree with significant parts of what is written, I have to take the comparison seriously because the author has at least done his research and thought about it. These exceptions are fairly rare, however.) Given all this tossing about of the "H (for "Hitler")-bomb, I once again echo this plea, which I encountered three months ago in the comments of a post in Matt Yglesias's old weblog (he's moved):
Can we please, perhaps, just agree that invoking Hiroshima, The Holocaust, Dresden, The Rape of Nanjing, The Cultural Revolution, The Trail of Tears, The St. Bartholemew's day Massacre, Rwanda, The Black Plague, or The Extinction of the Dinosaurs are all rhetorically excessive when compared to just about any domestic social issue?
To which, I now propose adding "or international" to the word "issue," and then this second plea:
Can we please, perhaps, just agree that comparing anyone to Hitler, the Nazis, Stalin, Pol Pot, Genghis Khan, or similar historical figures are all, except in rare cases, rhetorically excessive when used for almost any person now living?
Such rhetorical excesses shed much heat but very rarely any light. Their usual purpose is to demonize the subject of the attack without actually having to bother to do the heavy lifting of justifying one's criticism of a policy or dislike of a person with actual evidence. When you look at such analogies with a critical eye, it almost always becomes apparent that they are vague and flimsy. When you see this kind of rhetorical excess, it is almost always a sign that the person using it either has a weak argument, is intellectually lazy, or is more interested in polemics (a.k.a. "flaming" when referring to online discussions) than in reasoned debate. That's why my estimation of a person's arguments usually goes down several notches when I hear such flawed analogies. Unfortunately, all too often these days, polemics work, which is why so many like to throw the "H-bomb" in political debate.

You know, sometimes I wish I could invoke Godwin's Law in every day life. Then I remember that, even in online discussions, invoking Godwin's law is often not so easy, even when doing so is entirely appropriate. That's when I give up on that idea. Unfortunately, people like Rick Santorum, many on the left plus many others who misuse the analogy just won't go away that easily.

ADDENDUM 6/10/2005: Don't miss the sequel to Who's Hitler today?: The zombie of Hitler's corpse is eating people's brains. Yum. "More brains!"


  1. Oh my God, I've been saying this forever. In the last two months, I've personally been compared to Hitler for saying there is no ethical problem with a woman in a persistant vegetative state being allowed to die (i.e. Terri Schiavo) and for saying embryonic stem cells are without any sort of central nervous system, thoughts, pain, or purposeful movement. I usually get, "But Hitler did such-and-such...so if we do what you say, then soon someone will start growing babies to steal their organs...or if we let Terri die, then the government will start killing all the developmentally disabled people like Hitler..." Usually the people saying this have no training in medical ethics and how one arrives at an ethical decision, and it pisses me off.

    I also hate the whole "really, really slippery slope" argument. That annoys me, and people just ignore the issue-at-hand to argue against some sort of projected wrong that would never happen in an ethical society.

    My rant is now over.

  2. Last night I read a review in the latest National Review of a book titled "From Darwin to Hitler" (or something like that) documenting the links between Darwin, eugenics, and Nazi extermination camps. Do you consider this a misappropriation of Darwin's theory? By the way (I'm new to this blog bidness) where do people find the time to carry on these lengthy commentaries?

  3. I'm a fan of August Pollack's work at http://xoverboard.com

    Anyway, he's got a character that appears every-so-often in his works: the ghost of Adolph Hitler. The ghost rises to life, as it were, in mockery of the phrase, "Worse than Hitler."

    Granted, it's not quite as good as EneMan, but who wouldn't love a squeezable Ghost of Der Fuhrer on their bed?


  4. Law's similar to Godwin's are true for just about any event with a non-zero probability. Some reformulations that are equally true:

    As an online discussion grows longer, the probability that someone will mention Godwin's law approaches one.

    As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a participant being struck by lightning approaches one.

  5. "Probability"...that's funny and--uh--true...but in
    my case
    , it took like 6 comments for me to be compared to Hitler on posts related to Schiavo and stem cells.

  6. Glad you brought in good old GK, a bad man to be on the right of, haven't heard much of him lately, except a reference to the enormous number of his descendants

  7. The best thing, Joe, is to just limit yourself to an on-topic analysis of the discussion. If someone is trying to pass a law saying we can kill newborns with birth defects such as Down's Syndrome, you can talk about the ethical reasons why that's not right. You'd make a pretty strong case without going to the Hitler comparison.

    If you can't come up with on-topic reasons why something is unethical or bad, you should probably do some research before you join the discussion.

    If you catch yourself saying something like "well, maybe, at some time in the future, this could lead to a holocaust" or "this vaguely reminds me of something Hitler could've done", your argument is probably very weak.

  8. I've been compared to Hitler several times--even been told I'm worse than Hitler once--quite a feat for a man who's been pegged as a permissive liberal. On one occasion, it was for sharing my discovery that an acquaintance was a bit of a Nazi--he believed in the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion. My friends decided I was being unfair, when he stated that he was simply "into history", and explained that he had right to believe what he wanted to, and it was wrong of me to call him a Nazi because of it. I was being bad, they felt, saying a man who believed the Jews were running a vast conspiracy to destroy Western Civilization was 'a bit of a Nazi'.

    Those fascistic quasi-liberal swine.

  9. You'd have been better to argue the point, "my friend is a nut-job because...." or "my friend's beliefs are completely and utterly wrong because..." The problem there is that a Nazi was someone who was forced into or volunteered for a political party in the 1930's and 40's who may or may not have done filing of papers, cooking of meals, or killing of Jews. You're not "kind of" a Nazi because you either were or you weren't.

    A Nazi is NOT someone who reads a book and believes what is written in it, even though the topic has to do with painting Jews in an ill light. That's someone who could be buying into a persuasive book with weak supporting evidence.

  10. But what of the hubris which says that because of what we know about Hitler, we never have to fear this happening again? Hitler is in most ways a bad analogy to use, because his icon status is hard to separate from the actual bad things he did. But how he came to power is instructive in many ways, so talking about the historical aspects of fascism is an important framing tool for analyzing modern politics.

    If you haven't read David Neiwart's "The Rise of Pseudo Fascism" at Orcinus, be sure to do so right away.

    And comic book legend Wil Eisner's final work, "The Plot," a debunking of the Protocols of Zion, was recently released.

  11. As a historian, I'm both more likely to use analogies like that and also more aware than most of their limitations. I'm sorry, but the comparisons have to be made: if we can't talk about those extreme events and individuals and ideas (particularly those in the recent past), then we are missing a significant piece of the historical context of the present. Yes, as accusations and rhetoric they are a problem, but it can be very instructive to look at a question like the Schiavo case in the context of euthanasia and eugenics, to talk about the difference between state-mandated and state-permitted, between private choices and public policy, between slippery slopes (there never was a private euthanasia policy in Nazi Germany) and normal, unpredictable social/legal changes, between medical knowledge then and now....

    I think we should be nervous when we are compared to a Hitler, Pot, Mao, etc, and I think we should be aware of the possibility that we are making bad choices for what seem like good reasons, and these analogies, these cautionary tales, serve to focus our attention on that possibility.

    I think we should be careful about making comparisons to Mao, Pot, Hitler, Mussolini, that when making those charges we should ourselves be willing to point out the differences in context and connections so that our comparisons are limited (and a corrolary to that would be the dismissal of anyone making those comparisons who doesn't put some limit on them without really, really good explanation).

    We have to keep the entire range of ideas and language open to us, or else we limit our potential to understand ourselves, our environments.

  12. I just looked back over the original post, and I want to be clear that Orac and I don't really seem to disagree on anything in this regard. It's more a matter of emphasis than anything else.

  13. At the risk of sounding like a jerk, thank you for educating me as to the proper definition of Nazi--may I suggest you look up the words "metaphor", "allusion", "euphemism" and "connotation"?

    No, this acquaintence was not a member of the National Socialist German Workers (1920-1945), especially not during the all-important years of 1933 to 1945, unless he possessed an ability to travel through time that I am unaware of. However, when calling a man who holds antisemitic, militaristic ideals a Nazi is considered an error, I think we're entering into the realm of the ridiculous...

  14. My admittedly condescending remark was meant to point out the weakness in calling someone "sort of a Nazi". It's not a very descriptive title to have. You'd be making a much stronger point if you said your friend was an anti-Semite or held views characteristic of an anti-Semite. There's less wiggle room for someone to strike down your argument when you don't bring in emotion-evoking metaphors or comparisons.

    Yes, as accusations and rhetoric they are a problem, but it can be very instructive to look at a question like the Schiavo case in the context of euthanasia and eugenics, to talk about the difference between state-mandated and state-permitted, between private choices and public policy, between slippery slopes (there never was a private euthanasia policy in Nazi Germany) and normal, unpredictable social/legal changes, between medical knowledge then and now....

    You can legitimately bring up these issues without mentioning Hitler, and your arguments will be stronger if you don't. I'm not saying there aren't legitimate issues here, just that dropping the H-bomb weakens your argument and drives the discussion to some unnecessary tangent about Nazi Germany.

  15. A few comments -

    Most folks that make these comparisons know the name Hitler but not the evil that the name encompasses.

    Both the left and the right - it is not limited to Santorum - are guilty. Posts on blogs like LGF spew against Moveon.org for its Hitler ad at the same time Sen. Clinton is referred to almost daily as "Hitlery"

    When one mentions Mao or Pol Pot (or any other leader responsible for mass murder) – be careful. Your audience probably has no idea who you are talking about and if they do, the atrocities committed would be still be unknown.

    Last note – No one was “forced” to become a Nazi. We all need to be very clear on that issue.

  16. Probability Pendant: Nice try, but you present a trivial example. You are correct that the probability that something with a non-zero probability of occurring over a specific period of time will approach one as the time period increases. However, for lightning, the probability is so low that even if the conversation goes on for an entire human lifespan, the probability of one of its participants being struck by lightning will still be exceedingly small. The probabilities encompassed in Godwin's Law are much larger, such that the probability approaches one within the much briefer timespan of an online discussion. That's the difference.

    Jon Hendry: I'm not "giving" license to dismiss allusions to Hitler or the Nazis. I'm giving license to dismiss the fallacious or poorly thought-out allusions to Hitler or the Nazis that make up the vast majority of such allusions.

    Anonymous: I did reference David Neiwart's series on fascism. I also referenced his series on Rush Limbaugh and fascism. Both were specifically mentioned as examples of the sorts of allusions to Hitler and the Nazis that I'm not talking about. apparently you didn't click on the links. Perhaps I should have mentioned the titles of the pieces instead of just linking to them without mentioning who wrote them.

    Everyone: Here's something I should have included in my article. (Maybe I'll revise it and add this later.) Whenever someone makes a Hitler or Nazi comparison, be it "Bush=Hitler" or "Hillary=Hitler" or "Whomever=Hitler," don't just accept it or shrug and walk away. Pin them down. Ask them what, specifically, they mean! Make them justify the analogy with history and facts. Ask them specifically what similarities and what historical events lead them to make that analogy. At least nine times out of ten, you'll get either no answer (and you'll hopefully make the idiot making the analogy very uncomfortable); a vague "because X is as bad as Hitler" or "because X got us in a war" kind of an answer; or an obviously fallacious answer (although you may have to know a fair amount of history to realize it's a fallacious answer).

    The other 5% of the time (or usually less), you may get something along the lines of David Neiwart's essays (not as long, of course).

  17. Orac,

    Certainly, the probability approaches one faster for a Hitler comparison than it does for a lightning strike. Nevertheless, the formulation of Godwin's law provided doesn't say that, and so is actually pretty much content-free, which was my point (the only thing it actually says is that there is non-zero probability that someone will make a comparison to Hitler in an online comment).

  18. Probability Pendant: OK, now you're just getting picky. Most people understand that Godwin's Law means that the probability of a Hitler/Nazi analogy rapidly approaches one within a fairly short timespan.

    If you want, I can propose reformulating Godwin's Law to add "within 100 posts," which is, in most online discussions (particularly political discussions) is probably more than enough. (Heck, in many political discussions, it's probably 10x more than enough.)


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