Back in 1994, a friend at a radio station in Colorado asked me to be a guest on a small talk radio show in Alaska. The Alaskan interviewer, who had been told that I was strong supporter of gun rights, began by asking me if I agreed that gun control is a Nazi conspiracy. To his surprise, I disagreed, and said that there were a lot of people who were for a lot of bad gun control laws, but that didn’t mean that they were Nazis. Nor, I added, was everybody who supported gun control part of a conspiracy.
The host got angry, and insisted that gun control was a conspiracy, because there the Bible shows that conspiracies are real. If I had been quick-witted, I would have pointed out that the Bible also shows that frogs are real, but that doesn’t prove that every animal you see is a frog. However, he threw me off the show before I could make the point.
The host was plainly incorrect, I thought, in his invocation of Nazism, but are there ever circumstances in which commentators can legitimately make analogies to the Nazis? Some people say “never,” and for proof, they cite “Godwin’s Law.” Many of the people who cite Godwin’s Law, however, appear not to know what the Law actually says.
According to Wikipedia, Godwin’s Law was created by Mike Godwin, of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, in a 1990 Usenet discussion. The Law states: “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.”
Note that Godwin’s Law does not state whether the comparison is valid or not. However, Mike Godwin says that he invented the law to address "a trivialization I found both illogical and offensive."
…Godwin's Law does not dispute whether, in a particular instance, a reference or comparison to Hitler or the Nazis might be apt. It is precisely because such a reference or comparison may sometimes be appropriate, Godwin has argued, that hyperbolic overuse of the Hitler/Nazi comparison should be avoided. Avoiding such hyperbole, he argues, is a way of ensuring that when valid comparisons to Hitler or Nazis are made, such comparisons have the appropriate impact.
So there is no “Godwin’s Law” against bringing up Hitler or the Nazis. It is precisely because some Nazi/Hitler comparisons are valid that Godwin attempted to prevent the depreciation of the comparison through excessive, improper use. Using Nazi comparisons only when appropriate might be called “Godwin’s Policy.”
According to the Godwin’s Law FAQ, “Abortion and gun control debates always lead to Nazi comparisons.” Many of the comparisons in these debates are violations of Godwin’s Policy. For example:
“The Nazis were pro-natalist and thought that women’s highest purpose was having babies. People who want to ban abortion think the same thing, and therefore they are like Nazis.”
“The Nazis killed millions of people, and abortion kills millions of people, and therefore people who are for legal abortion are like Nazis.”
“The Nazis were right-wingers who liked to own guns and who extolled the military and people who are against gun control are right-wingers who like to own guns and who extol the military and therefore people who are against gun control are Nazis.”
“The Nazis liked strict gun control laws enforced by big government, and so do Americans who like strict gun control laws, and therefore Americans who support strict gun control laws are like Nazis.
There are also many situations in which Godwin’s Policy is not violated by bringing up the Nazis. For example, it would be nearly impossible to write about actual Nazi practices involving birth control, abortion, women’s rights, gun control, military weaponry, or mass murder without using the words “Nazi” or “Hitler.”
In what situations are modern-day comparisons to the Nazis likely to follow Godwin’s Policy of being useful, rather than trivial or hyperbolic? There are several obvious cases for which the Nazi comparison is neither hyperbolic nor trivial, even though the case in question may have some significant differences from the Nazis. This list is meant to be suggestive, not comprehensive:
1. When discussing followers and leaders of a political movement that is explicitly founded on Nazi principles or my admirers/allies of Nazism. These would include some, but not all, of the racist hate groups. These also include the Ba’ath parties of Iraq and Syria, since Ba’ath was founded as an Arab nationalist syncretic blend of Nazism and Stalinism.
2. When discussing somebody who adopts the nickname “Hitler,” as well as followers and cohorts of such a person. This would include Zimbabwe, where the late right-hand man of the tyrant Robert Mugabe was Chenjerai "Hitler" Hunzvi. It also includes the Fatah Party in the Palestinian Authority, one of whose members of the national assembly, Jamal Abu Roub, sports the nickname "Hitler."
3. People who publish and read Mein Kampf not as an exploration of an evil mind, but because they like its agenda. This group apparently includes a huge number of Arab and Turks.
4. People who attempt to delegitimize the Jewish need for a national homeland by denying that the Holocaust took place. This does not mean that everyone who disagrees with the creation of Israel is fit subject for a Nazi analogy. I am referring only to people who implicitly defend the Nazis by denying the historical reality the Holocaust.
Even though a comparison may be useful, there will always be differences between the modern subject of comparison and the historical Nazis. "Hitler" Hunzvi was an anti-colonialist who loathed the British Commonwealth, whereas Adolf Hitler was not. The original Hitler wanted African colonies of his own, and was willing to agree to a peace treaty which would have left the British Empire intact, in exchange for British acquiescence to German domination of Continental Europe.
Likewise, knowing that a person or group has a pro-Nazi past is often a helpful predictor of later behavior--but not always, since Anwar Sadat was a pro-Nazi activist during World War II, but later made peace with Israel.
So even if a Nazi comparison can be invoked consistently with Godwin’s Policy, there is still room for legitimate debate what lesson can be gleaned from the comparison. For example, it is widely (although not universally) agreed that Neville Chamberlin’s policy of appeasement towards Hitler was a mistake. Ever since the early Cold War, there have been people who argued that various forms of accommodation or non-resistance to totalitarians was bound to lead to disaster, as Chamberlin’s policies did. Sometimes the anti-appeasement analogy seems to have worked well, as in the U.S. policy of deterring or stopping Communist aggression in Western Europe and South Korea.
In other circumstances, the analogy may be much more complicated. The appeasement analogy was frequently invoked by supporters of American military action in Indochina. On the one hand, the non-Communist government Cambodia was far inferior—in terms of fighting ability and popular support—to the democratic government of Czechoslovakia in 1938, so the Nazi appeasement analogy was inapt.
On the other hand, supporters of American intervention in Indochina, in their frequent warning of a “bloodbath” that would follow Communist victory, actually understated the Nazi analogy, since the victorious Communist regimes in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam all initiated genocides, rather than only killing their known political opponents.
Reasonable people can always debate the persuasiveness of any particular analogy to the Nazis. It is not reasonable, though, for people to refuse to consider what can be learned from history, including the history of Nazism. And it is simply ignorant for people to invoke their own misunderstanding of Godwin’s Law as if were a rule that forbade attempts to use the last century’s encounter with genocidal tyranny as one of the experiences which can inform our own attempts to meet modern challenges of totalitarianism, anti-semitism, genocide, and other evils.UPDATE: A commenter raises a very interesting point:
1. What about a person who explicitly wanted to form an aliance with Hitler in order to fight British and get them out of pre-State Israel/mandate Palestine in order to form a state of natives of that area?
2. What about people who explicitly admire the person referred to in number 1 and use him as a model of a resistance fighter?
Are either 1 or 2 deserving of "Nazi" or "Hitler" comparisons?
I would venture to guess you or Bernstein would think reference 1 was to the Grand Mufti, and reference 2 is to the PLO. Wrong. I am referring to Avraham Stern in 1 — leader of the Jewish resistance/terrorist group, Lehi (or the Stern Gang). In 2, I refer to, among others, Yitzhak Shamir, long-time Prime Minister of Israel, and hero of neo-cons.
Actually, I already knew that some Jews in British Palestine in WWII had the idea of working with Hitler. I also think it's legitimate, and helpful, to look at that stain on Jewish history. If Jews are going to learn from the past, they need to study the mistakes made by some earlier Jews. How did some people who started out as a legitimate resistance group (in my view) end up trying to fight on the same side of the worst Jew-killer of all time?
Almost every people, including the Jewish people, could usefully examine their own past instances of collaboration (even by a small percentage of the people) with Nazis or other evil regimes.
Like some Jews in British Palestine, Anwar Sadat was also on the Hitler side during World War II. In both cases, their conduct regarding Nazism was cause for serious concern about their future judgment. Sadat and some members of Lehi overcame their Nazi-related errors, and became honorable statesmen.