We hear it all the time. Politicians, world leaders and other public figures are compared to Hitler. Political and social movements are often compared to Nazism. Saddam Hussein, George W. Bush and Barack Obama have all been compared to Hitler. In the United States, it is popular to compare the Republican Party to the Nazis.
There is also a popular backlash against this overuse of Nazi analogies. There is a prevalent wisdom that says something to the effect of “if you call someone a Nazi or compare them to Hitler, you have lost the argument.” (in one of many examples of this argument, Philip Hensher presents it here.)
Godwin’s law is cited. As per Wikipedia the commonly quoted adage is:
“if an online discussion (regardless of topic or scope) goes on long enough, sooner or later someone will compare someone or something to Hitler.”
I must note that as of late, we hear a lot of folks calling Donald Trump a Nazi. As someone who has an intense aversion to Trump and everything he stands for, and who thinks he presents a major danger to the United States and to the world, I can say unequivocally that he is not a Nazi. (There are a fair number of self-described Nazis supporting him, however.)
I am in agreement that Nazi analogues are overused, and such comparisons are often unfair, disrespectful and offensive. The mass murder, mass torture and aggression perpetuated by the Nazis should not be trivialized by invalid comparisons. However, I would argue that references to Nazis and World War II are not always inappropriate. It depends in what context that they are used. Furthermore, in our culture, it is inevitable that people will often make references to Nazis when discussing current events.
World War II and its ghastly details comprise a shared mythology for those of us in the West. As an event, it may be the one incident in recent history that almost every human being has at least a rudimentary understanding of.
So many of our heroic stories find their origins in World War II. From comic books to scholarly discussions of history, literature and art, this terrible human event still has a profound impact upon on our culture and our discourse.
When one mentions the names Pinochet, Pol Pot, or even Stalin, one will inevitably lose some people. This is not so with Hitler and the Nazis. Almost everyone instantly recognizes the name of Hitler and understands what one is talking about when references to him are made. The same thing is true for the term Nazi. That word is far more recognized than Khmer Rough or even Communist.
|A Popular Internet Meme|
For the reasons stated above, sometimes references to Nazism makes sense. For instance, the Nazis famously burned books. They made great spectacles of their book burnings. However, they were not the only group to do so, nor were they the first. When groups burn books for political reasons, I still hear people ask why that is such a bad thing. I would argue that in such a discussion, a reference to the Nazis may be appropriate. Referring to other nefarious groups that burned books often brings blank stares. With that, it may also be necessary to point out that most people who burn books are not actual Nazis.
Many of our heroic myths also find their origins in World War II. Thus, exhortations to resist current day tyrannies and lesser injustices often make reference to World War II-related events. Winston Churchill’s inspiring words are often used in this context. Once again, this is often the function of a shared mythology rather than misuse of a concept.
Of course, it important to use such references intelligently and responsibly. It is usually wrong to call people or movements Nazis or Hitler-like. It is also intellectually lazy to reference the Nazis and Hitler when other references would serve an argument well. There are way too many such references used in both our formal and informal discourse.
There is a lot of hyperbole involved with the use of names Nazi and Hitler. However, overuse and misuse are not the entire story. World War II and the fight against fascism is firmly embedded in our collective consciousness. It is inevitable that when struggles big and small present, we keep reflecting back to its imagery.