Monday, December 26, 2016

Talking About Nazis

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.


Mudpuddle said...

to speculate: fifty years in the future, will people(if any are left...) use "Trump" in the same way that they now use "Hitler"...?

Stephen said...

The massive problem with using Hitler so much is that it actually normalizes the man. If politician after politician is called Hitler, then Hitlerism loses its meaning. Hitler becomes normal, instead of a singular horror. People will begin to suspect that he wasn't ALL bad. They may even embrace him out of defiance. That's also the reason many of my friends in college called themselves "commies" and favored Stalin -- they were constantly abused as evil communists for being progressive, so they embraced the abuse. It works both ways. I wonder how big a role that plays in radicalization across the human spectrum.

RFD@15037 said...

Name-calling (in my humble and curmudgeonly opinion) is the hallmark of lazy minds. I prefer to discuss in objective substance -- emphasis on the words "discuss," "objective," and "substance" -- rather than either superficially valorize or demonize good, bad, and ugly policies, statements, and public-and-personal behaviors when assessing politicians. But your posting is thought-provoking, and the foregoing are my two-cents' worth of thought.

Guy Savage said...

I've finally got around to watching Man in the High Castle on Amazon. have you seen it

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Muddpudde - You raise an intriguing question.

I think that three things would need to come true in for Trump's name to be as infamous. He must actually cause death, misery and destruction on a global scale. There must be a worldwide effort to defeat him, and of course all this must not lead to human extinction.

I think that all these things are conceivable based on what he has shown himself to be and the power that he is about to obtain. However, in the end, it seems less then then likely that all three will come to pass simultaneously.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi R.T. = I tend to agree with you, at least in most cases. I think that is what I argue here. With that, I think that extreme cases call for extreme examples.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Stephen - You raise a good point, I think to some extent the overuse of the Hitler analogy has normalized Nazism. This may lead some very bad folks to embrace him and his ideas, thus giving rise to extremism.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Guy - I love the book Man in the High Castle. I really want to see the series. Unfortunately I do not believe that I get ant of the service that is yet showing it.

Gently Mad said...

Hi Brian. The problem I see is that people can become hard-hearted. For instance, someone may have a habit of saying mean and thoughtless things to you and you many tell them so.

But after awhile, your words fall on deaf ears. They're tired of hearing your criticism. Does that mean what you have said is less true? No, it just means that the other person is tired of hearing it.

As far as comparing current events with Nazism and Hitler I see many parallels, but what good does it do when people do not recognize symptoms and after a while become numb to the comparison?

When someone makes the comments that "sooner or later someone will compare the thing or someone to Hitler", to me that is someone refusing to see the parallel and attempting to denigrate it so others will no longer think deeply about our recent history. It's not that the comparison is not appropriate but the other person has hardened their heart.

To speak more plainly, I am thinking about the value of life. We can talk politics or world leaders or such, but how do people come into control? Because individuals stop valuing life on an individual level. It's easy enough to look at the evil outside, but who has the courage to look at the evil inside each of us and yet that's where it germinates and only ends up on a global level.

I hope I am not speaking too abstractly. Also, I am not thinking of Trump. I am merely talking in general terms and most importantly that we do need to study Nazism and how such things as KrystalNacht came to be acceptable to average, everyday people.

We need to ask ourselves what would our reaction have been if we lived at that time. Is there any group today being vilified as the Jews were so that people could come to a point and think,"well, they deserved it."

It's a shame people don't know about PolPot or Stalin, because we need to understand how they came into power, what circumstances and cultures paved their way.

One question: why do you refer to WWII as a myth?

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon - If I understand your points correctly, the examples that you give highlight what I think ways to discuss World War II and Nazism that make sense. Your examples of KrystalNacht, the nature of evil, how modern people would react to Nazism. What is outrageous, is that even putting Donald Trump aside, it is fairly common on social media for people to compare Barack Obama or George W. Bush to Hitler.

You have me questioning my use of the word "myth" above :)

With that, several Merriam Webster definition of the word fit my meaning.

Myth - a usually traditional story of ostensibly historical events that serves to unfold part of the world view of a people or explain a practice, belief, or natural phenomenon.


a popular belief or tradition that has grown up around something or someone; especially : one embodying the ideals and institutions of a society or segment of society.

There are other definitions that include fictitiousness. I did not mean to imply that.

CyberKitten said...

Nazi is a word I really don't like using - even in my history review posts! It's used far too easily for my liking and has very specific means. I can see *why* it's used today - as a verbal shorthand - but's it's used in so many bad ways that it's becoming meaningless. When I heard Obama called A Nazi I cried laughing it was *so* out of context!

One reason I think the word is being thrown around so much lately is the times we live in. I've thought for a while now that the present has resonances, echoes if you will, of the 1930's. Even Prince Phillip (over here) has said as much in regarding to minority persecution.It does seem passing strange that the West seems to be lurching to the Right as if this will solve our problems. How quickly people forget what happened in living memory.... I guess only time will tell...

Stefanie said...

Well said! I agree with you. I think calling someone Hitler or a Nazi is intellectually lazy and it also trivializes the situation. Far better to name it demagogue, fascist, totalitarianism, authoritarianism and the like. Doing otherwise obscures the truth and makes it all too easy to dismiss.

James said...

Thanks for a thought-provoking commentary. I would agree with those who see Hitler as a totalitarian that is incomparable to almost any other dictators (Stalin being a notable exception). Hannah Arendt's analysis of this phenomenon in The Origins of Totalitarianism presents the arguments for this in a very convincing way. The hyperbole that is part of our contemporary politics does little to further discussion of how we should approach current issues.

Gently Mad said...

Hi Brian! Thanks for clearing that up about myth and shame on me for not the various meanings. Have a happy new year!

Brian Joseph said...

Have a happy New Year Sharon!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Cyber Kitten - We do live in turbulent ties. Folks were overusing the tern Nazi before. They will likely do so more now.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Stephanie - Indeed, there are more precise terms. To really get into the weeds on this, I do not think that any of the current movements sweeping nations these days are even Fascism. There are those who will disagree with me however.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Kathy - You raise a good pint about ISIS. In their cruelty, their murderousness and their tendency to torture I think that they have reached the level pf barbarism that the Nazis reached. In other ways they are similar and in other ways they a are different.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi James - I really want to read Hannah Arendt's book. I will hopefully will read it soon.

Violet said...

How ill-informed must a person be to equate Obama with Hitler? The mind boggles! :)

I think the meaning of 'nazi' -lowercase - has expanded and changed over time, so that now it only really signifies what the Nazi party stood for - authoritarianism, nationalism, white supremacy, etc. I think people probably use nazi more in that context these days, rather than as a direct reference to the Nazi party?

I don't give any credence to what the far-right mob say on Twitter. They're clueless about so much, but especially about history. All the name-calling is ridiculous, and they only do it because they can't argue their case using facts and logic. I think that people like me, who have no patience with wilful ignorance and self-delusion, have given up even trying to engage with them. It seems to me that social conservatism is on the rise all around the world, which is baffling to free-thinkers like us, Brian. I guess a lot of us underestimated the siren song effect conservative politics has on some people, but we do need to find a way to push back against the growing conservatism that threatens to send us all back to the 1950s.

Also, I do think that neo-fascism is on the rise in Europe. If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck. Sadly.

HKatz said...

This post really could be used as an argument for people to study more history. A term like 'Nazi' sops up a whole bunch of associations, so that instead of meaning a specific thing it means "something evil" or - in some cases - "something I think is bad and don't like" (like that stupid insult, "feminazi"). It's a shortcut to triggering people's emotions, and you're right, because Nazis have appeared so often in pop culture and our discourse, they're the go-to personification of anything bad. Which then robs the word of meaning. There has to be a way to learn from history and teach from it without relying on the same comparisons to the same group of people over and over. Unfortunately, history is full of examples of people acting hatefully and abusing power.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Violet - Something very bad is on the rise here in the U.S. too:)

I think that your view on how the word Nazi has changes is indeed part of what is going on.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Hila - You raise a really good point, more understanding of history would go a long way towards improving the discourse.

The specter of Nazism has so influenced our popular culture even when they are not directly cited. I think about how they have influenced stories such as Star Wars or Lord of The Rings.

Maria Behar said...

Outstanding post as usual, Brian!

You are so right in stating that WWII and the Nazis are still an influence on the historical and political landscape. Although most decent folks agree that war is evil, World War II was and is considered a necessary evil, which had to take place in order to defeat the nefarious evil of the Nazis. These people just HAD to be stopped. There was no question of protesting this war! The major democracies of the time banded together in order to defeat a common foe. And Winston Churchill was definitely a major hero of that war. Besides, the horrors of the Holocaust are part and parcel of our collective consciousness. So of course many, if not most of us, might be a little "trigger-happy" in comparing any politician and/or political movement to Hitler and the Nazis. I must confess that I have been guilty of this myself, as I, too, have compared Trump to Hitler.

I guess I had not considered the full implications of making such a comparison. Certainly Trump would never engage in genocide of an entire ethnic or religious group. Nor has he ever advocated such a thing. Still, his racist and mysoginist remarks are cause for concern. However, perhaps a comparison with Hitler is too much of an extreme.

Having stated all of the above, it IS disturbing that, as you have mentioned in this post, "There are a fair number of self-described Nazis supporting him..." Has there ever been an American presidential candidate who had the support of extreme right-wing groups? I am not sure, but I don't think so. I am deeply disturbed by the support given to Trump not only by these self-described Nazis, but by the KKK and other white supremacist groups. I don't think any American presidential candidate has ever had such support, either.

As you know, I am a political moderate. I uphold some of the political stances of the Left, as well as some of those held by the Right. In my opinion, both sides of the political spectrum have good and bad points. Also, I consider ALL extremes to be bad.

(more coming)

Maria Behar said...

(I deleted the previous post because of typos...)


The term "Nazi" seems to have an especially pejorative connotation. To many, if not most, people, it represents the most disgusting, abhorrent elements of the human race. This is so much the case, I think, that even the term "grammar Nazi" can be offensive. I certainly got upset when a comment left on one of my blog posts incorporated this term. What happened was that I had written a review in which I mentioned that the book I was reviewing was full of grammatical and spelling errors. So one commenter asked me if I was "a grammar Nazi". Well, I REALLY got upset, and told this commenter just how offensive I considered the use of this term. (I added that, as an English teacher, I was especially aware of any mistakes made in the English language.)

A day or so after I had posted my reply to this comment, I went back and deleted both the comment and the reply. I decided I didn't want visitors and readers to think this sort of interaction was common on my blog. I don't like disrespectful negative comments, but I think I may have overreacted a bit.

Anyway.... I do think it's interesting that the term "Communist" doesn't seem to have the horrible connotations of the term "Nazi". And yet, the Communists have perpetrated their own horrors. Stalin was responsible for the murders of millions in Russia. And Russian Communists have also massacred tons of Jews. I don't know whether they have done so on the massive scale that the Nazis did, but the fact of the matter is that ONE murder is one too many.

Fidel Castro in Cuba was a heinous murderer. Why some leftists idolize him, as well as Che Guevara, the Argentine Communist who joined the Cuban Communist Revolution, I will NEVER understand! On the other hand, perhaps I do. This is simply the result of ignorance. The American Left is simply not aware of the horrible atrocities Fidel Castro and his brother Raul, as well as Che Guevara and others in the so-called "revolution" are responsible for. So I suppose I'm not surprised when the phrase "You're a Commie" is not perceived as the horrible insult that the phrase "You're a Nazi" is. Yet, both are just as bad.

"The McCarthy Era" is decried by those on the Left. I'm sure, though, that if the types of FBI surveillance and blacklisting the government engaged in at that time were to be implemented against Nazi sympathizers at this particular point in history, many people would actually support them.

My point? It's all too easy to point fingers at "the opposition" and think that one's own political/philosophical group is entirely righteous and just. But I guess that's human nature for you....

I might be back later, lol. Maybe. This post is certainly food for thought!!

Thanks for such a timely, well-written, and insightful post, Brian!! :) :) :)

Mudpuddle said...

i find it interesting that Canada, having elected a right wing bigot as leader, turned around after a term and elected a liberal... maybe there's hope after all...

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Maria.

I should have noted, as per what I wrote above, Trump has done certain things, like his statement where he said that he alone can fix America’s problems, that were very similar to statements that Hitler made. I think that it is appropriate to point that out. With that, as you point out, it does not appear that Trump would engage in an organized genocide.

Trump has support from Nazi and KKK groups like no other American President ever had.

As you pony out, many Communist leaders have been terribly brutal. It seems that this is once again, the aura that World War II and the Nazis has around it.

Thanks for the great comment!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Muddpuddle - I agree that Trumpism could end very fast. But the concern that is being expressed by a lot of perceptive folks on all sides of the political and social spectrum, is that he will suppress free elections in the future. Though there may be various ways that he might do it, a plausible path seems to follow what Putin has done in Russia. That is, suppress both the media and political opponents with economic, legal as well as outright threats of violence. There are signs that he may have already started in this direction. Of course, if he attempts this, it is no guarantee that he will succeed. People will fight it.

The Reader's Tales said...

This is a subject that I like (I'm half German).... Among the best books I have read, on this subject, was "Why Hitler" by Ron Rosenbaum... But I can not wait to hear your opinion. What I will do next week quietly. After the madness of the holidays.

The Reader's Tales said...

Happy New Year 2017, Brian :)

Suko said...

Very thought-provoking post, and comments (particularly Maria's). This is quite a serious post, so I hope you don't mind my addition, below.

As a child in middle school, I was punished once for calling the vice principal a "dictator". Luckily my parents, and the VP, too, saw the humor in it.

Brian Joseph said...

Happy New Year's Reader's Tales.

I follow Ron Rosenbaum.on Twitter.Thanks for the recommendation, I would like to read Why Hitler.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Suko - That is an interesting story.

I think that the word dictator has much less serious connotations the Nazi. I am much more comfortable with people using it.

Felicity Grace Terry said...

In many ways such scary times we are living in. I'm trying my best to be optimistic about 2017.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Tracy - Things are alarming. It is difficult to predict the future. Things might work out. But I think that there is the real possibility that some bad times are ahead. Take care.

The Reader's Tales said...

I obviously share your point of view and your position on this matter. In my opinion name-calling is a sign of ignorance or lazy minds.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi The Reader's Tales - There is indeed laziness involved. Lately it seems that people often result to the word Nazi out of frustration. Folks see, very frustrated these days.

thecuecard said...

Yeah I agree way too much is compared to the Nazis or Hitler. Not sure how this all started but it's most often just an easy and wrong way to say something's bad.