I’ve always been wary of Godwin’s Law — the internet maxim which says that if you are in an argument and you compare someone or something to Hitler or the Nazis, you automatically lose the argument. (Actually, Mike Godwin’s original comment was more nuanced than Godwin’s Law has become today. Wikipedia has a nice summary.)
Granted, there’s way too much of that going around. Not everyone we dislike is a Nazi, and no matter what a lot of silly protesters said, George W. Bush didn’t turn into Hitler and Barack Obama won’t either. We invoke Godwin’s Law as a reminder that such comparisons are often ridiculous, and also as a reminder that an analogy can become a replacement for careful thought.
On the other hand, Godwin’s Law can also become a replacement for careful thought, if we allow it to shutdown the debate.
Part of the reason we have Godwin’s Law is also part of the problem with it: When we think about Hitler and the Nazis, we naturally think of their greatest crimes, and compared to the Holocaust, all our current problems seem small, which is why a comparison is so often foolish. Nothing happening in the United States today comes close the ultimate horrors of Nazi Germany.
However, it’s important to remember that Adolf Hitler didn’t murder 12 million people on his first day, and those ultimate horrors were preceded by many lesser horrors. Hitler was active in German politics for over a decade before becoming Chancellor, and it would be another nine years before the Wannsee conference and the Final Solution. So while it’s correct to say that nobody in America today is as bad as Hitler, it’s also correct to point out that for the first fifty years of his life, neither was Hitler.
Yet it’s not as if Hitler was a nice guy for most of his time in office. It’s not as if Germany was a great place for Jews (or Gypsies or homosexuals or any of the other victims) right up until the moment the death camps began operating. There were clues to what was coming, and those clues are worth thinking about today. It’s not enough to remember history; we also have to recognize the evils of history when we see them again, if we don’t want to be doomed to repeat them.
As Kevin Carson says in his own denounciation of Godwin’s Law:
Godwin’s Law, by treating Nazi Germany as some sort of unique, metaphysical evil in human history, essentially nullifies its practical lessons for people in other times and places. Although Nazi precedents are now used as symbols of ultimate evil — just look at Darth Vader — they didn’t seem anywhere so dramatic to the German people at the time they were happening.
Nazi repression came about incrementally, in the background, as people lived their ordinary daily lives. Each new upward ratcheting of the security state was justified as something not all that novel or unprecedented, just a common sense measure undertaken from practical concerns for “security.”
After all, the bulk of Hitler’s emergency powers were granted by the Reichstag after a terrorist attack (blamed at the time on communists), a fire which destroyed the seat of Germany’s parliament. Any parallels to 9/11 and USA PATRIOT are, of course, purely accidental. Each new security clampdown, after an initial flurry of discussion, was quickly accepted as normal because it didn’t affect the daily lives of most ordinary people. And of course, those ordinary people had nothing to fear, because they’d done nothing wrong!
The Nazis weren’t the last totalitarian bastards the world will ever see, and when the next Adolf Hitler begins his rise to power, it will be a lot harder to stop him if we’re not allowed to point out that he’s acting just like the last Adolf Hitler.
Jennifer Abel gives an example of how this works:
I’ve been banging the anti-TSA pro-civil liberties drum on this blog since 2006, the same year I started it. And America’s gotten worse, incrementally, as people lead their ordinary lives. It led directly to the passage and acceptance of the NDAA, with its unconstitutional insistence that the government can arrest any citizen at any time with no evidence, no trial, no legal rights at all, provided the government first says “Trust me, he’s totally a terrorist.” It’s led to what Carson calls a “de facto internal passport” required for travel within the borders of our own country. And when those who support these laws watch documentaries on the rise of the Third Reich, they shake their heads in patriotic superiority and swear “It can’t happen here.”
But of course it could happen here. America is still basically a free country, but there’s no natural law that says it has to stay that way. There are certainly things going on in this country that look a lot like the early days of the Nazi rise to power. The TSA’s metastasis into a system of internal checkpoints (the hallmark of totalitarians everywhere) is one good example. Another example, is the War on Drugs, which strikes me as a slow-motion Kristallnacht, with drug users and the inner-city poor in place of the Jews.
I can’t point to any major American politician and say he’s the next Hitler, but I can think of a at least one minor figure who certainly fits the uniform: Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. He fought the DEA’s war on drugs for 25 years, he brags about the cruelty of his prisons (in which inmates regularly die), he uses the investigative powers of his office to intimidate people who criticize him — including journalists and other members the justice system — and he has even tried to imprison judges who ruled against him or his officers. And to top it off, much of his political power comes from exploiting racial and ethnic hatred against illegal immigrants.
So in the spirit of civil disobedience against Godwin’s Law, I’ll say it out loud: Sheriff Joe Arpaio is like Hitler. Not like the Hitler who killed millions in the death camps, of course, but like Hitler from twenty years before, filled with hate and lusting for power. But not as successful. And unlike the real Hitler, we don’t need a time machine to stop him. We can do it by voting him out of office.
That said, identifying “the next Hitler” isn’t really the important point. Hitler wasn’t evil because he was Hitler. Hitler was evil because he did evil things. Similarly, our goal need not be to stop the next Hitler. Our goal should be to recognize when people in our government are doing evil things, and spread the word so they can be stopped. If that means saying that they’re behaving like Nazis, so be it.