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Let’s not retire the Hitler comparisons

[NOTES: 1. At no point in the following do I compare George W. Bush to Hitler. 2. All those who take quotes out of context will be prosecuted, or at least whined about.]

Cathy Young, a contributing editor at Reason magazine, suggests a New Year’s resolution in her Boston Globe column today (which will be de-linked by the Globe tomorrow):

No more Nazi or Hitler analogies to describe policies or politicians you dislike. Unless, of course, those policies include actual mass murder and torture, or those politicians who engage in such acts.

Likewise, Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby thinks any comparison to Hitler is hate speech. Not to mention the field day the conservative groups are having with the fact that two of the 1,500 entries into the ad contest compared some aspects of this administration’s policies to Nazi Germany’s. (Oddly, none of these commentators have complained about the Bush administration’s repeated characterization of opponents of the Iraq war as “appeasers,” a direct reference to the British policy of appeasement that failed to stop Hitler, or about its use of the phrase “Axis of evil” with its implicit comparison to WWII’s Axis.)

So, let me come out firmly against stupid, thoughtless comparisons of anyone to Hitler. Often such comparisons commit an informal fallacy: Because person A is like Hitler in property P, A is like Hitler in property Q, where Q is Hitler’s evilness. That’s not only fallacious, it trivializes what is important.

But ruling out all comparisons with Hitler and Nazism can also be a way of forgetting what should be remembered.

Here’s one thing I think should be remembered: Nazi Germany’s unfathomable evils were perpetrated by one of the most civilized of cultures. Yes, “civilized” is a loaded term. Deconstruct it as you will, Germany — a country that gave us many of the West’s most revered artists and philosophers — seemed to be operating well within the norms of Western politics and culture. Yet it democratically voted in Hitler and watched (or worse) as it murdered its children and rolled tanks into its neighbors’ cities.

I don’t know, and I don’t believe it can be known with certainty, whether there were particular aspects of the German situation that made it susceptible to turning evil. Certainly Germany’s particular way of being evil was rooted in the particularities of German history and culture. But one big lesson I take from this is that cultures that are convinced they are good can nevertheless become evil. And they can be evil when they think they are at their greatest.

That’s why I think Cathy Young is profoundly wrong. We should learn from the horrors of Nazi Germany that it can happen anywhere, even here. But, we should not expect it to happen in the same way, with concentration camps, jackbooted soldiers and a hypnotic demagogue. In fact, we are so aware of those particular forms of evil that we’re less likely ever to fall for them. We need to remember Nazism especially when we’re looking at the forms of evil that do not mirror the particulars of the Nazi expression of evil.

Before the death camps and the invasions, there were the steps that somehow led a country to embrace great evil. The Nazis came to power not by military takeover but through an election. Each subsequent step seemed justified or was at least so palatable that there was no civil uprising. We honor those who fought Nazism and we remember those whom Nazism murdered by being vigilant about the steps we take, for we understand that some steps can lead a country from good to evil.

So, yes, comparing Bush to Hitler is worse than stupid. But we forget the lesson that we should have learned if we don’t publicly notice that some steps our country has taken could lead our great nation into evil:

Demonizing enemies

Questioning the patriotism of dissenters

Monitoring the political expressions of citizens

Establishing a special class of offenders who are removed from the protections of the judicial system

Lowering the intensity of the threat required to justify preemptive action

Disregarding world opinion

Playing on fear in order to sway public opinion

Lying in order to get us to invade another country

Do these acts make us into Nazi Germany? Of course not! Is any of these acts on a scale with death camps or the invasion of Poland? Not in the least! Each may be entirely justifiable: It may be the responsibility of a courageous country to ignore world opinion in some instances. Some dissenters may actually be unpatriotic. It’s possible that our enemies are demonic; I have nothing good to say about Al Qaeda or Saddam Hussein. Even so, we should take such steps with open debate and genuine trepidation. Shutting off the conversation does not help us preserve our genuine American values. We should remember that it can happen here because it did happen there…and also that if were to happen, the it would certainly be different. Is it happening here? That’s exactly what we should be talking about, even if our answer is a resounding No.

If all comparisons to Nazi Germany are out of bounds, then we’re saying Nazism was sui generis, unique, something from which we can learn nothing about how we humans can go so astoundingly wrong. And that truly dishonors all those who suffered its horrors.

Mitch makes a good point about why MoveOn’s open posting of ad entries is as American as multimedia pie.

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14 Responses to “Let’s not retire the Hitler comparisons”

  1. I appreciate the length to which you go in blogging this out. ‘Hitler’ comparisons produce a great deal of reactiveness – yet there is much here that must be heard and noticed.

  2. An exceptionally well-“spoken” piece, David, identifying the salient issues around the retrievals. The greatest threat to democracy is not revolution, but devolution through apathy of the electorate. This manifests not merely in those who do not vote, but more importantly in those who choose not to participate – a sad and sorry state of affairs in both our countries.

    Probing the famous Santayana aphorism seems appropriate here: Those who repeat history are doomed to learn it.

  3. David

    Good post. You might want to add as threats:

    – An angry leader who can whip his contituency into a rage.
    – A mobocracy which is strongly focused on the deficiencies of the other.
    – Minimalizing and looking the other way at destructive behaviours.

  4. Well done David for an excellent post that makes several very important points at once. I love it when my daily RSS trawl throws up some genuinely throughful writing like this.

    Aside from the obvious point that constant Hitler comparison’s debase our memory of the Holocaust and also do nothing to help us understand current events, you are spot on when you say we need to recognise *potential* precursors to evil in the present. Daniel Goldhagen’s shocking book about “Hitler’s Willing Executioners” a few years ago and, more recently, the descent of former Yugoslavia into ethnic cleansing should remind us that no society, however seemingly stable, is beyond evil.

    Thank you.

  5. David, I would like to echo the sentiments of the other comments above. Direct comparison’s with Hitler’s Germany are often made out of anger and don’t stand up to even a little contemplation; I especially agree that the amazing thing was how great a society Germany was and yet it still sunk into Nazi-ism.

    Here is an interesting quote:

    “Why of course the people don’t want war… naturally… that is understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country”

    — Hermann Goering.

  6. Thanks for the excellent and most resonable essay. The steps you enumerate are obviously steps taken in the direction of totalitarianism and aggression. Sadly most nations are drawn in these ‘patriotic’ directions when economic and social problems seem most difficult. The national leadership could help channel these tribal tendencies into constructive or destructive directions. If we could get moving in more constructive directions we wouldn’t need to worry about the Nazi analogies any longer. Speed the day.

  7. Let’s not can the Hitler comparisons

    In a Globe op-ed piece, Cathy Young calls for a moritorium on Hitler comparisons – unless they involve people responsible for mass murders. David, however,…


    No just kidding. As a social scientist I can’t help but making some brief comments (fwiw i am not a fascism expert). You’re not mentioning a wide variety of factors that make fascism as an organization form comparable with other forms of organization, including our own: the way that fascism collapsed the implementation of policy via the civil service apparatus with the policy making process that occurs via an elected body, the collapse of the public sphere (free press) and the state in the name of solidarity, the novel use of mass media for propoganda purposes etc. The central idea of fascism was, after all, that people should be ‘bound together’ into a single organic unit of which the administrative apparatus of the state and the mass of people are directed by a charismatic leader who literally incarnates their spirit – all of this is what made fascism distinctive. (which perhaps means the proper comparison is not Bush-Hitler but Bush-Mussolini).

    All of which is to say that we can examine make comparisons between the US and Nazi Germany the same way we can compare the US and 19th century Sudanese millennial uprisings, or the late Tang dynasty in 900 AD. BUT which are simply structural and not polemic. And it’s important and vital that we do so – so long as we do so intelligently. You’re point about reasoned comparison needs to be made more broadly – what you’re ultimately getting at (I think) is how and why we make comparisons when we talk politics. I think focusing more on structural similarities than the particulars of, say, foreign policy would bring this into focus.

    There was a time when the major US policy guys were faced with a threat so overwhelming they were willing to suspend civil liverties in order to deal with it – the late 40s early 50s, when the USSR came into view. There was a lively discussion then about how to preserve American values in the face of a situation that seemed to require their supression in order to deal with the emergency of containment. This is the most intereting and important case with which to compare our current situation.

    Check out Lasswell’s essay on ‘The Garrison State’ and Katznelson’s recent reappraisal in ‘Desolation and Enlightenment’.

    Ok I’m done now. Thanks for letting me rant.

  9. Godwin.

    ‘Joho the Blog’ suggests we not not retire the Hitler comparisons” href=””>retire the Hitler comparisons that plague contemporary political discourse – mainly because they supposedly help us keep Naz…

  10. Bush and Hitler

    So, the whole comparasion between Bush and Hitler has been big news lately. I have been meaning to post on it but then I come across a post like this which says it so well that I can’t be bothered adding to it. I really like this bit where he sums up s…

  11. In fact, Hitler WAS NOT elected by the German people. He was named Chancellor on January 30, 1933 by President Paul von Hindenberg; when von Hindenberg died on August 2, 1934, Hilter took over. Hitler used his time as Chancellor to take advantage of the octogenarian von Hindenberg, who suffered from bouts of senility, and have the elder statesman sign emergency decrees in Hitler’s favor. Hitler also had his political enemies killed, and intimidated members of the Reichstag by posting the SA (a.k.a. Stormtrropers) in the parliamentary votes that Hitler wanted to pass. Most poiltcal parties had disbanded during Hitler’s rule as Chancellor for fear of being killed. Hitler used bullying, murder, intimidation, and the stripping of democratic rights to gain power.

  12. Valerie, thank you for the clarification. You’re right: The Germans did not elect Hitler chancellor. But in 1930, Hitler’s National Socialist Party went from 12 seats to 107, making it Germany’s second largest political party. (The Social Democrats won 143 seats.)

  13. “We are socialists, we are enemies of today’s capitalistic economic system for the exploitation of the economically weak, with its unfair salaries, with its unseemly evaluation of a human being according to wealth and property instead of responsibility and performance, and we are all determined to destroy this system under all conditions”
    -Adolf Hitler, Speech of May 1, 1927

  14. I feel that Veraciraptor’s comment is really misleading, as its pretty clear to me that the main purpose of the Nazi incarnation of fascism, just as the current ones, is to preserve – indeed, strengthen the dominance of the corporate ‘business over people – at any cost’ ‘war against the weak’ culture..

    In fact, there are a lot of disturbing connections between fascism and the US corporate world..including the highly disturbing fact that George Bush’s grandfather Prescott Bush helped finance Hitlers rise to power..

    See these URLs..

    And pray…

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