June 20, 2018
There are few observations that have proven more durable than Godwin’s Law. Created in 1990 by attorney Mike Godwin, it is quite simple: The more heated a political argument becomes, the higher the likelihood that one side will mention Adolf Hitler. Whoever mentions Hitler first, loses the argument.
Whether the issue is child separation at the border to pro-life politics, both the left and right have been serial violators of the law. In nearly every situation, the reference to the Nazis creates an unnecessary distraction and takes away from the force of whatever particular argument they are trying to advance. For example, one can feel that the separation of children from their parents at the border is inhumane. But no serious person can or should compare these detentions to the separation of families during the Holocaust. The latter, unlike the former, was for the purpose of extermination.
So, may one never say “Hitler” or “Nazis?” I would propose three exceptions to Godwin’s Law.
Number one - you can mention Nazis when you’re actually talking about Nazis.
For example, Arthur Jones, a perennial candidate for Illinois’ 3rd Congressional District, is a Holocaust denier and has been a leader of the American Nazi Party and several other extremist organizations. Calling him a Nazi is simply descriptive.
Sadly, he is not alone, and this problem is not confined to the United States. There are several political parties in Europe with histories and ideologies that can be traced back to Nazism. Some are more transparent than others in their connections to the Third Reich. It is completely appropriate to point out those connections and reprimand some of them for their ongoing Nazi beliefs.
Number two – a regime that engages in acts of genocide can be compared to the Nazis.
The Holocaust—the culmination of centuries of antisemitism—was a uniquely Jewish event, but its lessons are universal. Saying “Never again” can never just be about the Jews. Acts of genocide in Bosnia, Rwanda, Cambodia, and Darfur can all be compared to the Holocaust. Likewise, the Turkish government’s continuing shameful denial of the Armenian genocide during the Ottoman regime can in many ways be compared to Holocaust denial regardless of the particular motivation of the speaker—after all, Hitler himself reportedly spoke of it as a precedent.
This is not to say that these comparisons are perfect. After all, the Nazis sought the total eradication of the Jewish people, a far vaster and more radical level of inhuman outrage. But while such details are important, the differences matter little to the victims of ethnic cleansings of any kind.
As historic scholarship in the U.S. has evolved both on slavery and our treatment of the Native Americans, one increasingly hears references to genocide and comparisons to the Holocaust. A walk through the replica slave ship at the beautiful and chilling National Museum of African American History and Culture lends powerful credence to such analogies, and agree with them or not, they are entitled to respect.
Number three – an individual or government that threatens to eliminate another people may be compared to Hitler or the Nazis.
One of the central lessons of the Shoah is to listen to and take seriously people who say that they will destroy you. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei declared, in a June 2018 tweet, that Israel is a “malignant cancerous tumor” that needs to be eradicated. This was not his first, second, or eighth utterance to that effect. And as disturbing as such rhetoric would be on its own, it is matched by Iran’s sponsorship of attacks on Israel and Jewish communities as well as that nation’s attempts to develop nuclear weapons. Although one should weigh one’s words carefully in seeking to make the most effective argument, an analogy to the Nazis is not inappropriate.
Significantly, it’s not just Israel and her supporters that use Nazi analogies to describe Iran. In March of 2018, Saudi Arabia’s powerful crown prince Mohammed bin Salmon compared the supreme leader of Iran to Adolf Hitler, saying, “He wants to create his own project in the Middle East very much like Hitler, who wanted to expand at the time. Many countries around the world and in Europe did not realize how dangerous Hitler was until what happened, happened.” Again, while the analogy may be imperfect, the comparison is understandable.
Finally, while many use Holocaust analogies because of a genuine misguided passion, special attention should be paid to the motivation of those who use them when attacking Israel and her supporters. This is not to say that Israel may not be criticized. Israel, like any nation, is capable of abuses of power and should be held to the same standard as any other democracy. That being said, the English language has no shortage of words by which to express disagreement with or condemnation of a particular Israeli governmental or military action. The decision to evoke the Holocaust to attack the world’s only Jewish state at minimum raises valid and important questions about the motivations of the speaker.
The Holocaust was a unique and dark chapter in the history of the world. Those seeking to use it to advance a particular point of view should do so with care. If you get it wrong, you will not only offend a lot of people, but you’ll probably lose the argument as well.