Why Do We Always Compare Everything To Hitler? 6 December 2016
I keep a list called “Things Like Hitler.” Anytime someone compares something to Hitler, Nazism, or the rise of the Third Reich, I add it to this mental list. The list includes lots of things which are actually like Hitler, such as the Bosnian Genocide, and things which are nothing like Hitler, such as EasyJet.
It’s become a contemporary meme, ridiculed and ubiquitous in equal measure. On the one hand, there is Godwin’s Law – that any internet discussion, the longer it continues, will inevitably include a comparison to Nazism. On the other hand, Ken Livingstone is simply the latest in a long list of politicians to raise controversy for an inappropriate Hitler-simile.
With the election of President Trump (still not comfortable writing that), the Third Reich comparisons have been in overdrive. Trump’s ascendency, a populist demagogue whipping up xenophobia and promising to “Make America Great Again”, has clear parallels to the rise of fascism in Europe during the early part of the twentieth century. The comparisons are important, and in my view, at times incredibly valid. But in part, whether discussing Brexit or Trump, Hitler comparisons can mislead. So as many have pointed out, the Nazi regime took power in Germany with a relatively weak democracy with young institutions. These institutions were easily undone and replaced. White supremacists, or the alt-right as they refer to themselves, in the West today would struggle to wipe away the same institutions today, which are strongly embedded in civic and political life. That said, there is no reason that Trump’s authoritarian populism need follow the same path as that of the Third Reich, he could do things just as bad, but in a very different way. Comparisons to Nazism then can obscure, mislead, and lull into a false sense of security.
Likewise, the ubiquity of Hitler-comparisons do a grave injustice to the millions of Jews and others who lost their lives in the Nazi concentration camps. Their suffering and death are reduced to rhetorical point, and human lives deserve more respect and reverence than that.
The sociologist of religion in me is intrigued though as to why Godwin’s Law keeps proving itself to be accurate. What is the function of Hitler comparisons, and why are they so common? Musing over the question, I can’t help think it’s a product of a society uncomfortable and unfamiliar with religion. On one hand, we’re a significantly less Biblically literate society than we used to be, and a society in which religion is pushed out of the public sphere. I don’t accept arguments that Britain or the West is “less religious”, since I don’t think it is, but certainly contemporary expressions of religion are less rooted in the Biblical tradition, and people keep their faith and ideas about religion out of newspapers, parliament and public discourse.
Why does this matter? Well, for two reasons. First, it means we’ve lost a notion of objective evil. Evil is a very religious concept. It’s absolutely embedded with God and morality. As many philosophers have observed, objective evil needs an objective good, usually expressed as a good God. As people feel uncomfortable sharing religious notions in public, they turn to the only thing that is accepted as universally bad by all society – Hitler. Nazism is modern enough that almost everyone knows about it, and horrific enough, that there is no debate as to its evil. So without any other objective references for evil, people reach for the only resource available to them – the Third Reich.
The second reason that the decrease of Biblical literacy matters is because it means we have less metaphors and similes to use. Take Shakespeare, his characters quote Biblical figures often. “Thou art more deep damn’d than Prince Lucifer” Phillip the Bastard proclaims in Henry V. Biron laments “How art thou proved Judas?” in Love’s Labour’s Lost. Winchester in Henry VI challenges “be thou cursed Cain, To slay thy brother Abel, if thou wilt.” Shakespeare’s characters drew on rich and extensive Biblical imagery to make comparisons and metaphors, for different shades of evil; Lucifer for an arrogant fall, Judas for betrayal, Cain for fratricide. Without this familiarity with Biblical stories to draw upon however, we’re left with very few contemporary metaphors for evil. Thus we compare everything from tyrannical governments to library fees to Hitler, because what other images do we have left?
So without resorting to Bible lessons, what can be done? I’d argue we need to be more comfortable talking about evil as a human quality and worldly reality. Our inability to call evil by its name leads social commentary down a strange route. Anytime a horrific atrocity is committed, a mass shooting for example, it is common to hear people attribute it to “mental health” problems, or else describe the person as “crazy” or “mad”. The truth, that almost all of us know, is that mental health rarely leads to a person to commit horrific acts. In the court of law, insanity is only accepted if the individual displayed no signs of recognising the act they were about to commit was a problem (making plans to conceal a weapon, for example, almost immediately precludes this). Most killers aren’t crazy, mad or insane. They are sane, rational, and cognizant. They are, however, evil.
Perhaps if we open up the space in the public sphere to more confidently speak about religious concepts, such as evil, we can bring new metaphors and comparisons to describe things which are bad, and Godwin’s Law can finally be retired.