Anyone who has spent any amount of time on the internet is familiar with at least one aspect of Godwin’s Law about internet arguments and Nazis, namely whoever mentioned Hitler has automatically lost whatever debate was in progress. More broadly speaking, the point Mike Godwin makes is a solid one. Nothing is, or will be like, the Nazis, the Holocaust or Hitler and to compare say, a forum moderator’s decision to delete your post to the Nazis, is so hyperbolic and ridiculous as to make any subsequent argument you make irrelevant. However, in our post-2016 Trumpian universe, it seems that many prominent journalists and political commentators have decided that Godwin is no longer applicable. The most recent example comes from Rolling Stone writer Jamil Smith who made reference to Martin Niemöller’s famous poem in his tweet on rumours that the Trump Administration was considering deploying 100 000 National Guard troops to arrest undocumented immigrants.
Such statements have usually elicited the expected condemnation from the right-wing press, in the case of Smith, within a few hours from The Federalist writer David Harsanyi. Since the inauguration, this cycle has repeated itself ad nauseum: someone compares Trump, his staff, cabinet choices or policies to the Nazis, the right responds and claims that these people are disrespecting the millions whom Hitler killed and then the original commentator (or their supporters) use such denunciations to prove how out of touch the right is regarding the imminent threat Trump poses to American democracy. You can find another example of this trend here. So who is right? Are Nazi comparisons so hyperbolic and disrespectful as to be useless? Or are Trump’s defenders in denial about the historical parallels between the two regimes?
My answer, from the perspective of someone who has spent the last four years of their life studying the 1920s and 30s, is that Nazi comparisons can sometimes be appropriate, but are often egregiously misused. Much like most historical analogies, especially ones made on Twitter in 140 characters, they are the product of lazy thinking and implied, rather than explained connections, that are often tenuous at best. That, however, doesn’t mean that there aren’t lessons we as democratic societies can draw from the rise of Hitler and Fascism more general in the 20s and 30s.
First, the rise of any of the fascist dictators was a process, not an immediate event. Even the most dramatic seizures of power, Mussolini’s March on Rome in 1922 or General Francisco Franco’s military coup in 1936, were the result of decades-long historical processes. In states with strong democratic institutions and a vibrant civil society, totalitarian governments cannot gain power and if they do, they rarely last long. Rather, it is only when key democratic institutions such as elected legislatures, a free press, and an independent judiciary are undermined that people like Mussolini can seize power or a plurality (not a majority) of voters turn to demagogues like Hitler. For this reason, Trump and the Republicans’ systematic undermining of the mainstream news media, combined with the rise of ultra-partisan outlets like Fox News and Brietbart is so concerning. In many ways, the right-wing’s efforts to delegitimize the media and so remove a check on power echoes the strategy of the Nazi party who deployed the term Lügenpresse (literally lying press) to discredit any newspapers that challenged the Nazi version of events. At first, it was simply Socialist and Jewish publications but eventually came to include all papers that were not run or sanctioned by the Nazi Party as well as the entire foreign press. Now we get the “alt-right” using the term.
Throw in President Trump using “enemy of the people” and all that remark entails to describe the press and maybe Nazi comparisons aren’t that far off?
Yet it isn’t attacks on the free press that most people associated with the Third Reich. Rather, the most enduring and horrific image of the Nazi regime is that of the Holocaust. Be it the gas chambers of Auschwitz or the emaciated men and women freed by Allied forces from the Nazi Death Camps in 1945, these images are indelibly associated (as they should be) with Hitler and his regime. As I emphasize to the high school aged students at Compass who attend my 20th Century history class on the Holocaust, we need to understand it as a process, not a single event. The gas chambers and death camps were “The Final Solution” not the first step. The Nazi’s did not envision Auschwitz when they came to power in 1933. Rather, their murderous policies evolved over time and it was only in 1942 that the Nazi Government (or possibly just Hitler himself depending on whether you buy Ian Kershaw’s argument) decided to exterminate the entire Jewish population of Europe. The first steps were much smaller acts like the “Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service” of April 7, 1933 which removed Jews and other “politically unreliable” people from the German Civil Service and the Nuremberg Laws of 1935 which prohibited Jews from marrying or having sexual relations with persons of “German or German-related blood.” It wasn’t until 1938, five years after gaining power, that Jews became the target of large-scale state-sanctioned violence on the night of Kristallnacht (commonly known as “Night of Broken Glass”). Since we now have the benefit of hindsight we can trace a direct line from 1933 through to the “Final Solution.” Yet many observers in the 1930s and 40s were either unwilling to believe the true depravity of the Nazi’s crimes or simply rejected the idea that they could progress to the level of industrialized killing until the evidence of the Death Camps was shown on film and in photographs the world over. Germany was a civilized, western nation, it simply couldn’t happen there until it did.
The broader point here is not that Donald Trump or Steven Bannon is going to order the deaths of millions of minorities. Rather, comparing certain administration actions with Hitler can be an instructive warning. Thanks to extensive historical evidence (collected by places like the US Holocaust Memorial Museum and Yad Vashem) we know that when governments deploy certain strategies and ideas that denigrate democratic institutions and demonize minorities, it can end in mass murder. It doesn’t mean that every wanna-be authoritarian demagogue necessarily leads his or her country to that destination, but history tells us that it is a possibility and can point to the specific steps on the road to that particular hell. Choosing to ignore all warnings no matter how well argued is not respecting the memories of those who the Nazi’s killed, rather it is disrespecting them by blindly allowing a leader or a government to take us one step further down a road nobody should want to be on in the first place.