Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Inevitability of Comparisons to Hitler and Nazism

Placards carried by union demonstrators in Madison, Wisconsin, showed pictures of Gov. Scott Walker with a toothbrush mustache and a Hakenkreutz or swastika added to the photograph. The obvious suggestion is that Governor Walker is somehow like the infamous German dictator Adolph Hitler. One of the protesters explicitly compared Walker’s proposal to reduce state workers’ bargaining power to Hitler’s complete outlawing of the German labor movement. Not long before the demonstrations in Wisconsin, Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak was portrayed as Hitler by sign carrying protesters in Cairo. None of this is new. During the run-up to passage of the health care bill in Congress, TEA Party protesters carried signs that compared President Barack Obama to Hitler, and at the height of fighting in Iraq a few years ago, anti-war protesters carried pictures depicting President George W. Bush as Hitler.

Whenever opponents of any government want to reach for an easy and powerful symbol of tyranny, the comparison to Hitler and his National Socialist (Nazi) Party is trotted to the fore. Modern political rhetoric would seem to be at sea without the option of comparing an offending office holder to the most heinous political leader of the twentieth century. (Although the Soviet Union’s Joseph Stalin, China’s Mao Tsetung, and Cambodia’s Pol Pot rival Hitler as callous and brutal mass murderers.) Only someone who has lived under the proverbial rock does not know that Hitler and the Nazi Party are inextricably associated with evil and tyranny in the popular imagination; so invoking them has become shorthand for the worst that can be said about a political opponent. If in the mind of one’s audience, the comparison to Hitler is accepted, then the comparison is an effective bit of propaganda. On the other hand, if it strikes the listener as too much of an exaggeration and deserving of condemnation, it will hurt the case of the person making the comparison.

The comparison is deemed worth risking because it is so powerful and, once you overlook the risk of backlash, it is convenient. Almost any position that any political official might take could be compared to one in the Nazi program. This actually becomes inevitable for a couple of reasons. Every government is at least superficially alike in some respects regardless of its constitution or lack thereof. All governments tend to preserve themselves and their power, all seek to limit the participation in the political process of those who would reduce government’s size and power or transfer it to a new political cast of characters. The measures that governments will take, the extremes to which they will go, vary from case to case, and that is what separates the Nazis from most governments. I am reminded of biographer and historian Edward Crankshaw’s evaluation of late nineteenth century German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck of whom he said that while other nineteenth century political leaders did highhanded and unethical things, one gets the impression that there were things that they would not do, extremes to which they would not go to get their way. In contrast, Bismarck seems to have had no such scruples. Whatever he wanted, he was willing to do anything without compunction to get it. His only calculus had to do with whether he thought he could get away with it.

Yet even Crankshaw recoils from comparing Bismarck to Hitler. Bismarck was not as bad as Hitler. He didn’t lead Germany to destruction, and one of the reasons for this is that he had more patience than Hitler so that although Bismarck gambled as did Hitler, he did not over-reach. (Arguably, however, he made possible Kaiser Wilhelm II and Hitler—the leaders who led Germany into World Wars I and II respectively—by setting the example of the strongman leader who does whatever he thinks is best without consulting the people through their representatives.)

The comparison of any opponent’s policy to any Nazi policy is convenient in the most cynical sense because the Nazis had policies on every conceivable issue and often were on both sides. Consider abortion, for example. The Nazis divided the world into Aryans, or Germans and some other northern Europeans like themselves on the one hand, and non-Aryans, or people of other ethnic groups on the other; they did not allow abortion for Aryans but they championed abortion for non-Aryans. Consequently, those who oppose abortion have compared their opponents to Nazis because Nazis favored abortion for some, while proponents of abortion have compared their opponents to Nazis because Nazis opposed abortions for some. Obviously both sides are guilty of disingenuousness.

Whatever your opponents do, something in their platform is bound to be reminiscent or able to be made reminiscent of some position in the Nazi program, however tenuous the similarity might be. Whereas the Nazis did everything ruthlessly and to the extreme, the rhetorical game is find and if need be force a match between their extreme policy and an opponents policy and draw the inevitable conclusion even if the similarity is weak or not of the same degree.

When the comparison does fit, the effect can be cheapened by habitual overuse, and the comparison can also be beside the point: a comparison of Stalin to Hitler might as well be made the other way around because both strongmen were equally autocratic and brutal. Yet the comparison has a legitimacy when it serves to warn people that a government is moving in the same direction of increased arbitrary power that the Nazis did, even if the government in question has not gone as far as the Nazis did. When governments move in the direction of tyranny quickly, it is necessary to quickly inform people that this is happening and capture the public's attention because it is something that people ought to be alarmed about. It is up to the audience of any message to be educated enough to recognize the relative merits of the comparison and judge its value. A carelessly used comparison will bring disrepute on the user while an apt comparison can be made effective.