Godwin’s Law describes one of the foundational principles of the internet. It states that: “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.”
Unfortunately, Godwin's Law is an accurate description of reality, whether online or offline. As much as people hate Hitler and the Nazis, they sure love invoking them in every appropriate and (more often) inappropriate situation.
Case in point: I begin drafting this article a few weeks ago after a flurry of Nazi-comparisons. Right now, the term “Nazi Germany” is trending yet again on Twitter, revealing a number of hot takes from all sides of the political spectrum.
Being a US-based German (and, you know, actually knowing something about the history of Nazi Germany), this is rather frustrating for me.
In the hyper-polarized America that I live in, suddenly everyone seems to think they’re an expert on my country’s history.
So, let’s discuss some of the false comparisons I’ve recently seen thrown around, why they’re so harmful, and why you should stop making them, Godwin's law be damned.
Examples of Godwin's Law in action
“The US is like Nazi Germany”
To be clear, Atlantic’s writer Jemele Hill — whose tweet precipitated the most current Twitter outburst — didn’t actually claim that the current US is like Nazi Germany.
What she wrote was: “…if you were of the opinion that the United States wasn’t nearly as bad as Nazi Germany…”
People who can read (which is a skill that seems rather absent on Twitter) will note that she both used the past tense “was” and the softener “nearly.”
Jemele Hill also later specified that her tweet was referring to aspects of America’s past.
Nowhere in my tweet did I say the current state of America is like Nazi Germany. I was referring specifically to our racial history. The parallels have been pointed out by plenty of historians, not just Isabel Wilkerson. You tell me to grow up. I say, you need to read more.— Jemele Hill (@jemelehill) August 24, 2020
So even though Jemele Hill didn’t claim that the current United States are like Nazi Germany, other people on Twitter made this argument (while yet others started to hyperventilate about something Jemele Hill hadn’t actually said).
Of course, if you really think that the United States in 2020 is like Nazi Germany in 1940, then you probably should head to Canada right now, not argue about politics on Twitter. Or, at the very least, you should probably be more careful when publicly expressing your opinion. After all, Nazi Germany actually executed students over distributing political pamphlets.
Alternatively, if you think that the United States is like the Weimar Republic in 1930, then you should probably focus your efforts on saving democracy.
But you know what?
No historical comparison is ever fully accurate. Comparisons don’t just reveal the truth, they also conceal it. And, as the saying goes, generals always fight the last war.
But here’s the thing:
The Nazis lost. (You can thank Russia for that, by the way.)
The Third Reich, the Second World War, and the Holocaust all ended in 1945.
By invoking the Nazis, you’re fighting a war that ended 75 years ago. And that’s beyond pointless.
The challenges America is dealing with exist in the now… and they are different from the ones Germany faced in 1930 (for instance, the punitive World War 1 reparations). By bringing our history into your present, you’re masking those differences, which in turn makes you less capable of affecting change.
So let’s look at some of the other ways false Nazi comparisons that have recently been thrown around... because apparently, examples of Godwin's Law just keep on coming.
“All cops are Nazis.”
In the last few months, given the current protests in the US, I’ve heard that phrase quite a bit.
Now, just to be clear: Black Lives Matter is a human rights issue. As an immigrant living in the US, the systematic racism that we can witness in the current situation (and in all the instances that came before it) breaks my heart.
America (just like many, many other countries worldwide) has a lot of reckoning to do about the past, whether that’s about the horrific treatment of Native Americans, the legacy of slavery, or a ton of other human rights violations.
And some police officers clearly would integrate easily into Nazi Germany’s SS.
A person like Derek Chauvin who’s capable of restricting a man’s breath for 8 minutes and 46 seconds while that person is pleading for his (dead) mother presumably wouldn’t suddenly discover his conscience while carrying out genocidal policies.
Given the history of police violence in the US, I could understand it if the Black American community made that comparison.
But you know what? The only people I’ve heard use that blanket statement in recent weeks and months all happened to be white American guys.
And I don’t think they have an excuse for making that comparison.
Equating all cops (or even only all American cops) to Nazis is a lazy argument and it’s belittling history.
Like… have you ever physically been to Auschwitz?
(I have. I have also visited a number of other death and concentration camps.)
Have you seen the massive room in Auschwitz where they keep hair they took from their victims before murdering them?
(I have. It is sickening. There was one strand of braided hair that stood out from the huge sea of hair…and it made you wonder who it had belonged to.)
Have you considered that the Nazis had a plan (the “Final Solution”) to kill all Jews within reach (including children)?
(I have. I have been to the place—a villa in Wannsee, Berlin, that’s now a museum—where that genocidal plan was discussed and implemented in 1942.)
Have you taken into account that Nazis killed 2/3rds of all Jews in Europe (6 million people)?
Have you considered how a Holocaust victim might feel about the blanket comparison you make?
Have you really considered all the evil Nazis have done before making that comparison?
If you haven’t, you probably shouldn’t make that comparison. Interestingly, Mike Godwin—creator of Godwin's Law—seems to share my concerns. As he said in an interview:
"The thing it seemed to me worth doing was to prevent the Holocaust from turning into a cliché, or into a handy arrow in someone’s rhetorical quiver... I was offended by how glibly these comparisons came up — almost invariably inappropriately. My feeling was that the more people got into this habit, the less likely that people remembered the historical context of all this."
“There are no good cops, just as there are no good Nazis.”
The next statement I’ve heard the last few weeks (again all from white guys in the US) is this one.
My response to that is what I shared above, with a few additions.
If we want to stick with the false comparison between American cops and Nazis, let’s consider the following:
Oskar Schindler (whose deeds were portrayed in Schindler’s List) saved 1200 Jews. He also was a member of the NSDAP (the Nazi party).
Was he a Nazi? At least formally, it’s hard to argue against it.
Was he a good person? The Israeli government sure seemed to think so, given that they named him a Righteous Among the Nations.
If someone who’s at least formally a Nazi can be a good person, how can the blanket statement “there are no good cops” hold any merit?
“Once good cops see how bad it is, they should leave the police force, just as good people should have left Nazi organization.”
This statement is typically a follow-up from the last one. It argues for some pseudo-Kantian form of moral purity without taking into account the implications that would have on the most vulnerable groups.
For instance, should Schindler have left the Nazi party, even if that meant that he couldn’t have helped people in the way he did?
As Thomas Keneally put it, Schindler saved Jews “by operating right at the heart of the system using all the tools of the devil — bribery, black marketeering and lies.”
That’s the opposite of a mistaken sense of moral purity… but it sure is effective in saving lives.
If you have ever made the argument I’m dismantling here, let me ask you this: if you were a Jew in Nazi Germany, would you want good people like Schindler in the Nazi party?
If your skin was in the game, I’m sure that you would want as many Schindlers as possible in Nazi organizations.
I certainly would. A good person in a Nazi organization could — depending on the situation — conveniently look away (and allow people to escape), intervene and influence others, or even use sabotage to make the organization less effective.
The last thing I would want if I were a Jew in Nazi Germany is for all good people to leave Nazis organizations because it would rapidly decrease my chances of survival.
But let’s forget about Nazi organizations for a moment and bring it back to the issues we’re facing today:
The problem with these examples of Godwin’s Law in action
The Nazi comparisons I just shared with you make for a lazy (and inaccurate) argument that has dangerous implications.
Because here’s the thing when we talk about how to solve the issue of police violence: you can only make the argument that all good cops should leave the police force from a position of privilege.
Your privilege allows you to be unaware of what that might mean in reality.
When Derek Chauvin held his knee on George Floyd’s neck, bystanders tried to verbally stop him. They pleaded with him and appealed to him.
We all know what would have happened if they had tried to physically drag Chauvin away.
(Just to add to the list of inconsiderate comments I’ve heard from white American guys in the last few weeks: unless you have been in a situation like that and physically intervened, you have no right to say that you would be the one to do something.
If you think you’d be the hero without any real-life experience to back that up, please read up about the Milgram experiment before making similar claims in the future.)
Leaving armchair heroes aside, who’s the only person who could have restrained Chauvin? Another police officer…one who has a conscience and isn’t afraid to use it.
Just like Krystle Smith, the Black Fort Lauderdale officer who publicly confronted and reprimanded her colleague after he had roughly pushed a kneeling protester towards the pavement.
And Krystle Smith is not the only one. Another example is Cariol Horne, a Black Buffalo cop, who in 2006 stopped her colleague from choking a suspect — and was later fired as a result.
Unfortunately, when Chauvin choked George Floyd, no good police officer was around.
But the solution to that is not to argue that good people should leave the police force, it’s to argue that more of them should join it, that they should intervene when witnessing injustices, and that the system should support them in that.
Now, to be clear: the issue we’re looking at is a complex issue and one that doesn’t have a single, simple solution. Having more Krystle Smiths and Cariol Hornes in the police force by itself won’t solve everything.
Complex problems require a lot of different approaches.
But here’s one thing that certainly won’t help solve the complex problem of police violence: having good people quit the police force.
Why it would be better if Godwin’s Law wasn't so true
The problem with the statements equating police officers to Nazis isn’t just that they’re insensitive or historically inaccurate.
The bigger problem is that they come from the same level of consciousness that fascism comes from.
They divide the world into two sides, without allowing any nuance:
Us vs. Them.
Good (us) vs. Bad (them).
But real life is not quite as simple as Lord of the Rings, as I never tire to point out.
This white protestor who told Black police officers that they were a part of the problem failed to see that:
Contrast this with a more nuanced take a Black American friend of mine shared on Social Media.
He mentioned that he can and will support good cops, and that he can and will support victims of bad cops. According to him, it’s possible to do both.
This is not either-or.
And this is also not Nazi Germany in 1940.
In an ideal world, "Vergangenheitsbewältigung" would replace Godwin's Law
Present-day Germany is a global outlier when it comes to how well it has reckoned with its terrible past. If you want to learn any lesson from our history, explore what it took to make that happen.
After all, what we call Vergangenheitsbewältigung (working through the past) is something that a lot of countries worldwide could use right about now.
Instead of staying stuck in another country’s past by acting out Godwin's Law, you create change by reckoning with your own country’s history.
At the same time, you work towards a better, more equal future for your country… together with everyone who’s aligned with that goal, whether they wear a uniform or not.
And a good step towards that goal is to lay off on the Nazi comparisons. Most of the time, they hurt rather than help your argument. According to a mutation of Godwin's Law, the first person who makes a Nazi comparison automatically loses the argument.
Yes, there are people who really are Nazis and should be called out on it. But in most cases, less loaded and more specific terms (such as "white supremacist") will do a better job at getting your point across, without allowing the other side to invoke Godwin's Law.
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