The head of the anti-gay American Family Association, Bryan Fisher, compared gay activists to Nazis on his radio program last week: “Just as the homosexual Stormtroopers for Hitler were to exterminate and eliminate the opposition and beat them into silence, that’s what homosexual activists want to do today.”
Fisher is far from alone in making inappropriate references to Hitler or Nazis. If you listen to a political debate long enough, you’ll probably hear some politician refer to an opponent’s idea or tactic as something Hitler would have supported.
The analogy—which almost always compares the Holocaust to something of significantly less consequence—is somewhat inevitable, according to attorney and author Mike Godwin. “It’s the worst thing anybody can think of, so if you have some kind of rhetorical escalation with someone you disagree with, it’s sort of easy to go there if you’re not very reflective about what you’re saying,” he told New York Magazine’s Dan Amira earlier this year.
His theory that people in an extended debate would eventually “go there” by referencing Hitler was so popular that it got a name: “Godwin’s Law.” Although Godwin’s Law originally applied to online discussions, it is now more broadly applied to print articles, media interviews, and speeches.
It seems obvious that politicians and pundits should know better than to make such offensive comparisons. But as you’ll see in the small sampling below, it’s not as obvious as you might hope.
”[Obama’s] the one who proposed this national security force…That’s exactly what Hitler did in Nazi Germany.” — Rep. Paul Broun (R-GA)
“Despite a growing number of honorable exceptions, too many of the world’s leaders are still best described in the words Winston Churchill applied to those who ignored Adolf Hitler’s threat.” – Former Vice President Al Gore (D-TN), comparing climate change to the appeasement of Adolf Hitler
“When Adolf Hitler was building up the Nazi movement in the 1920s, and I’m quoting from Thomas Sowell in his editorial: ‘leading up to his taking power in the 1930s, he deliberately sought to activate people who did not normally pay much attention to politics.” – Rep. Louis Gohmert (R-TX), favorably citing an editorial comparing Barack Obama to Adolf Hitler
[Republicans] lie and don’t care if people think they lie…“As long as you lie, Joseph Goebbels, the big lie, you keep repeating it, you know.” – California Democratic Party Chairman John Burton, comparing Republicans to Nazi Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels
“History has a way of repeating itself: Stalin, Hitler, Mao Tse Tung and now Obama!!!” – Ohio Republican congressional candidate Marisha Agana, regarding abortion, via Twitter.
Here’s Rep. John Raese (R-WV) comparing his state’s smoking ban to Jews being forced to wear the Star of David in Hitler’s Germany.
Here’s Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN) comparing Republicans to Joseph Goebbels.
And it’s not just Hitler references, either.
“A national gun registry would be similar to a database used by the ruling Hutu tribe in Rwanda in the 1990s to locate and slaughter members of an opposing tribe in a genocide that killed up to one million people.” – Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-SC)
Many of this blog’s readers are communications professionals, who I presume know better than to invoke the names of Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot in an effort to win a debate. Unfortunately, not all of the politicians, pundits, and policy wonks they serve have gotten the memo. That seems to have been part of Godwin’s motivation, as quoted by New York Magazine:
“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.”
As communications professionals, it’s our job to choose analogies judiciously. But maybe that’s not enough. Perhaps it’s also our job to call out politicians and pundits who use these references to score political points without any sense of proportion or history.
What do you think? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.