The practice of invoking a comparison between your opponent’s argument and Nazi ideology is such a common occurrence in internet discussions that, years ago, an author and attorney named Mike Godwin coined a tongue-in-cheek adage known as “Godwin’s Law.”
Strictly speaking, this tactic constitutes an informal fallacy in that it relies upon hyperbole in an attempt to derail a person’s arguments via guilt by association.
I’ll be the first to admit that it is overused.
A case in point is how the president of any nation that refuses to submit to the demands of our own national policy makers is invariably labeled as “the next Hitler.”
As the political ramp up to a war with Iran continues, we’ll all have plenty of opportunity to see this practice in action.
The sad thing about Godwin’s Law is that legitimate comparisons can be drawn between 1930’s Germany and the American populace today.
That’s not the same thing as saying that our government is led by Nazis or that our leaders are rounding up the undesirables to be systematically exterminated.
It simply means that the same types of trends that blinded Germans to the potential of Adolf Hitler can be found within our society today.
Too many Americans believe that Germans as a whole were arrogant and evil and knew what Hitler was capable of from the very beginning.
But that’s not the case at all.
We forget that Germany in the 1930’s was a turbulent place economically and politically. With hyper-inflation ravaging the value of the German mark, a wheelbarrow full of money was required to purchase a mere loaf of bread.
On top of the financial unrest was the fear of takeover by the Bolsheviks who had recently succeeded in turning Russia into a giant Soviet prison camp.
In 1933, a terrorist firebombing of the German Reichstag building added another dimension to the panic felt by many German citizens.
On top of all this fear of economic distress, communism and terrorism, were the humiliating terms of the Treaty of Versailles, which was still punishing the Germans for their part in the First World War.
With their dignity in tatters, encompassed by trouble on every side, it is understandable that a charismatic leader might come forward–especially if that leader offered strong solutions to the problems vexing Germany.
But in order to accomplish the monumental task of fixing the problems and leading Germany to what many Germans considered its proper status among the nations, that leader would require that the German people trust him with absolute power.
By playing upon their fears, Hitler persuaded the German people to grant him unprecedented power and the long downhill slide to their well documented destruction began.
So where are the parallels in our society?
Our economy is–to put it mildly–on shaky ground thanks to a dollar that has lost over 95% of its purchasing power since 1913 and mounting public and private debts have our markets as twitchy as a tightrope walker juggling hornet nests.
The solution pursued by those who make our nation’s monetary policy is to sell more bonds (go further in debt) to the Federal Reserve and have it print more money which will, in turn, further reduce the buying power of the dollar through inflation.
Those industries that have stronger political connections than others (read fascism) are treated to taxpayer-funded bailouts for being “too big to fail.”
Since September 11th of 2001, the American people have lived in an unending cycle of fear and a corresponding expansion of government powers to address terrorism abroad while building a garrison state here at home.
Consider that in 2001, we lost just under 3,000 U.S. citizens in the 9/11 attacks, but during that same year homegrown American criminals murdered FOUR TIMES that number.
Statistically, your likelihood of dying in a terrorist attack is about the same as that of dying of a spider bite.
But when our leaders tell us that they need to spy on our phone calls, e-mails, bank accounts and library transactions, a surprising number of modern Americans fall into line just as their German counterparts did during the ascendancy of the Third Reich.
When our government claims power to kidnap, torture, detain indefinitely or even murder American citizens without due process–in the name of fighting terror–many consider it their patriotic duty to support these actions just as the Germans of the 1930’s did.
Just as Hitler justified his aggression against other nations as acting in Germany’s self defense, too many Americans view any use of military force as automatically righteous and justified without measuring such actions against the standards of Just War.
And just as patriotic Germans shouted down those who questioned Hitler’s aggression, self-styled “great Americans” consider it their patriotic duty to silence those who question our leaders’ actions.
One of the most telling similarities between Nazi Germany and modern America is a growing acceptance of the practice of marginalizing and dehumanizing a targeted group of people who are blamed for the ills of our nation.
In Germany it was the Jews who bore the brunt of this treatment as German society methodically marked them for destruction, first by innuendo, next by legal sanction and finally by the direct action of rounding them up and exterminating them.
Other groups including gypsies, communists, homosexuals and those with permanent disabilities were labeled as being a danger to the Fatherland and likewise targeted for elimination.
We must remember that the process by which the Final Solution was implemented was as gradual as it was deliberate.
Had Hitler started rounding up the Jews in the spring of 1933 the German people could have quickly discerned what he was doing and withheld their support.
By first carefully sowing seeds of distrust for the Jews and then implementing laws that forbade them to be a legitimate part of German society, the Nazis were able to convince enough Germans that Jews were somehow not really people at all.
It’s easy to picture a majority of German people as possessing a fanatical hatred for the Jews, but in reality it was primarily their calloused indifference that allowed the atrocities of the Third Reich to move forward virtually unopposed.
Too few Germans took the time to give serious thought to the official propaganda they’d been fed regarding the Jews and Hitler’s efforts to “defend” the Fatherland.
By the time some Germans realized what was being done in their names, it was too dangerous to speak out.
The current hysteria in America over Muslims in general is disturbingly familiar to those who have studied the methods used to dehumanize the so-called undesirables in 1930’s Germany.
The propaganda flows daily from various media sources who are vigorously trying to inflame public opinion against Muslims everywhere, not just those in America.
Thus far the propaganda campaign to convince Americans that Muslims are an existential threat to our nation has succeeded in rousing the right wing through its highly contrived tale of a so-called “Victory Mosque to be built at Ground Zero” of the 9/11 attacks.
Given the vast amounts of information that are readily available to most of us in a matter of milliseconds via our computers or even our cell phones, it’s astonishing that so few Americans are willing to challenge the outrageous claims and do even the most rudimentary fact-checking.
Never has information been so easy to come by, and yet the tried and true methods of sowing seeds of distrust, and the urging of legal disenfranchisement are being employed at this moment.