I will start this article with an undisputed truth: The Nazis were evil. As rulers of Germany and conquerors of most of Europe, Adolf Hitler and his National Socialist German Workers’ Party killed tens of millions of human beings. Though they are most infamous for their genocidal murder of six million European Jews (in the Shoah or Holocaust), the Nazis also combined prejudice with power in the extermination of countless Roma Gypsies, Slavs, LGBT people, people with physical or mental disabilities, political dissidents, allied troops and anyone else whom they did not like (which included almost everybody). Hitler’s “Thousand Year Reich” (thankfully shortened to twelve years) set a standard for totalitarianism matched only by the Communist regimes of Josef Stalin and Mao Zedong. Almost 70 years after the end of World War II, Hitler and the Nazis are remembered as the epitome of evil, just as WWII itself is still referred to as “The War.”
The survival of Nazis in the uneasy memory of humanity, as hateful, despicable people, makes them ideal movie villains. Nazis are also part of our vocabulary; not only to describe certain people with certain beliefs, but as a way to attack people and things we oppose or just do not like. We refer to this phenomenon as Godwin’s Law. Named after Mike Godwin, who coined the concept in 1990, Godwin’s Law asserts: “As a Usenet discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.” In other words, if a debate goes on long enough, sooner or later someone will compare someone or something to Hitler or the Nazis. Originally limited to Internet discussions, Godwin’s Law now applies to all kinds of human communication, whether they be spoken, written or otherwise.
Godwin’s Law is a universal law. Sooner or later we all break that law. Mr. X has political views different from mine? He must be a Nazi! Ms. Y belongs to a group I do not like? She must be as bad as Hitler! Hardly a day goes by when one person does not compare another person to the leaders of the Third Reich. Just open a newspaper, turn on a television set or go online, and you will find Godwin’s Law in action. Recently, Tennessee State Senator Stacey Campfield, criticizing the Affordable Care Act, noted that “Democrats bragging about the number of mandatory sign-ups for Obamacare is like Germans bragging about the number of mandatory sign-ups for ‘train rides’ for Jews in the ‘40s.” Saginaw, Mich. Councilman Dan Fitzpatrick compared supporters of an LGBT non-discrimination ordinance to “a real big youth movement in Germany called the Party of National Socialists.” Britain’s Prince Charles, speaking to a woman who lost relatives in the Holocaust, declared that Russian President Vladimir Putin “is doing just about the same as Hitler.” And Canterbury, England Chef Gemma Calver took Godwin’s Law to a ridiculous extreme when she accused litter wardens of using “Gestapo tactics” when they fined her for dropping a cigarette butt on the street.
As originally defined, Godwin’s Law came with a penalty: Whoever brought up Hitler or the Nazis lost the online debate. Unfortunately, people can now freely use Nazi metaphors with impunity, though they might apologize if the resulting uproar is loud enough. Godwin’s Law is ecumenical, and is as easily broken by the political Right as by the political Left. The recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan brought about as many N-Bombs (to quote David Weigel) as real ones: Neocons called Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein “the new Hitler” while anti-war activists compared the Bush Administration to the Third Reich. Meanwhile, Rush Limbaugh screams about “feminazis;” tea baggers think Barack Obama is a fuhrer; progressives compare Karl Rove or the Koch Brothers to Heinrich Himmler or Joseph Goebbels; and speakers from all over the political spectrum fume with thoughts of concentration camps whenever someone dares to hold an opinion different from their own. To which I say, STOP!
There was only one Adolf Hitler. There was only one Nazi Party. What Hitler and the Nazis did was uniquely evil, not only because they killed so many people, but also because they put into practice the disgusting belief that some people are inherently inferior to others and thus deserve to die. By calling the person who gave me a traffic ticket or the boss who watched over me too closely at work or even a politician who opposed something that I passionately value “a Nazi,” I insult the memory of all the women, men and children who were brutally killed because Adolf Hitler ordered it. There are many ways that we can express our opposition or contempt for someone without resorting to the N-Bomb.