Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The many facets of the Hitler/Nazi comparison

In a recent piece at WaPo, Ruth Marcus took Dr. Ben Carson to task for his repeated use of Nazi metaphors. To be fair to Carson, Marcus sites exactly three specific instances of such talk (and one instance of defending it) from Carson, stretching back to February of last year. I'm not sure this actually qualifies as a "tendency toward Nazi metaphors," as Marcus puts it. Still, Carson has made use of the Nazi boogeyman a number of times and it's fair to question the validity of his statements in this regard, as Marcus does.

Here are the three statements from Carson that Marcus is taking issue with:
You know, we live in a Gestapo age, people don’t realize it.—February, 2014
[We’re] very much like Nazi Germany. And I know you’re not supposed to say ‘Nazi Germany,’ but I don’t care about political correctness. You know, you had a government using its tools to intimidate the population.—March, 2014.  
I think the likelihood of Hitler being able to accomplish his goals would have been greatly diminished if the people had been armed.—October, 2015.
Now with regard to the last, Carson is simply wrong and clearly out of his depth. Hitler's popularity among Germans was huge in the late 1930's and the Jewish population of Germany was exceedingly small, so the idea that more guns would have made any sort of difference is simply an indefensible argument. The other two? Hyperbolic, no doubt, but are they really so far beyond the pale, as compared to the kind of rhetoric of this sort that we generally hear.

Regardless, Marcus says the following about these kinds of statements, and she does so with the faux-authority of being in Berlin when writing this piece (it doesn't matter a whit where she is):
You don’t have to be German, or a student of German history, to grasp the repugnance of Nazi analogies, but being at the scene of Hitler’s crimes helps reinforce the caution against comparing the Holocaust to anything except another genocide. Nothing about which Carson complains — alleged but unproven IRS targeting of Obama administration critics, what he sees as the chilling effect of political correctness — comes close to the brutality of Hitler’s Germany.
In the above, Marcus makes a very common mistake: she conflates all comparisons using Hitler and/or Nazis to comparisons about the Holocaust, proper. Carson's first two comments had nothing to do with the Holocaust. They were using Nazi Germany as an example of a police state and comparing events here—fairly or unfairly—to such a construct.

And this points to an underlying aspect of the Hitler/Nazi comparison that is often ignored: there are many different ways to use it because there are many different aspects to Hitler and the Nazis. It's not always about the Holocaust. For instance, both Obama and Bush have been openly compared to Hitler (stupidly so, in my opinion). And the theme of such comparisons is the rise of totalitarianism or of fascism under some sort of supreme leader. Or it's about cults of personalities in particular and the consequences thereof. Also, government agents like police officers have been compared to the Nazis. And again, it's not because of the Holocaust, it's because—supposedly—they are behaving like the Brownshirts or the Gestapo, abusing their authority and abusing the citizenry. Then there are the comparisons of government agencies that are using their power to intimidate citizens, to force them to knuckle under, for one reason or another.

Obviously, Carson was drawing from some of the above with his first two comments (again, whether fairly or unfairly). Of course, there is the Holocaust angle. But let's be fair in this regard: that angle is used all the time by others, as well. It's a staple in fact of criticisms of Israel and it's handling of the Palestinians, oddly enough.

That said, the existence of the Holocaust does play a role, I think, with regard to the other sorts of comparisons. Namely, it serves as a reinforcing factor to these comparisons insofar as people are reminded that Hitler and his cohorts were Really Bad People. Because there are plenty of historical examples of police states that would function just as well as would Nazi Germany for such comparisons, plenty of other cults of personality, plenty of other figures who instituted totalitarian or fascist regimes. There's Mussolini and his fascist Italy, Stalin of course and the totalitarianism of the Soviets, Mao and Red China, Peron and Argentina, etc., etc.

But the truth is, the Nazis are the big villains of world history for the Western world, not solely because of the Holocaust or because of their police state mentality, but more than anything else (in my opinion) because their rise was so dramatic against a backdrop of a failed war and because they came perilously close to actually winning a second world war, to taking permanent control of Europe. In other words, it is their success that puts them in the forefront. Everyone learns about them in school. Countless movies have been made with them as villains, whether during the 1940's or even much, much later. And sadly enough, the Nazis and Hitler still have plenty of actual fans.

Prior to the 1940's, the only historical "villains" who may have enjoyed the same kind of popularity in the West as the Nazis and Hitler were probably Attila and the Huns or Genghis Kahn and the Mongols (and maybe Napoleaon, to a lesser extent). Of course, these villains—the first two—were characterized as barbarians, invaders from without. In contrast, Hitler and the Nazis came from within, were perversions of a supposedly civilized world.

It is thus hardly surprising that they continue to occupy our thoughts, that there is still a fear that they—or someone very much like them—may return, and that we should therefore always be vigilante in this regard.

I get the fact that modern Germans probably don't like these kinds of comparisons and certainly wouldn't engage in them, as Marcus points out. And I get the fact that such comparisons are most definitely overused, are usually used unfairly, and are typically hyperbolic. But they are not going away. And in my opinion, most analogies or other kinds of criticisms that use past historical figures/regimes are flawed, regardless. Ones employing Hitler and/or the Nazis are not worse as a matter of course.

In short, stop harping on the issue. If the analogy or metaphor is a bad one, point it out. But just because it is based on Nazi Germany, it's not automatically a bad one. Like it or not, these are the kinds of comparisons people in general are most likely to understand. And THAT is a lesson of history.


  1. This commentary, as so many about links between the modern world and Nazism/Hitler cannot have been written by a person with any pain tied to the real horror that was the Holocaust. Such utter ignorance of history on the part of Carson characterized as "harping" and described as "bad metaphor" completely misses the point. It is simply heartless. If you or any member of your close family didn't make it out or,suffered horribly and most likely suffers still, these glib descriptions are poisoned, cringeworthy arrows.

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  3. As far as I'm concerned, the Hitler and the Nazis were a part of the modern world. And there's nothing glib in my comparisons. But I realize the need some people have to own the past. Thanks for the comment, regardless.