David Moseley draws upon reactions from both ends of the political spectrum to argue that we must be more acute in our historical comparisons
Did you know that Adolf Hitler and Barack Obama bear striking similarities to one another? It may sound like an indulgence of the far reaches of online conservatism, but there are a number of not unsubstantial reasons for comparing the two.
According to nowtheendbegins.com, there are 13 pretty convincing ones. To pick a few, both have (supposedly) used domestic terrorists to launch their careers, had ghost-written autobiographies, held outdoor rallies, were exemplary orators, and were males with hair.
These are genuine ‘similarities’ listed on Now the End Begins — apart from their strikingly identical gender and presence of hair, which I added because they are as insane as the rest of the evidence for comparing the two political figures. It may be surprising that Obama, frequently hailed as a moderate, has been likened to the poster-boy for evil incarnate, but no figure is above being compared to Hitler.
Donald Trump, too, in the wake of being elected to the US presidency, has been the subject of comparisons to the dictator, on account of his appeal to economic insecurities, dubious racial views, contempt for the ruling elites, and his status as a political ‘outsider’. The comparisons certainly seem well substantiated. And both are men with hair (we assume).
In addition, neither Trump nor Obama are the first politicians to have been compared to Hitler. Hitler Tourette’s syndrome predates the internet. Joe McCarthy, Lyndon Johnson, Woodrow Wilson, and Theodore Roosevelt have all in their time faced such an appraisal, and no doubt many others have fallen foul of the Hitler comparison brigade.
During the early days of internet forums, a principle was formulated by American attorney Mike Godwin: the now infamous Godwin’s Law. (If you search ‘Hitler comparison’ in Google you are likely to come across related searches for Godwin’s Law.) According to this ‘law’, “as an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Hitler approaches”, regardless of scope or topic.
Although this principle is intended as a humorous dig at the way internet discussions often deteriorate into the rashest of arguments, it has a serious point, as Mike Godwin himself has commented: “I wanted folks who glibly compared someone else to Hitler or to Nazis to think a bit harder about the Holocaust.” It is often the case that a Hitler comparison is used to detract from the actual issue at hand. If you’re wondering if there is a “Hitler Downfall” parody for this kind of logic, you would be right. It involves Hitler ranting about the fact that he is history’s go-to baddie, at the expense of rational debate.
Aside from the fact that the ‘Trump as Nazi’ trope or ‘Obama is Hitler’ accusations are often rationally unfounded, they also represent a profound laziness. This kind of ‘reasoning’ is normally invoked on the whim of a person without serious consideration. Many, particularly in Germany according to the Washington Post, consider Hitler comparisons “as the end of a serious factual conversation, and the beginning of an ideological mud-bath”.
And besides, plastering associations with Hitler across movements and individuals we dislike diminishes the tragedy of the Third Reich, the Holocaust, and the Second World War. It is all too easy to reach for the archetypal, murderously authoritarian government without taking into account the sensitivities of those affected by such events. It borders on callous to invoke one of the greatest tragedies of the 20th Century for the purposes of one’s own argument, if that argument is not properly thought through. We must not forget that Adolf Hitler established a government which ordered the systematic extermination of at least six million of its own citizens — a far leap from the actions or proposals of Obama and Trump.
Not only does such reactionary comparison cheapen the tragedy of the Third Reich, it also undermines the potential for well grounded comparisons. In a satirical piece on the New Yorker, Susanna Wolff mocked the frequency with which we jump to the Nazi comparison in the fable of The Boy Who Cried Nazi. Perhaps there is valid reason to invoke Nazism, but the force of the word has all but lost its punch.
Should a comparison to a dictatorial and murderous regime be in order, there are, unfortunately, plenty of examples in recent history. The Soviet Union under Lenin and Stalin, Mao’s China and the Cultural Revolution, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. In short, latching onto Hitler as the ‘model’ of this kind of tragedy shows not that one has made an astute historical comparison — rather, that a person is too lazy to take into account other occurrences of a similar nature.
Whilst likening the rise of the President to Hitler may be alluring, it comes with a host of pitfalls, from over-simplification of the past to historical insensitivity to the downright absurd. It is not always wrong to compare epochs, and there is indeed much to be learned from the patterns of the history. However, we must be careful not to allow “crying Hitler” to be our knee-jerk response to political figures with whom we disagree.