Opinion

'Arbeit Macht Frei' and the Revival of Godwin's Law

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Posted: May 04, 2020 12:01 AM
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'Arbeit Macht Frei' and the Revival of Godwin's Law

Source: Damon Higgins/Palm Beach Post via AP

“As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.”

Mike Godwin first defined “Godwin’s rule of Hitler analogies” - more commonly known as Godwin’s law - in 1994. It describes the downward spiral of online debates where the eventual comparison of someone or something to Adolf Hitler or the Nazis becomes inevitable. After such a comparison was made, it was widely accepted that the debate had effectively reached its conclusion, and the discussion board or thread died an immediate Internet death.

Unfortunately, it seems that Godwin’s law has been abandoned as the logic of the Internet has seeped into the general consciousness of our increasingly divisive political discourse. While comparisons to Adolf Hitler used to be forcibly limited to the kooky corners of the World Wide Web, the acceptance of such an analogy has become shockingly mainstream.

Today, conservatives are routinely compared to the Nazis of 1930s Germany. Singer Linda Ronstadt compared President Donald Trump to Hitler, stating “It's going to be like Hitler, and the Mexicans are the new Jews.” South Carolina Democratic Congressman Jim Clyburn compared the entire Republican Party to the Nazi Party with “I used to wonder: How did the people of Germany allow Hitler to exist? But with each passing day, I’m beginning to understand how. And that’s why I’m trying to sound the alarm.” Never to be outdone in the hyperbole department, failed Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke argued “Outside of the Third Reich, give me another example of a Western leader who has called people of one faith inherently defective or dangerous or disqualified from being successful in that country.

While many conservatives decry such arguments, such dialectics are not unique to the American Left. In the past week, the same flawed and obscene logic was on display as demonstrators protested California Governor Gavin Newsom’s lockdown policies. Above the Capitol in Sacramento, a banner was seen flying over the demonstration which depicted the governor as Adolf Hitler. Then, across the country at the “Re-open Illinois” demonstration, one protester brandished a sign displaying the words “Arbeit Macht Frei.” This infamous German phrase means “work sets you free,” and adorned the gates of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, where one million Jews were murdered by the Nazis.

There are three key reasons why - for the very survival of our society and culture - such comparisons must stop. 

Firstly, and most obviously, comparing Donald Trump, Gavin Newsom, or their respective administrations to one of the most savagely cruel regimes in human history is as demonstrably insane as claiming that someone is like Adolf Hitler because they like dogs. The acceptance of these thinly veiled “reductio ad Hitlerum” arguments wholeheartedly reject the need for specific and contextual criticism. If political policies are sub-optimal, then they must be measured and judged along a somewhat objective scale. If we allow all policies to be judged using the immeasurable and almost entirely subjective binary system of “Nazi or not Nazi,” then the clear differences between questionable policy positions and the systematic eradication of an entire religious group are intentionally removed. To embrace such a state of affairs is to celebrate the death of political debate.

Secondly, such comparisons show abject disrespect for the millions of human beings who are now ash in Europe due to real Nazism. To use the memory of their murders - whether by execution in the street, starvation or disease in the ghettos, or the terrifying dark abyss of the gas chambers - in an attempt to score cheap political points is as unimaginably callous as using their gravestones as a podium.

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Finally, and arguably most crucially, such preposterous comparisons enable and empower the real Nazis who lurk amongst us. If we become numb to such accusations, and see the word “Nazi” as simply another throwaway adjective in our political dictionary, then we will forget the word’s dark and brutal history. Nazism, communism, and other radical doctrines are ideological viruses. They are held at bay by our ideological immune systems, requiring critical thinking, intellectual honesty, and historical understanding. If we intentionally override our ideological immune systems, our society stands defenseless against a dormant and monstrous political demon waiting for its next opportunity to ascend.

Regardless of where we lie along the mainstream political spectrum, we must agree to revive Godwin’s Law and banish the absurd comparisons of our political opponents to Hitler or the Nazis to the far corners of the Internet. We must agree that Donald Trump is not a Nazi, and Gavin Newsom is not Hitler. If we allow them to become so, then Hitler and his sins fade into insignificance, and we will have forever betrayed the real victims of real Nazism, both in the past and, unfortunately, the future.