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Swamp

Confessions of an Academic Pseudo-Giraffe
4.8.05  
Reductio ad monstrum
I thought I'd write a real tall blog entry for a change, with links and something that at least remotely resembles argumentation. This post deals with Hitler. Godwin's Law does not apply because so far this is not a conversation.

In international politics, Hitler comparisons have become a wide-spread rhetorical device used against anyone whose actions could be seen as evil, intolerant, oppressive, or simply unpleasant. The emphasis has to be on the word evil, since clearly the Austrian vegetarian aquarellist has achieved a near monopoly in the cultural imaginary as a human incarnation of the Devil. Some voices occasionally refer to names such as Stalin, Pol Pot, or (most recently and slightly perversely) Bin Laden as alternatives, but none of them have quite accomplished comparable status despite venerable attempts by Uncle Joe and Osama at equally iconic facial hair formations. Hitler is the most efficient demon, who metonymically stands for the whole of the Nazi system; reversely, in this view the system, merely an extension of Hitler's evil, stands for the man.

The analogies drawn between the Nazis and others are slightly boring as functional arguments. They rarely add much to our understanding of the issues at hand. In my opinion, however, it is the customary responses to perceived hitlerization that prove the utter futility of such references even when they are made cautiously, for good reasons, and without direct accusations of the kind "he is like Hitler / they act like Nazis".

(a little interlude, and this is true: as I am writing this, the TV is on at the background. There's a British series on, and half a minute ago someone fired a shot at trees, shouting "They are the squirrel Nazis!" That caught my attention. Apparently it was a question of preference between red and gray squirrels. So the analogy is not even limited to humans.)

If a piece of text contains either of the words Nazi and Hitler, its reader sees nothing else. If these words are spoken in public, the audience hears nothing else. They are like bright deathly white stars whose glow hides their immediate context. Any reference to anything connected to them, however simple or indirect or constructive, seems to be interpreted through the reductio ad Hitlerum approach.

A few years ago, Finnish Minister of Foreign Affairs Erkki Tuomioja criticised some attitudes within the Israeli government towards the Palestinian people (see one newspiece here and another here), saying that some of these stances reminded him of the kind of discrimination that Jews themselves suffered from in the 1930s. As far as I know, he mentioned neither Hitler nor Germany, but one could infer that the reference might be to events such as Crystal Night and related rascist developments in the Third Reich - the making-life-hard approach that was at the time referred to as terrorism (now, strangely, it is often thought that states can only be victims of terrorism, not its perpetrators).

There is no doubt that Dr. Tuomioja is more straight-spoken than your average politician. In any case, he knows his history, and the comparison only dealt with the decade preceding WWII and the atrocities of Hitler's Final Solution. However, the fierce response treated Tuomioja's statement as if he had accused Israel of Holocaust. Among others, Professor Efraim Karsh rebuked the statement, taking it out of its context and throwing in the normal allusions to death camps, gas chambers, and genocide.

I know Israel is a special case in a number of ways: Jews have a certain near-legitimate monopoly on touchiness. Any criticism of the Israeli government or actors close to it is automatically seen as antisemitism and irresponsible endorsement of past and present wrongs. So if the criticism refuses to perform the reductio ad Hitlerum, the response never does. But in the Hitler category of monster allusion, other targets are almost as sensitive as Israel. American senator Dick Durbin recently experienced the same kind of "concentrated" reaction to his words on Guantanamo. In 2003, German Justice Minister Herta Däubler-Gmelin had to resign after reportedly commenting on American warmongering by saying that "Bush wants to distract attention from his domestic problems. That's a popular method. Even Hitler did that". That is quite far from calling Bush Hitler. Actually, the reaction to her statement is a rare genuine example of reductio ad Hitlerum, where any alleged connection to the Führer is seen as a brutal insult. Nothing in the three short sentences she uttered is untrue. The problem was that the two proper names occured too close to each other. On the other hand, by now such comparisons between the two imperialist leaders have become such a commonplace that the White House hardly has time to react to them all.

Let me reveal something horrible about myself. I have a lot in common with Hitler. I like sports and want my compatriots to do well. I greatly admire Leni Riefenstahl's movies. I even speak some German. I must be a bloody monster.
Please lock me up.

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