Figurative Nazis

We have a World War II problem. We employ the same clichés time and time again - and it's unacceptable. Specifically, we compare everyday trials and tribulations to people, events, and organizations in the Third Reich. Hitler, the Holocaust, and the Nazis are the popular three.

These are so common as to not need repeating here - and that's the problem.

To compare any situation to one of the most horrific and tragic situations in our known history is to lessen its import and elevate trivial situations to the catastrophic. Intellectually, it's an unhelpful way of looking at most situations.

Most importantly, it's offensive to the memories of those murdered in World War II.

Nazi figures of speech generally take two forms: analogies (comparing an outrageous or offensive thing to the Nazis) or, if someone is feeling more brazen, metaphors (which say that one thing literally is a Nazi or a form of Nazism). Most people don't apply the latter correctly because they fail to understand, or to stop and think, that most things are not literally equivalent to one another. When dealing with important moral and historical situations, it's important to be precise and not to draw careless conclusions. If one is to equate a thing with another, one must be absolutely confident the equation is sound.

In both cases, the figures of speech can be used ironically (for humor or dramatic effect; see the "Soup Nazi") - either to be flippant or to make a satirical point. The legitimacy of these methods is questionable, but I'll stick to exploring the serious, unironic uses of Nazi comparisons, because they are more obviously problematic.

 

Misguided rationales

Many will defend these figures of speech as a way to commemorate the many murdered in World War II and to avoid making the same mistakes in the future. This is a misguided approach for several reasons. Most importantly, it's a poor educational method. It trivializes an important topic that deserves careful study, trading a semester-long college course for a clever retort. It makes an overly simplistic comparison without justifying itself; people often employ such figurative language as a trump card with no justification, and expect others to obey it, or else be labelled as insensitive. Yet it's the figurate one being offensive. The problem is that it's manipulative; it takes serious conversations off course by turning them into simplistic flamewars.

One good reason for these comparisons is the general incompetence of the human race to analyze and understand situations and to take away the right conclusions. I have serious doubts about collective consciousness, given the many atrocities we've repeated over the years. The atomic bombing of Japan is a great illustration of the lessons we failed to learn from the Holocaust. We often respond to violence with further violence, an escalation that destroys ourselves. My hope is that we can find other ways of understanding history and not resort to the same tropes every time.

So what's wrong with these comparisons?

 

They're half-baked

Most Nazi comparisons don't take into account the complexity of the situation being compared with World War II. They are quips to be employed for rhetorical effect but they lack the necessary nuance and thoughtfulness that would make them useful.

Often we employ these comparisons without even understanding the historical situation we're using a point of comparison. Knowledge of World War II is generally limited to a few key facts - and we struggle with many others. Few could tell us which side the Soviet Union took (I had to look it up as I wrote this). Many fewer could name an important battle other than D-Day. If we are to employ extreme comparisons we must thoroughly understand the situation at hand, and the vast majority simply haven't passed that test. The historians who deeply understand the situation are unlikely to draw such comparisons. They know better.

As Jamelle Bouie wrote in Slate:

I’m not sure that anyone who calls Obama “Hitler”—or who did the same to George W. Bush—is thinking much about their analogy. Instead, they’re reaching for the most evil name they can imagine, and attaching it to their chief political opponent.

 

They're uncreative

It's telling about the level of intellectual discourse in our society that people can often only come up with one comparison for any negative situation. There are at least a dozen different situations that can be used for comparisons and that most people will be familiar with. So it's not for lack of source material, but more for lack of effort.

This problem is compounded by our general unwillingness to call people out for their mistakes, and criticize them for employing problematic talking points. We let politicians and corporate executives get away with absurd, thoughtless statements. We treat every opinion as equally valid and fail to recognize which are plainly deficient. Indeed, any attempt to coax someone out of an Axis comparison may run into entrenched resistance from the mob, which sees such comparisons as inviolable - suggesting that to remove one is to desecrate the memory of the situation. The opposite is true, and we have a responsibility to employ comparisons carefully, admit when we've been mistaken, and retract such statements without qualifications. For the many vigilantes defending these comparisons we need ten calling out their outrageousness.

 

They're demonizing

The American political and intellectual situation has various problems, and chief among them is the tendency to castigate opponents as completely wrong and evil - employing incredibly inexact comparisons to the Devil, for one. I too have fallen in with this trend yet realize its destructive nature.

The problem with demonization is that it's intellectually sloppy and thus anathema to productive discourse. It originates from the premise that those who disagree are our enemies and deserve to be cut down. We then cast our opponents in an unflinchingly negative light, robbing them of the opportunity to be fully understood, denying ourselves the opportunity to expand our worldview, and eliminating the possibility of level-headed discussion. We will not understand or internalize the lessons of the War if we engage in petty personal offenses.

To call anyone a Hitler type, or a Hitler Lite, is to make a profoundly judgmental statement that is both arrogant and idiotic. Yes, this does occur, as we've seen with conservatives who compare President Obama to the Führer himself. This needs to stop, and it starts with us calling out these figures for their unacceptable behavior.

As humans with a limited amount of knowledge of others and of the grand scheme of the Universe, we are definitionally incapable of comparing one person (say, someone who believes in socialism) based on their statements and worldview with someone else (in this case, Hitler), who has taken concrete actions to corroborate such statements. It's easy to recognize a tyrant when they murder millions, but its premature to call out anyone else unless and until they have committed such atrocities. Concretely, we would be unable to compare President Obama to Hitler unless and until the former committed genocides or racial cleansing (and I'm absolutely positive he will engage in neither). Only an omniscient being, which we often call God, would be capable of making such judgments.

 

They're offensive

This is by far the most important.

Any comparison with an absolute extreme is bound to be inexact; very few historical or even theoretical events can compare with what happened in the 40s. It's hard to imagine something so absurd. This is exactly why we need to avoid such comparisons whenever possible.

Those who lived through those horrors, as well as their descendants and the descendants of those murdered, deserve respect and compassion. Most important for me is respect to the memories of those who were struck down - often young, frail, and helpless; prosecuted for things they could not control, like their Jewishness especially, and also their sexual orientation and disability. They were on the whole innocent, and the loss of innocence is not something we should ever take lightly.

The loss of innocence is the most tragic of human situations, often irreversible and without positive side effects. The loss of innocence is the decay and destruction of the human race, and is a precursor to its total demise. The weaponry, and more importantly the mentality, of World War II are fundamentally nihilistic in a way that nothing else has been.

 

I've made a deliberate effort to avoid such phrases as "character assassination" and "personal attack," which are inexact and particularly unhelpful in the context of this piece. Far too often, we draw adversarial comparisons (using violence and war as the frame), as we regularly do with cancer.