We Need To Stop Comparing Today’s Populism To Hitler And The Holocaust [Opinion]

On April 11, Trump’s Press Secretary Sean Spicer made a mind-boggling faux pas when he claimed even someone as despicable as Hitler didn’t sink so low as to use chemical weapons, like Assad did in Syria. When Spicer was asked to clarify his statement, he did admit Hitler used chemical agents, but stressed there still was a difference because Hitler was not using gas “on his own people,” like Assad. Spicer’s comments then went from extremely embarrassing to painfully humiliating when he referred to concentration camps as “Holocaust centers,” a mistake your average seventh grader would not likely make.

Although Spicer’s statements give us further proof of the Trump administration’s tone-deaf stance towards the Holocaust — a few days into Trump’s presidency, the White House issued a statement for International Holocaust Remembrance Day in which they failed to mention either Jews, Judaism, or anti-Semitism — it also reminds us what a cliché comparisons to Hitler and the Holocaust have become.

This has to stop.

“Just like Hitler”

These days, comparing your opponent to Hitler or an action to the Holocaust has become the cheap shot of choice.

Although Trump has been repeatedly likened to Hitler, the president has gotten in on the action himself with statements he made comparing the U.S. intelligence agencies to Nazi Germany in this tweet. Nazi comparisons were also made by a UN investigator when describing Israel’s actions in Gaza, and by the U.K.’s Boris Johnson against the European Union during the Brexit campaign. Even Russia has joined in the fun, with Russian state TV presenters comparing the West to Nazi Germany concerning their stance towards Aleppo.

A float depicting caricature sculptures of populist leaders Trump, Wilders, and Le Pen with Hitler, holding a sign which reads "Blonde is the new brown" in German.
"Blonde is the new brown." This float compares blonde-haired modern populist leaders to Hitler. [Image by Martin Meissner/AP Images]

However, this phenomenon is by no means new. In a recent article, BBC News mentions “Godwin’s Law,” an internet adage which claims, “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Hitler approaches 1.”

Godwin’s Law is named after Mike Godwin, an American lawyer who noted in the 1990s that early online forums commonly threw Nazi or Hitler accusations against their opponents if the argument went on for long enough.

If you throw out Hitler and Nazi comparisons, at least know what you’re talking about

Like Spicer’s recent comments, most comparisons to Hitler and the Nazi regime are steep in ignorance. The cheapness of playing the “Hitler card” to anger your opponent or derail their argument weakens the actual horror of the Holocaust; it reduces Hitler to a cartoonish, evil mastermind buffoon, in World War II-era black and white.

In many cases, the statements and comparisons made are also historically inaccurate.

In an article for Spiked, sociologist and commentator Frank Furedi criticizes the slogan “The Holocaust did not begin with gas chamber – it began with words.” Furedi mentions anytime Trump says something offensive or stupid, there are always people quoting the slogan. However, he believes the slogan is usually used to “justify shutting down discussion and curbing free speech.” But the slogan also fails to mention, from the very beginning, the Nazis did more than use mere words.

Furedi said that “from the outset they (Nazis) deployed violence against their opponents and used physical force rather than argument to beat them into submission. The precondition for the emergence of the Holocaust was the destruction of public life in Germany in the context of a catastrophic global war.”

People don’t only play the Hitler card with Trump. In early March, the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan made headlines when he stated that the actions of the German’s authorities who canceled rallies designed to win the votes of ethnic Turks living in Germany were no different than “the Nazi practices of the past.”

Although far from amused, Germans were not likely fazed by the argument, said historian Christoph Wick from the University of Warwick. Wick mentioned to BBC News that Germany is used to having its Nazi past flung in its face, but that the comparison holds no weight and is downright bizarre when compared to what he calls “the most democratic and liberal state in German history.” He went on to mention that such comparisons say more about the person or group making them than those who have been accused.

What we need to do instead

Although the world has seen its share of holocausts and genocides, nothing quite compares to the magnitude and evil efficiency of the Holocaust, which claimed the lives of millions of Jews, as well as Gypsies, homosexuals, and other groups deemed undesirable by the Nazi regime. Call it modernity, call it the perversion of German meticulousness, either way, the power and horror of the Holocaust does not deserve to be diminished to a shallow metaphor for evil or a cheap dig to anger your opponents, get instant response from the press or fire up social media. Allowing Hitler to become an archetype for evil incarnate to be tossed around and mentioned on a whim make us more likely to forget history by turning it into myth.

Buildings at the concentration camp Auschwitz under a blue sky by the gate with the words "Arbeit Macht Frei."
We shouldn't lessen the horrors that happened at concentration camps like Auschwitz, among others. [Image by Szymon Kaczmarczyk/Shutterstock]

Are Trump and the rise of populism around the world similar to Hitler and 1930s Germany? Possibly, yes. But let’s leave that to the experts to decide. In the meantime, to make sure history doesn’t repeat itself, we need to focus on building persuasive arguments rather than making attention-grabbing attacks that only end up another shallow example of Godwin’s law.

[Feature Image by Bullit Marquez/AP Images]