From ‘evernotes that never got blogged’ 3/23/12
Godwin’s law, and in particular its use as a rule to shut down debate when invoked, is a uniquely American thing even though netizens everywhere are familiar with it. It is also the case that Europeans - particularly those GenX and up - reference Hitler and the Nazis in a wide range of situations. But there is a reason for this, and one that is too quickly dismissed with the assumption that references to Hitler and the Nazis are just trivial consequences of an inevitable conversational gambit. Hitler and the Nazis were not nice. Europe was devastated by their actions. The legacy of those actions lasted decades. We grew up in cities still scarred by bomb damage (literally - there were spaces between buildings not filled in since the war, lasting right into the 80s that I remember). We had grandparents, and in some cases parents, who fought in, or remembered other aspects of the war. Hitler and the Nazis fucked things up in Europe in particular, without even getting into the greater consequences of their activities.
It’s also pretty hard to dismiss concerns raised, as they usually are in conversations and debates, that certain steps eased the way for Hitler and the Nazis unless one ignores the fact that other than the direct consequences of warfare there was the systematic murder of millions of Europe’s Jewish population. This wasn’t a small thing. There are steps, trends, actions, which in hindsight, were clear steps towards the rise of Hitler, the Nazis, their power and what they did with it. There were many exit points where we could have got off that path, as a world, Germans as a country, Europeans as a whole, had sober heads honestly thought through the consequences of letting things keep going in the directions they were headed. It is often the case in the modern world that we can see these steps in action and indeed leading to severe consequences. Rwanda’s massacres really didn’t come out of the blue. The slaughters at the disintegration of Yugoslavia were preceded by warning signs.
There are social trends which lead to the kind of absolutism coupled with unaccountable power which time and again results in massacres, mass suffering and a loss of everything good a society amassed in prior times. It isn’t a virtue to act like such trends and activities don’t exist. Just because it’s become a trite cliche to say that those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it, doesn’t make the sentiment less valid.
So, yes, it can be annoying if someone trivially brings up Hitler and the Nazis in every argument. It can indeed be used to shut down debate on topics in some circumstances. But yelling Godwin, I win, is also shutting down conversations. Often when people are trying to make the legitimate point - whether right or wrong (that’s the point of debate) - that in their opinion the opposing position is a contributing factor to states of affairs where they recognize a pattern similar to that in societies which have suffered from the same sickness that was Germany under Hitler and the Nazis, Cambodia under Pol Pot, Rwanda as talk radio coupled with extremist politicians whipped up their citizens into such a frenzy they hacked whole families to death with machetes.
Godwin’s law: In any debate of sufficient length, eventually someone will bring up Hitler and the Nazis, to support their position. Sure. But sometimes that’s okay, because sometimes interlocutors are making a sober point and taking seriously the fact that societies sometimes murder millions of their own citizens and become a threat to all around them. Preventing that is more important than protecting the feelings of folks who don’t like their poorly thought out positions characterized as having similarities to the roadmap which takes society down that path.