The odiousness of the distorted Godwin's Law

Prohibitions that arose from German aggression were meant to be applied, not shrouded with a code of silence

Published July 1, 2010 1:02PM (EDT)

(updated below - Update II)

Responding to the neocon objections to my post on the universality of war-justifying propaganda, Kevin Drum writes that it's "time to repeal Godwin's Law" -- at least the distorted version which purports to prohibit all comparisons to German crimes -- labeling it an "an endlessly tiresome way of feigning moral indignation."  Kevin adds:  "WWII analogies are extremely useful because they're familiar to almost everyone."  I agree:  the very notion that a major 20th Century event like German aggression is off-limits in political discussions is both arbitrary and anti-intellectual in the extreme.  There simply are instances where such comparisons uniquely illuminate important truths:  recall, for example, Andrew Sullivan's consequential discovery of the stark similarities between the Bush/Cheney and Gestapo "enhanced interrogation" documents, both in terms of approved tactics and "justifications."  To demand that German crimes be treated as sacred and unmentionable is to deprive our discourse of critical truths.

But this prohibition is even more odious than that.  A primary point of the Nuremberg Trials was to seize on the extraordinary horror of what the Germans did in order to set forth general principles to be applied not only to the individual war criminals before the tribunal, but more important, to all countries in the future.  As lead prosecutor Robert Jackson explained in his Opening Statement:

What makes this inquest significant is that these prisoners represent sinister influences that will lurk in the world long after their bodies have returned to dust. . . . . And let me make clear that while this law is first applied against German aggressors, the law includes, and if it is to serve a useful purpose it must condemn aggression by any other nations, including those which sit here now in judgment.

There are, of course, distinctive aspects that made German crimes so appalling (from gas chambers to systematic human experimentation), but Jackson repeatedly emphasized that it was one particular common crime -- aggressive war -- that was at the heart of what Nuremberg was meant to prevent.  From Jackson's Summation to the tribunal:

The central crime in this pattern of crimes, the kingpin which holds them all together, is the plot for aggressive wars. The chief reason for international cognizance of these crimes lies in this fact.

And in his Opening Statement, Jackson announced the core purpose of the Trials:  "this inquest represents the practical effort of four of the most mighty of nations, with the support of 17 more, to utilize international law to meet the greatest menace of our times:  aggressive war."  "Aggressive war" wasn't just some vague rhetorical slogan.  To the contrary, Jackson explained that "the issue is one of no novelty and is one on which legal opinion has well crystalized," and then defined it with great specificity:

[A]n "aggressor" is generally held to be that state which is the first to commit any of the following actions:

(1) Declaration of war upon another state; (2) Invasion by its armed forces, with or without a declaration of war, of the territory of another state; (3) Attack by its land, naval, or air forces, with or without a declaration of war, on the territory, vessels or aircraft of another state; and (4) Provision of support to armed bands formed in the territory of another state, or refusal, notwithstanding the request of the invaded state, to take in its own territory, all the measures in its power to deprive those bands of all assistance or protection.

And I further suggest that it is the general view that no political military, economic, or other considerations shall serve as an excuse or justification for such actions; but exercise of the right of legitimate self-defense, that is to say, resistance to an act of aggression, or action to assist a state which has been subjected to aggression, shall not constitute a war of aggression.

In light of those crystal clear Nuremberg prohibitions on "aggressive war," it's easy to understand why neocons want to make any mention of all this off-limits, or why they screech like wounded hyenas every time one cites these precedents to condemn the wars they advocate and the justifications they proffer.  It's not hyperbole to say that "Godwin's Law" -- at least as neocon ideologues have come to distort it -- negates the central purpose of what was done at Nuremberg.  We were supposed to learn from and apply those principles to ourselves, not adopt a Code of Silence with regard to them.  

Obviously, one should avoid sloppy, casual or unwarranted applications of these principles, but that's true for all arguments.  Even more obviously, to point out that a country or a person is violating these principles -- or that they are invoking the same rejected justifications for their aggression as Germans invoked -- is not to posit an equivalence to Hitler and Nazis.  Only a child -- or what international law professor Kevin Jon Heller this morning aptly called deliberate distorters -- would fail to recognize that.  There were unique aspects to Nazi evil and many common ones as well.  It was anticipated that many of those crimes would be committed again (their "sinister influences [] will lurk in the world long after their bodies have returned to dust") and the body of law and principles which arose from German crimes and consecrated at Nuremberg were meant to be invoked and applied by future generations (these principles "must condemn aggression by any other nations, including those which sit here now in judgment"). 

Those most eager to violate these principles understandably want to render these discussions taboo, but that's no reason for the rest of us to acquiesce.  Actually, it's a compelling reason to emphatically refuse.


UPDATE:  For a bit more context about why war cheerleaders are so eager to demonize efforts to generalize lessons from Nuremberg, see this passage from Nuremberg Diary by G.M. Gilbert, the American prison psychologist at Nuremberg who wrote the following as part of his account of an interview he did (one of many) with Hermann Goering  on April 18, 1946, in Goering's cell (pp. 278-79):

We got around to the subject of war again and I said that, contrary to his attitude, I did not think that the common people are very thankful for leaders who bring them war and destruction.

"Why, of course, the people don’t want war," Goering shrugged. "Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best that he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece. Naturally, the common people don’t want war; neither in Russia nor in England nor in America, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a Parliament or a Communist dictatorship."

"There is one difference," I pointed out. "In a democracy the people have some say in the matter through their elected representatives, and in the United States only Congress can declare war."

"Oh, that is all well and good, but, voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger.  It works the same in any country."

Anyone demanding that comparisons not be made between our own political culture and that is doing nothing less than attempting to conceal the truth of how things work.  For more on why neocons in particular are so eager to enforce this taboo, see these two comments:  here and here.


UPDATE II:  Godwin himself appears in comments (authenticity confirmed via email) to explain that his "law" sought to discourage frivolous, but not substantive, Nazi analogies and comparisons.

By Glenn Greenwald

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