“Everyone seems to have become Hitler.”
Historian Gavriel D. Rosenfeld wrote these words in his study of how the Nazi past has become a recurring theme in contemporary culture — to the point of almost becoming trivial. What is especially interesting is that he had already reached that conclusion a year before Donald Trump was elected to be the 45th president of the United States.
Since then, comparisons between Trump and Hitler — and even between current developments in the United States and the waning days of Germany’s ill-fated Weimar Republic — have become almost daily fare. This is perhaps no surprise, given his unbridled attacks against his political opponents and the mainstream press, his singling out of minority groups as scapegoats for the challenges that American society faces, and his populist, demagogic style more generally.
As a historian of modern Germany, I have spent many years exploring the crimes that Hitler and his followers committed. When people make facile comparisons to Hitler and the Nazis, they are trying, usually in good faith, to warn us about the dangers of ignoring history and its supposed lessons.
But it is my very familiarity with that history that makes me highly skeptical about the inflationary use of such comparisons. They do more to confuse than clarify the urgent issues at stake.
Long history of Nazi comparisons
Godwin’s Law holds that the longer an online discussion progresses, the likelier someone will eventually be compared to Hitler. By now, this seems to apply not just to the virtual world of chat rooms, but also to living rooms across America.
Comparing politicians to Hitler is nothing new, of course. We live in an age where George W. Bush, Saddam Hussein, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump, Angela Merkel, Hillary Clinton (“Hitlery”) and Barack Obama have all seamlessly been compared to Hitler. That’s just a few of the more recent examples, but they clearly show just how little value such glib analogies have.
The Trump presidency has made use of the Hitler card even more pronounced. Such comparisons have not just increased in frequency and intensity, however. Serious ones are now even being made by leading experts on Nazi Germany.
The British historian Jane Caplan, for example, wrote an analysis in November 2016 directly addressing the question of whether or not Trump was a fascist.
Caplan didn’t reach any definite conclusions, but she did point out quite a few striking similarities between the rise of fascism in Germany then and the current political climate in the United States now. In short, she feels that America is in a vulnerable position right now — one that radical forces can use to their advantage.
A few months later, Yale historian Timothy Snyder published “On Tyranny.” His book similarly concludes that America under Trump bears striking similarities to Germany in the interwar period and reads like something of a how-to manual for resisting the rise of authoritarianism in today’s America.
Respectable warning voices like these, engaging in historical analysis grounded in empirical scholarship, give the lie to any fears that Hitler is somehow being trivialized.
In fact, such experts are well equipped to communicate to a broader public the potential value of historical analogies. When paying close attention to historical context, analogies can become useful tools — ones that help us understand our present, and perhaps even shape it for the better.
Unfortunately, considered analysis on par with that of Caplan or Snyder is the exception, not the rule. That’s no surprise given the frenzied, often nasty character of current political discourse.
False equivalency risks trivializing evil
The Hitler comparison has, for many, become nothing more than a cudgel for branding someone or something as morally wrong or evil, for making what the Germans call a Totschlagargument: a “knock-out” or “killer” argument intended to end all discussion.
I believe there are several reasons why conversations tend to end at this point. For one, few people wish to trivialize Hitler. Just as important: When such accusations are made, those on the receiving end are understandably upset about the comparison.
While it seems that many people in the U.S. no longer feel that they’re able to agree on anything — including sometimes even facts — they still seem able to agree on one point: Hitler epitomizes evil.
Take, for example, a recent ad campaign by the NRA featuring their spokesperson, Dana Loesch. Loesch describes the current state of American society in almost apocalyptic terms, with ominous background music and blurry pictures of street fighting helping her to make her point.
The United States is presented in the ad as a country coming apart at the seams because of liberal protesters. What is especially interesting here is how Loesch begins her rant: “They use their media to assassinate real news. They use schools to teach children that their president is another Hitler!”
Loesch clearly finds Trump comparisons to Hitler outrageous — just as Obama supporters found it outrageous when Hitler comparisons were being made about Obama.
Let us be clear: Hitler unleashed a war aimed at achieving global domination that resulted in the deaths of tens of millions. This included the industrialized murder of 6 million men, women and children whose only “crime” was being born Jewish. This is not to diminish the horrors wrought by tyrants like former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein or Slobodan Milošević, former president of Serbia. But the magnitude of their crimes still pales in comparison. And whatever one may think of Donald Trump, he has — although the jury is still out on this one — remained within the bounds of constitutional legality. And clearly he has not been responsible for mass death.
Another aspect of our shared cultural knowledge of Hitler is that negotiating with him was futile. In hindsight, historians agree that the appeasement policies of the 1930s were a failure and that forceful means were the only way to have stopped Hitler. No matter how many concessions were made to the German dictator over the course of the 1930s, he wanted more — and he wanted war.
This is why, as a historian of the Nazi period, I find inflated contemporary comparisons and analogies problematic.
False equivalencies not only risk trivializing Hitler and the horrors he unleashed. They also prevent people from engaging with the actual issues at hand — ones that urgently require our attention: immigration reform, rampant xenophobia, social and economic restructuring in a globalized world, and a loss of faith in government’s ability to solve pressing problems.
There is an ultimate reason why the Hitler comparison should not be used as lightly as it often is nowadays.
Whenever we apply that political or moral comparison, we set the bar for inhumanity as high as possible. Should the abyss of World War II and the Holocaust really be the main measure for all things political?
The danger here is that policies only become worthy of moral outrage if they lead to genocidal violence. One would hope that in the 21st century, our society would have developed higher — or perhaps lower — standards than these.