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Comparisons to Hitler Can Be Useful. Discuss.

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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In 1990, when writer Mike Godwin first formulated his rule of Nazi analogies -- "as an online discussion continues, the probability of a reference or comparison to Hitler or Nazis approaches 1" -- he meant it to apply only to Usenet newsgroup discussions, the equivalent of today's flame wars in comment threads. In 2013, however, Godwin noticed that the use of Hitler comparisons extended far beyond online disputes. In fact, in recent days, top figures in the U.K. and in Russia invoked the fuehrer's name to make political points.

Although Godwin's law still stands, I'm not so sure about its best-known corollary, which declared that the person who invoked Hitler automatically lost any argument. The outraged reactions to the mentions of Hitler by former London Mayor Boris Johnson and Russian Constitutional Court Chairman Valery Zorkin would seem to prove that analogies to Nazism mean abdication, yet dismissing all Nazi analogies out of hand is hardly useful. Instead, with the end of World War II receding into the distant past, perhaps such comparisons should be an opportunity to  remember what made Hitler unique and what didn't.

Zorkin validated Godwin's Law with a riff on President Barack Obama in a a legal forum in St. Petersburg:

"The idea of the American nation and the American people's chosen status, exceptionalism and special global entitlements, which has been in use for a long time in domestic U.S. politics, has in recent years surfaced more and more persistently and openly in foreign policy documents and speeches by U.S. officials. This idea and this persistence are worrisome, not just to us lawyers and jurists. Any impartial, educated person sees in Obama's remarks what are nearly verbatim quotes from the leading politicians and propagandists of the German Third Reich, including Adolf Hitler. Essentially, Obama says what the Nazi bosses used to say about the exceptionalism of Germans and Germany as they unleashed World War II."

It's true that Hitler advocated Germany's Sonderweg, or special path. But, as George Steinmetz pointed out in a paper about German exceptionalism: "Every national historiography seems to have its own 'exceptionalism' thesis. The underlying structure of these theories is roughly similar: one's own history is shown to deviate from a standard model of development in ways that produce some unique outcome." In that spirit, the belief of U.S. politicians that their country is special could be equated to the ancient Indic exceptionalism, or, indeed, to the Russian variety. But what made the German exceptionalism of the Nazi era so noxious was that it was accompanied by an exterminationist ideology of racism. Concepts of a nation's unique path and unique role don't necessarily translate into crimes like those committed by the Nazis. They play nicely to voters, though: Few American politicians, and few Russian ones, would dare come in front of a crowd and declare: "This country is just like all the others, nothing special about it."

Johnson, who is in favor of the U.K. leaving the European Union, said the EU an attempt to bring back the "golden age of peace and prosperity under the Romans": "Napoleon, Hitler, various people tried this out, and it ends tragically."

The ex-mayor has long held to the theory that the EU's roots can be found in Hitler's Germany. In a 2002 column, he explained: In 1942, a conference in Berlin, attended by top officials, discussed the idea of a Europaeische Wirtschaftgesellschaft -- a European economic community -- which was later taken up by Albert Speer, Hitler's favorite architect and one of his ministers. The idea was to remove customs tariffs and unify the European economy under German leadership. Johnson is right about that. Yet one of Hitler's most implacable enemies, Winston Churchill, also called for a "United States of Europe." His 1946 Zurich speech followed a long tradition of thought on the continent's unification, which counted the French writer Victor Hugo and the Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin among its early supporters. 

Churchill's vision was one of a voluntary confederation meant to prevent another war. It's easy to see that the modern EU is more in line with this notion more than with Speer's idea of gaining economies of scale from a German-conquered continent.

Hitler was a nationalist, and his ministers contemplated uniting Europe. He also hated smoking and painted mediocre watercolors. Each of these attributes makes it easy to compare him a lot of people -- and, of course, deeply offend them, because Hitler also killed millions of people. But there's no point in taking offense: A calm discussion of the comparisons reveals them as irrelevant, too generic to mean anything substantive.

This discussion is necessary because few people alive today still remember the Nazi horrors. To most people who invoke Hitler, and to their audiences, the Nazi leader is the abstract figure of an evil, murdering overlord. His image is an empty shell that can be filled with any content. For the today's Germans, who have done a lot of homework on their Nazi past, that's not an acceptable state of affairs. When Hitler's "Mein Kampf" was republished in Germany this year, for the first time since World War II, with 3,700 academic notes explaining his character, ideology and doings, the book quickly became a bestseller. People seek deeper knowledge of Hitler's actual views and personal history. After they find out more, they may well draw analogies with present-day politicians -- but these analogies should be informed. 

Godwin formulated his law, he explained, to make it harder to trivialize the Holocaust. Yet he never said any Nazi analogy was in bad taste or out of place. "It's not the case that the comparison is never valid," he told New York Magazine in 2013. "It’s just that, when you make the comparison, think through what you’re saying, because there’s a lot of baggage there, and if you’re going to invoke a historical period with that much baggage you better be ready to carry it."

This applies to people such as Zorkin and Johnson, who bring Hitler into political conversations -- but also those who reject the comparisons out of hand. There's nothing wrong with discussing Nazism and Hitler, it's just that both sides should be prepared to take the discussion beyond facile memes.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net