Let me talk about the Nazis, damn you
So, I’m sure it hurt you very much, that time when a trembling teenage hand typed out the most heinous possible insult and aimed it in your digital direction: “You = Hitler.” It’s a vicious attack, and often founded on little more than an understanding of the transitive property:
You = Bad = Hitler = You
Rejection of this tendency to use the Nazis as a generalized pejorative has come to be known as Godwin’s Law: the internet has decided that in any given argument, the first one to reference to Nazis has officially become desperate, and is understood to have lost the day.
But the Nazis represent an incredibly valuable historical example. The Third Reich takes many of the most common and dependable principles of history and blows them up to the extent that they’re much easier to understand and identify. Besides perhaps ISIS, no group since has been as open about the full implications of its own beliefs. Most despotic or genocidal regimes in modern history have been driven by the rational self-interest or outright madness of certain manipulative individuals; the Nazi higher-ups were simply true believers in a bankrupt but nonetheless quite complete ideological worldview. If you bet that Soviet communism would bend in response to necessities and practicalities, you were usually right; if you bet that the Nazi fascism would, you were wrong in basically every case.
Neville Chamberlain, Prime Minister of the UK during the outbreak of the War, looked into the eyes of Adolf Hitler and saw himself. He had read Mein Kampf, which laid out the principle of lebensraum, and the basic National Socialist obligation to aggressively expand the German empire — but he simply could not understand that thinking, or its implications. Hitler had spoken openly about how the first step in restoring the German reich would likely be an attempt at diplomatic annexation of countries like Austria and Czechoslovakia, yet Chamberlain was in a state of serial shock as Hitler very methodically went about doing just that.
I see that general sort of misunderstanding as a major contributor to President Obama’s seeming total inability to deal with the Putin Problem. Does this observation of mine, which may or may not be valid, mean that I have sunk to the depths of arguing that “Putin = Hitler”? In the eyes of much of the internet, the answer is almost legally defined as, Yes.
Yet the analogy does not need to be qualitative, just informative. Vladimir Putin is not “as bad as Hitler,” however they do share some crucially important personality traits. Similar to many of the most negatively impactful people in modern history, Putin is the sort of ideologue who resents having to moderate or misrepresent his beliefs for public acceptance; given the slightest opportunity, he will almost always tell you what he’s really thinking. He wrote his master’s thesis on the strategic importance, and potential, of Russia’s energy sector on the world stage. Today, his use of that energy sector is one of the pillars of his foreign policy, and the West seems continually bewildered at his uncompromising march toward a goal they do not deep-down comprehend.
The modern ideological left has much the same problem with the American conservative movement. They look at someone like Dick Cheney, a man who still cannot bring himself to admit that there was an ethical or strategic problem with the war in Vietnam, let alone Iraq, and come to the conclusion that he is a ruthlessly duplicitous man whose heart is an infinite pit corporate/Illuminati corruption. He may very well be corrupt and self-interested and whatever else, but what he is first is a true believer. Treat him as though he isn’t, as though he’s driven only by motivations that might hypothetically make some sense to you, and it’s simply not possible to understand his goals or his obsession with achieving them. But believe his statements about his own beliefs about America, power, and the world, and it all begins to make a perfect, horrifying sort of sense.
The modern left, as obsessed as it is with identity politics, quite simply cannot comprehend such a man — the only motivation that could possibly explain his behavior while remaining remotely comprehensible to their worldview is greed. The left may despise greed, but they understand it, or claim to, and so it works as a catch-all explanation for every seemingly irrational act. And, on some level, admitting that Cheney is a stubborn, internally consistent fanatic would seem like granting him something almost like integrity.
But maybe, just maybe, the left could find a way to understand Cheney as he is, untroubled by the seemingly less harsh moral judgement of his character, if they had a strong, unquestionably evil example from history on which to draw. The point would not be that “Cheney = Hitler”, but that he embodies many of the same psychological traits as the most important figures from history. Studying the Third Reich forces you to imagine, and accept, the legitimate existence of a totally alien mode of thought — a helpful exercise, at a time when the Tea Party has to try debating national politics with Black Lives Matter.
I could probably make the exact same argument by referencing, say, Joe McCarthy, from the height of the anti-Communist panic in America. But the Nazis are useful precisely because they were so phenomenally evil that they can serve as uniquely one-dimensional examples. And while we certainly don’t want to be playing the Holocaust Card against any leader with remotely despotic tendencies, it is absolutely not shallow to remind people of where authoritarianism can very easily end up — most recently seen in Mr. Assad’s rapid transition from Western darling to genocidal madman.
Now, obviously it’s possible to apply the Nazi label too frivolously, or too broadly, and to basically signal your own lack of knowledge or confidence in an issue — but that’s true of every other possible allusion, as well. We have at our disposal a truly monstrous negative example for use in evaluating modern trends, a good hard backstop to the moral conversation and an incredibly well-documented anecdote on the psychology of interacting powers. The sheer volume of historical materials we have about the Second World War means that by rejecting the Nazi example we’re choosing to remain ignorant of the lessons learned during one of history’s most morally insightful trials.
Personally, I think that’s bad. Maybe you think it’s fine. You know who else would have thought it was fine? Hitler.