I had no intention of getting into another fallacy so soon after the last one (generalizations), but online comments on John Brummett’s column from last Tuesday convinced me that a discussion of logical fallacies involving Adolf Hitler is in order. And perhaps a few head smacks, too.
Conservative philosopher and ethicist Leo Strauss coined the phrase Reductio ad Hitlerum (sometimes known as argumentum ad Nazium … yep, really) in 1951 for a specific form of guilt-by-association fallacy in which someone—often humorously—compares an opponent’s views with those of Hitler. If Hitler liked cats, cats would be verboten. Luckily for me and other crazy cat ladies and gentlemen, he supposedly hated the cute and fluffy critters.
Maybe he saw too many of those cats that look like him …
Logically Fallacious describes the fallacy as “the attempt to make an argument analogous with Hitler or the Nazi party. Hitler is probably the most universally despised figure in history, so any connection to Hitler, or his beliefs, can (erroneously) cause others to view the argument in a similar light. However, this fallacy is becoming more well known as is the fact that it is most often a desperate attempt to render the truth claim of the argument invalid out of lack of a good counter argument.”
What? People would pull the Hitler card because they don’t have a good argument? The hell you say!
Reductio ad Hitlerum is probably less well-known than a related rule, Godwin’s Law, a corollary of which states that the first person to bring up Hitler or the Nazis in an Internet argument is deemed to have lost. Godwin’s Law, formulated by attorney (and, apparently, closet math geek) Mike Godwin in 1990, states: “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.”
Godwin told New York Magazine in 2013 that his primary concern in coming up with the rule back in the Usenet days was that the historical context of the Holocaust, which should never be forgotten, would take a back seat to often inappropriate remarks.
According to RationalWiki, “Godwin has argued that overuse of the Nazi comparison should be avoided as it waters down the impact of any valid usage. In its purest sense, the rule has more to do with completely losing one’s sense of proportion rather than just mentioning Nazis specifically. The law was initiated as a counter-meme to flippant comparisons to the Nazis, rather than to invoke a complete ban on comparisons.”
In the New York Magazine interview, Godwin said:
“American history has its own flirtations with fascism and racism and militarism, and people have believed in any and all of these things, so with certain individuals it has to come up from time to time. So it’s not the case that the comparison is never valid. 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.”
So, yes, there are perfectly relevant comparisons (such as those backed by evidence rather than opinion). Those are valid according to Godwin’s Law and most rational people who understand that comparisons meant to illuminate rather than shut down discussion are acceptable.
(And yes, I’m aware that I’m being a bit glib in this discussion, but it’s about a Hitler-related fallacy, not about the Holocaust, which is nothing to joke about. Hitler, on the other hand, could stand to get some Harry Potter riddikulus-spell treatment.)
I propose, though, another corollary to Godwin’s Law, thanks to that online discussion of Brummett’s column: If someone calling another commenter on a Nazi/Hitler reference then refers to Hitler as a socialist, that someone loses the argument and deserves to be mocked.
Why? Because socialism and national socialism are not the same thing.
I think I heard a few shrieks and head-pops there. I love that sound.
Like “white chocolate” (which contains no cocoa so is technically not chocolate) and the “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea” (yeah, because Kim Jong Un is all about democracy … Lord, do I need a sarcasm font), Hitler’s “national socialism” isn’t really what it sounds like.
“The Nazis were not ‘Democratic socialists,’ whatever that means. The Nazis were never Democrats and never real socialists either. … The Nazis opposed all traditional socialism, wanting to substitute something they called ‘German socialism’ or ‘Aryan socialism.’ This meant citizenship and privileges only for ‘Aryans’ (meaning non-Jews), concentration camps for others.”
There were elements of socialism in Hitler’s philosophy, but totalitarian nationalism was the far greater part, particularly after he became chancellor in 1933; socialists and communists, among others (homosexuals, Jews, Romany, etc.), were his enemies. The master race was his primary concern, and nonmembers of the club were not welcome.
Vocabulary.com notes that the word “socialism” has lost most of its meaning:
“Originally, though, it was the bedrock of Marxism and meant that workers and their community should control the market for what they make. Because the Soviet state eventually strayed far from Marx’s idea of socialism towards Lenin’s totalitarian communism, socialism is now often used to mean everything from ‘fascism’ to ‘progressivism.’ But in its purest form, socialism was a political, social, and economic system meant to empower the working class.”
Socialism has been around for centuries in one form or another, though not by that name till the 19th century … Plato’s Republic and Thomas More’s Utopia quickly come to mind, for instance. Elements (especially that public ownership thing, such as taxpayer-funded highway systems, military, etc.) seem to have found their way into more than a few economic and political ideologies and programs all over the spectrum.
Not that some would admit that. ’Cause socialists are icky doody-heads, apparently. (Did we forget that pretty much all political partisans are doody-heads?)
None of this will matter to single-sourcers who never venture past the surface. They’ve been told by someone they trust (aided by judicious quote-mining) that Hitler was a socialist, and they will not be swayed by evidence to the contrary.
Hitler may have been some sort of socialist at one point in his life, but he and the Nazis were ultimately not, which is why so many leading socialists of the time disavowed his ideology.
But as we learned in the generalization discussion, it’s much easier to stick with surface details than to suss out the truth. ’Cause, ya know, that’s leftist thinking.
Oooh, more heads popping …