In 1953, famed political philosopher and Jewish-German exile, Leo Strauss, coined a term to describe a trope that he increasingly saw circulating in public discourse: reductio ad Hilterum. Reductio ad Hitlerum is a fallacy used in arguments to discredit anything that can be associated with or compared to Hitler. Hitler liked dogs? Then liking dogs is discredited. Hitler was a vegetarian? Discredited. A teetotaler? Discredited. And so on.
Strauss’s identification of reductio ad Hitlerum was little more than a footnote to his main point about social science and political philosophy in the 20th century. Nevertheless, he gave us a very useful shorthand for describing a prevalent form of public argument, and it’s one we’d do well to understand because it continues to play an important role in public debates, though perhaps not in the way we’d expect.
In the years since Strauss’s book was published, reductio ad Hitlerum (or argumentum ad Hitlerum) has remained popular in public discourse. It has been used to make more or less credible comparisons to world leaders such as Joseph Stalin, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, and others, for instance.
It has also been leveled at people like Mother Theresa, Jimmy Carter, and Albert Einstein (which is especially galling, considering that he and his family fled Germany in 1932 to escape the Nazis). In fact, it’s quite likely that every world leader, and perhaps any leader of anything, from a Fortune 500 company to a Girl Scout Troop, has been compared to Hitler at some point or another. Consequently, as Hitler comparisons accumulated over the years, their usefulness diminished.
By the 1990s, with the rise of the internet—and more importantly, with the rise of arguing on the internet—there were efforts to counteract reductio ad Hitlerum. Most famously, in the early 90s, attorney and author, Michael Godwin, asserted what he called “Godwin’s Law of Nazi Analogies,” often referred to simply as “Godwin’s Law”: “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.” Basically, the longer an internet argument goes on—any argument about any topic—the more likely it becomes that some participant will accuse another participant of being, thinking, or behaving like Hitler or the Nazis.
Godwin called such comparisons a “handy rhetorical hammer” in internet arguments that nevertheless “trivialized the horror of the Holocaust and the social pathology of the Nazis.” Godwin has recently clarified that there are some valid bases for Nazi comparisons and it’s the glib, careless variety that he hoped to quell. Nevertheless, thanks to Godwin and others, Nazi and Hitler comparisons have become something of a joke. They are often dismissed as either too grossly hyperbolic to be useful (Fergal Keane) or, more commonly, desperate and juvenile attempts to win an unwinnable argument. The same principle has largely extended to fascism comparisons more generally.
The point of laying out this short history of reductio ad Hitlerum is to illuminate two enduring consequences for public discourse. The first is that although Hitler plays an important role in public discourse, that role is often quite separate from what Hitler actually did or said. In fact, even when a Hitler comparison is directly keyed into evidence from Hitler’s actual speeches or behaviors, it’s inescapably weighed down by both Hitler’s historical awfulness and by the Straussian-Godwinian renouncement of reduction.
The second consequence, under the circumstances, seems to be an ironic one. As a direct result of the effectiveness of the reductio ad Hitlerum argument, Hitler has become something of a shield in public argumentation. For instance, famed leader of the alt-right movement, Richard Spencer, is an open advocate for white nationalism. In response to accusations that he’s a Nazi, he’s accused his accusers of being closed-minded and afraid of ideas. Comparing someone to Hitler often has the effect of taking the focus off the behavior under consideration and putting it on the legitimacy of the accusation, much in the same way accusing someone of racism is seen by some people as worse than racism.
The curious evolution Hitler comparisons in public discourse puts us in a strange place in the current global political moment. On the one hand, such comparisons are ineluctably weighed down by the historical-Hitler, by resistance to reductio ad Hitlerum, and by the fact that “Hitler” has consequently become a shield in public discourse are. On the other hand, around the world, there has been a precipitous rise in right-wing nationalisms—many of them violent, hateful, and authoritarian—that echo old National Socialist doctrine. Likewise, fascism is apparently making a grand revival.
We can add other specific Nazi examples. In Germany, a Neo-Nazi candidate was elected mayor in a small village in 2019. In Austria, it was recently discovered that former Vice Chancellor and leader of the far-right Freedom Party, Heinz-Christian Strache, was actively involved in Neo-Nazi groups as a young man. In Brazil earlier this year, Culture Minister Roberto Alvim was fired after delivering a speech that paraphrased and aesthetically imitated a 1933 speech by Joseph Goebbels. And in the United States, as Donald Trump was campaigning for the presidency in 2015, his ex-wife alleged that he used to keep a book of Hitler’s essays next to his bed for inspirational nighttime reading.
In short, there are probably some good reasons to make Nazi, Hitler, and fascism comparisons.
Nevertheless, we can and should take the spirit of Strauss’s and Godwin’s incisive arguments seriously: Hitler, Nazi, and fascism comparisons shouldn’t be made lightly. They should be made with a keen understanding of their affordances and their limits for understanding other events, people, or circumstances. They should also be sensitive to historical fact, underlying assumptions, and ultimate goals.
I’d like to propose that we extend the spirit of reductio ad Hitlerum to reductio ad Hitlerum. We should not invoke it lightly. Just as Hitler, Nazism, and fascism have important historical referents, so do arguments about the arguments—about what counts as legitimate, valuable, and illuminating. We cannot and should not have a blanket policy when it comes to arguments about Hitler or Nazis, and treating reductio ad Hitlerum or Godwin’s Law as universally applicable—especially when their authors would not—is as unhelpful as seeing Hitler in everything.
I realize this proposal has about as much chance of being universally adopted as Godwin’s law had at preventing glib Hitler references on the internet. Still, it seems to be a goal worth aiming for, especially as public discourse and global politics seems more and more to echo our most polemical historical examples.