Reductio Ad Hitlerum, or what's wrong with Godwin's Law

There's maybe something just a little bit too twee about Godwin's Law, which began with a witty observation by Godwin that in online chat forums eventually somebody gets compared to Hitler and the Nazis. Since that time the observation has taken on the status of a (tongue-in-cheek) law, and also additional meanings such as "whoever refers to Hitler first in an argument loses", etc.

Obviously throwing your opponent to the Nazi legacy in the opening stages of battle is poor form. It's schoolyard "my dad is bigger than your dad" tactics. But there's a big in-between land between that and not talking about them at all that is pretty important. One of the wisest lessons some have drawn from the fascist adventures of the 20th century is that this shit tends to creep up on people, it doesn't arrive overnight with a funny moustache.

Fascism/totalitarianism (if these are actually things - there's a whole academic literature on what the terms actually mean) is about how everyday people do and believe things, as much it is about individual Genghis Khans and brown-shirted acolytes. Sebastian Haffner's "Defying Hitler" is a beautiful first-hand account of the genesis and growth of the Nazi regime, the subtle changes to civic life that eventually crystallised into the Holocaust and other Nazi atrocities. It's these small, everyday changes that are where history happens, but get completely lost in the broad-brush superhero-type narratives of good and bad that dominate so much of the popular talk about Hitler and others.

Maybe history does repeat, because it doesn't teach us a thing. Or as Mark Twain apparently said, maybe it doesn't repeat, but it does rhyme. But listening particularly to the neo-conservative battle cries that dominate this country and many others right now, there's an awful lot of rhyming going on with what you read in Haffner. Hatred of unions, destruction of public institutions, the search for 'strong leadership'..none of this means Tony Abbott or David Cameron are Hitler, but it does mean the sorts of policies they like to promote also promote a more fundamentally rigid and authoritarian society. Societies can be like chemical reactions, sometimes (as seemed to happen in Germany) the conditions are all in place, and then some single event catalyses the reaction and boom - millions are dead and you're scratching your head. So maybe the wisest thing to do is to avoid putting those conditions in place.

Or maybe as some religious traditions say, shit just happens. Always and everywhere. There is no possible "continuous improvement" of humankind or history, because nature itself isn't like that either. Who knows. For now Abbott and Cameron are just fucking nasty bores, that'll do as a touchstone.


  1. Given that the corrolary of Godwins is that any good conversation can be considered dead upon it's invocation, rational discussion about just why fervent nationalism is such a horrible basis for public campaign.

    I do wonder if Abbot is more Bore or Boar? (Or perhaps Boer is more apropos).


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