Drawing by A.L. Tarter, Wellcome Library, London

What Terrorism Discourse Invoking Hitler Tells Us About Language

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer is the most recent in a long line of people who have committed the logical fallacy of reductio ad Hitlerum. See Hank Williams Jr. in 2011. The NRA in 2013. Mike Huckabee in 2013. There’s a meme comparing Hitler to President Trump. In April, a North Carolina lawmaker even compared Lincoln to Hitler.

The Hitler comparison fallacy is based on the phrase reductio ad absurdum or “reduction to absurdity,” an argument that leads to “absurd or untenable conclusions.” Why do we go to the “absurd,” especially when we talk about evil? And, why do we choose Hitler for our absurdity? Both questions can be answered by how we understand language. In short, when speaking about evil, we think language can handle the subject – that our words offer us concise, understandable labels of really bad events. The absurdity is that we believe this myth.

The phrase reductio ad Hitlerum in Latin roughly translated into English that means “reduction to Hitler.” This move is also referred to as “playing the Hitler card.” A similar phrase is commonly used in discussions about race or gender (i.e. playing the “race” card). This discursive move is also called Godwin’s Law, coined in the 1990s by Mike Godwin, once general counsel for the Wikimedia Foundation, the group behind Wikipedia, and at R Street Institute, an American conservative and libertarian think tank. The law applies to online discussions and in succinct terms says that the odds of a reference or comparison to Hitler (or to Nazis) increase as the discussion goes on.

The key element of this fallacy is that Hitler is the end of the debate, the most sufficient justification for one’s position. Or as logicallyfallacious.com defines it: “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.” If you have ever been in an online debate about the bad stuff that happens in the world and it starts to get contentious, it probably is because someone wants to win – i.e. force the opponent to change their mind. They bring out the “trump card” – a reference to Hitler. Godwin affirms this experience.

It is a historic temptation. The coiner of the phrase reductio ad Hitlerum, neoconservative political philosopher Leo Strauss, in his 1953 book Natural Right and History, noted in a discussion on nihilism that, “in following this movement toward its end we shall inevitably reach a point beyond which the scene is darkened by the shadow of Hitler… [yet] we must avoid the fallacy that in the last decades has frequently been used as a substitute for the reduction ad absurdum: the reduction ad Hitlerum. A view is not refuted by the fact that it happens to have been shared by Hitler. (42)” Here Strauss is suggesting he is tempted to play the “Hitler card” but won’t because the comparison is too narrow.

In Spicer’s case, he suggested Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad was worse than Hitler because the latter did not use chemical weapons. “You know, you had someone as despicable as Hitler who didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons,” Spicer claimed in a press briefing on April 11. [Note: Spicer later apologized for his factual error. Hitler used gas to kill more than 6 million Jews during World War II.] Later that same day, Spicer apologized directly for the comparison on CNN: “I was trying to draw a comparison for which there shouldn’t have been one,” he said.

Any comparison is fraught with difficulty. First, as the fallacy notes, this comparison reduces the context of history to one element – here, one person. Second, the comparison usually demonizes the person being compared to Hitler, when in fact they are not Hitler. The fallacy reduces the degree of comparison, rejecting evidence that does not match its conclusion. This is usually how it is used in American politics, usually by those who are trying to demonize others in power.

Why Hitler? The Anti-Defamation League told the BBC this fallacy has been used so much because it is the “most available historical event illustrating right versus wrong.” This explanation is accurate in many ways; for example, we still think of World War II to describe terrorism today. But all evil is evil, one evil is not more evil than another. Making Hitler a, or even the, standard for evil puts evil into degrees, allowing for certain actions in response. Trump does this a lot.

Such a move shows a lack of critical thought. Godwin noted in The Washington Post that he coined his law to “hint that most people who brought Nazis into a debate… weren’t being thoughtful and independent. Instead, they were acting just as predictably, and unconsciously, as a log rolling down a hill.” His “personal favorite” example: the Mets fan who likened Yankees fans to former Nazi Party members.

Strauss is right: a comparison to Hitler does not make a good claim. Yet, the power of the comparison to Hitler has not died down. The conservative magazine The American Spectator, in a March 31 post, called for the retirement of this fallacy because it “lacks imagination, trivializes the Holocaust, and strikes as cheap.” Trump himself committed this fallacy when in a tweet he compared the U.S. intelligence community to “Nazi Germany.” However, any retirement plans for the fallacy’s use, while of good intention, still do not get at the root issue. Beyond the general thoughtlessness and “picking the low hanging fruit” of using Hitler as a discourse of comparison, the issue with this fallacy is that an audience continues to search for names for evil (in this case, Hitler). Evil – the medium of the reduction ad Hitlerum – continues to be with us and yet our language is always insufficient for describing, evaluating, or more specifically, naming new versions of it.

In fact, that we continue to use Hitler as the “go to” for understanding and depicting evil both shows the power of his evil but perhaps more importantly, it demonstrates our lack of power to understand new evils as they occur. One can argue that reduction ad Hitlerum has become a form of silence, a way to not think about the new evil before us. Yet we are in need of new words to describe evil, not necessarily the same overused historical comparisons.

Surely we should retire reduction ad Hitlerum. But, we should not retire the fallacy merely because it is such a tired cliché. We should retire it so we can better focus on using new language to fight new evils. While history remains repeatable to those who don’t understand it, the future remains indecipherable for those who can’t work through its newness.