A month after the fact, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) is still getting kicked around for his speech on the prison at Guantanamo Bay. The speech itself was nothing new for the anti-war Durbin; the shellacking started when he read from an FBI agent's e-mail alleging ugly prisoner abuses, and said that if anyone had read this e-mail out of context, they'd "most certainly believe this must have been done by Nazis, Soviets in their gulags, or some mad regime—Pol Pot or others—that had no concern for human beings."
It was downhill from there, as every war-supporter with a microphone or blog howled for Durbin's blood. His crime: invoking the Nazis. Though the Durbin story calmed down after the Senator's craven apology, other sets of loose lips—on the anti-war left and in totally unrelated areas—have kept the flame war hot. In the last four months, Sens. Robert Byrd (D-W.V.) and Rick Santorum (R-Penn.) had tried to mix Third Reich metaphors in with speeches on the judicial filibuster, and both had been smacked down hard by political enemies and the Anti-Defamation League.
Durbin's thoughts about Gitmo weren't extreme—even some Republicans have worried about abuses—but his political pantsing should raise a question about our public discourse. Why are Nazi metaphors always out of bounds?
It wasn't always thus. Nazis were fair game in World War II. Red-blooded slanderers could slap the Nazi label on public figures like Father Charles Coughlin, and movie houses ran hilarious (and Oscar-winning) cartoons lampooning the Third Reich, including "Herr Meets Hare" and "Der Fuhrer's Face."
In the 1960s, members of Young Americans for Freedom protested with black umbrellas to mock people who were soft on the Soviet Union, a reference to Nazi-enabler Neville Chamberlain. Throughout that decade, while the generation of Americans with direct experience of the Nazi regime held all the power positions in politics and media, Hitler allusions flowed like lager in a Munich beer garden. "I was killing fascists when you punks were in diapers," Alabama Governor George Wallace shot back when some hippies called him a Nazi. The big screen featured conscientious Nazis like Omar Sharif(!), playing a perplexed Wehrmacht detective in Night of the Generals, while the small screen kept Americans laughing at the antics of Sgt. Schultz and Col. Klink. Oddly, it was only with the passing of the Greatest Generation—the only group of Americans with a dog in this fight—that Nazis became sacrosanct.
Rules against the N-bomb in Internet debates were formalized after 1990, when the propensity for long arguments to end in Nazi analogies led Mike Godwin (now a Reason contributing editor) to post his famous law: "As a Usenet discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one." Although "Godwin's Law" was initially conceived as a physical constant rather than a guide to good behavior, it was quickly adopted as a social rule, with general agreement that the guy who fell back on a Hitler analogy had lost the argument.
The rules of snippy online debates, though, are nothing compared to public discourse. The Anti-Defamation League has beaten the hell out of anyone who's dared use a Nazi analogy over the last decade. A Republican state senator got it for calling abortion a "holocaust." Wal-Mart got it for running a newspaper ad that showed a book burning. Critically, the ADL launched a complaint in 1997 when the Random House Webster's College Dictionary got hip to slang and expanded the definition of "nazi" to include a person who's "fanatically dedicated to or seeks to control a specified activity." ADL President Abe Foxman raged: "If someone can be a 'soup Nazi' or a 'traffic Nazi,' how bad could the real Nazis have been?"
Pretty bad. To recap, the Nazi party took over Germany via a violent rigged election, then banned all rival political parties. They systematically shut down all voices of opposition, killing journalists, creating Nazi churches, and exiling academics. While gearing up for a war of conquest, they introduced eugenics into their school system, took all rights away from Jews, and brutalized other non-Germans. For dessert they launched a six-year war that killed millions of people, enslaved millions more, and systematically exterminated entire ethnic groups before retreating to a bunker and demanding their citizens commit mass suicide.
You can't really downplay this stuff or cheapen it through overuse. Think about this another way: You can say your sandwich tastes like a urinal cake. This emphasizes that the sandwich is truly awful, and gives your listener an idea or image of exactly how awful. But you don't lose sight of how bad the urinal cake can be. It's a poisonous sanitary product, and nothing will ever change that.
Politicians understand this, and they get away with the N-Bomb in the one arena where it's allowed to go unchecked: bullshit saber-rattling. George H.W. Bush dubbed Saddam Hussein the "new Hitler" while building support for Desert Storm. Bill Clinton's national address on intervening in Bosnia included Murrow-esque passages on "skeletal prisoners caged behind barbed-wire fences, women and girls raped as a tool of war, defenseless men and boys shot down into mass graves, evoking visions of World War II concentration camps and endless lines of refugees marching toward a future of despair." Politicians and pro–Iraq war opinioneers repeatedly said letting Saddam Hussein remain in power would amount to a new Munich pact. The British Daily Telegraph editorialized that 1938 and 2002 were mirror images because "both Saddam and Hitler demonstrated a fondness for chemical weapons and saw Jews as part of the problem." Different chemicals, different quantity of Jews, but who's counting?
These Nazi analogies were baldly ridiculous, intended to dredge up the oomph of the Holocaust for conflicts with five-digit casualty numbers. But these uses of the N-Bomb are actually looked on favorably. In fact, the United Nations took heat when it hedged whether to call the slaughter in Sudan's Darfur region "genocide" or "crimes against humanity." They went for "crimes," because there wasn't actually a policy to exterminate an entire group of people—certainly the right call to make if you don't want to gloss over how bad the Nazis were.
But obviously, Nazi analogies in humanitarianism and foreign policy aren't intended to cheapen Nazism and the Holocaust. They're meant to put underreported, ugly stories into a frame that everyone immediately understands. It's the same thing with the workaday Nazi arguments, and with situations like Durbin's.
Thus, despite all efforts at regulation, the market has repeatedly decided in favor of the N-bomb. There simply isn't any other tableau, in history or fiction, that offers the same variety of evil and oppressive examples as the Third Reich. Why compare some propaganda to 1984 and some slaughter to Srebrenica when you can double down and link both of them to Nazism?
Rarely remarked is the way prohibition has inflated the N-bomb's value—not as an outrage (that would hardly be possible), but as an ironic, farting-in-church punchline. There can be little doubt that the unnacceptability of a Nazi costume led directly to Prince Harry's thinking it would be a sweet thing to wear to a 2004 Halloween party. You can't say something is out of bounds and not expect it to lose meaning or become ironic. We live in a time when, days after 9/11, citizens were directing Flash animations about killing Osama to the tune of "Day-O."
The Nazi taboo was flawed before the Durbin affair, and it's only deteriorated since. Recently, armchair general Victor Davis Hanson took to the Chicago Tribune to assert that the swarthy enemies of freedom grow bolder "each time a public official evokes Hitler to demonize the president." The chorus demanding Durbin's apology included Rick Santorum, who'd apologized just a month before for comparing Democrats' filibuster arguments to Nazi war plans. The effort of keeping up the ban has become more convoluted than Charlie Chaplin's last speech in The Great Dictator. We'll be better off rolling back Godwin's Law and admitting the all-purpose usefulness of Nazi analogies. It's exactly what the Germans wouldn't want.