Godwin’s law: I hear this all the time – “anyone I don’t like is Hitler.” The highly reputable Urban Dictionary says, “Godwin’s Law states that as an online argument grows longer and more heated, it becomes increasingly likely that somebody will bring up Adolf Hitler or the Nazis.” In terms of this recent election, and in general terms anytime anyone talks about the police, we must endure some form of this argument.
Most often, people tell me that the horrors of the Holocaust are comparable to issues in America today, because German soldiers and law enforcement officers were “just doing their jobs” and enforcing the laws, the same as modern American LEOs. Recently, I heard this argument presented as the reason we should all panic over Trump’s election (since, after all, we do not like him and he is therefore Adolf Hitler.)
This bothers me, for numerous reasons – the first, of course, being a bit of my own pride in thinking that surely I am not a mere minion.
But I feel it is necessary to have a better response than “nuh uh” when such arguments arise. So let’s apply a bit of historical and intellectual integrity and see if the claim holds up. In order for the story to be true, five things must be true: first, the formative years of Nazi Germany must be analogous in some way to our current conditions in the United States; second, the consensus among the common people must be ambivalent towards non-Aryan races, rather than openly hostile; third, the rising government must be invested in the expulsion and extermination of “undesirable” persons or systems of thought; fourth, the people must be invested in fascist principles, rather than principles of individual freedom; and finally, the warrior class of society must display blind devotion to their overseers as a basic function of their office . So let’s dive in.
- Are the formative years of Nazi Germany analogous to our current conditions in the United States ?
After the Armistice and the 1919 Versailles Treaty, Germany was in a state of ruin. All of Europe was suffering from a struggling economy, most of all the Central Powers, who were forced by the conditions of the Treaty to pay heavy reparations. Germany had lost all of her pre-war foreign investments, 15 percent of her domestic production
capacity was gone, and over 90 percent of her merchant fleets were destroyed or confiscated. Starvation was a persistent problem, and the central issue for Germany throughout the 20’s and 30’s was food, and stability. Stability came briefly to Germany when the conditions of the Treaty were renegotiated, but when Wall Street crashed in 1929, so did the world. By 1932, 30% of Germany’s workforce was unemployed, and those who had jobs were underemployed.
In the back of Germany’s mind, throughout this time, was anger. There was anger from the shame of defeat, anger from the conditions of the Treaty, and a desire to return to the world as a pre-Great War power. Much of the population had lived through and remembered the prosperity of the 1900’s and 1910’s. These conditions of extreme privation, shame and poverty across all class lines led to an upwelling of communal, nationalistic thought, best summed by Hitler’s own words: “Society’s needs come before the individual’s needs.”
By contrast, the housing bubble in the United States burst in 2007. Unemployment peaked at about 10% in 2009 but has dropped to pre-recession levels. There is no mass poverty, no mass starvation, all US foreign investments are doing well and there are no struggles between competing governments. The Constitution is still the law of the land, the Supreme Court is still batting down invocations against the Bill of Rights, and all in all, the state of the Union resembles the state of 1930’s Germany in no significant ways.
So already, we know we cannot reasonably conclude that there is an analogy between American police and military, and the horrors of the Holocaust. But for the sake of argument, let’s continue:
- Does the consensus on racial issues among the common people in the United States resemble the consensus on racial issues among the 1930’s German citizenry?
The racial consensus in 1930’s Europe was extreme. Even prior to the rise of Nazism, the Germans committed atrocities during Herero and Namaqua Genocide in what is now Namibia, forcing the survivors into concentration camps and performing medical experiments. German professors, such as Eugene Fischer, injected mixed-race children with smallpox, tuberculosis, and typhus in the name of research, and openly advocated the genocide of inferior races. When Nazism became the established government in 1933, racism became policy. This racism, which predated Nazism and was extreme, came out in open street violence against other races, particularly against Jews. The cultural and society collaboration was extensive. It was no secret that Jews were being herded into Ghettos and camps, and recent memory and knowledge of the Herero and Mamaqua genocides, as well as the other atrocities committed by other
European colonialist powers, strips away any claim to plausible deniability. The German people knew what they were doing, and they believed it was the right thing to do. Nowhere is this more clear than in the interviews with Oskar Groning, an SS guard stationed at Auschwitz, who decried the murder of hundreds of thousands, and yet still believes – and testifies – that something had to be done about the Jews and the other races.
By contrast, the United States has multiple Supreme Court rulings that correctly interpret the Constitution to provide protection and equality to all persons, regardless of race, creed, ethnicity, etc. And while we as a society have failed in the past and continue to fail in upholding these laws perfectly, most Americans believe in one form or another that people are basically equal, and while we disagree on how best to proceed, the consensus is that race relations with eventually be worked out. This is not possible in a society that is tacitly and explicitly comfortable with genocide. The United States foundational legal document affirms racial equality. In this respect, too, the conditions preceding and during the Holocaust are entirely, substantively different from the conditions existing in the United States today.
- Is the government invested in the expulsion and extermination of “undesirable” persons or systems of thought?
I will not spend a long time on this point – I believe it is common knowledge that the Nazi government was intent and invested in finding the “Final Solution.” The information detailing their commitment is not hard to find. By contrast, a few of the more nationalistic politicians in the US, most notably President Trump, have advocated denying immigration from Islamic nations, citing concerns about the kind of extreme rise in violence seen as a result of PM Angela Merkel and the EU’s “open door” policy. There is also a desire to enforce existing border control laws and deport illegal migrants, particularly those who are convicted violent felons. These concerns are substantively different than the “Final Solution” and there have been no calls from any legitimate political force, be it an individual or a group, for mass deportation of US citizens or legal migrants, suspension of Constitutional rights, or genocide. Therefore, on this third point as well, there is no basis to believe that the political and governmental conditions in the US mirror or even realistically resemble the conditions in 1930’s Germany.
- Are the people of the United States invested in fascist principles, rather than principles of individual freedom?
The short answer is no. The long answer is that the majority of Americans have a narrow view of politics, from a global scale. There are no significant parties seeking to overthrow the government and establish a dictatorship. There are no significant parties seeking to abolish all government. Even hard-right libertarians recognize the need for some government and most if not all Americans on the right and the center of the political spectrum hold to the precepts of the Constitution. Proponent of the hard left, such as former President Barack Obama, view the Constitution as an inhibitor – but this view accounts for less than 15% of the American population. By a large margin, Americans believe that the Constitutional Republic is a functional government, and that individual freedom and government transparency are important. And even when there was disagreement as to what constitutes a violation of civil liberties, the majority of Americans believe that the government ought not violate civil liberties, even if it could enhance security. It is therefore clear to me that Americans – and therefore, aside from caricatures, cops and soldiers – do not support fascist principles, and instead support and desire for themselves and others the rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution.
- Does the warrior class of society display blind devotion to their overseers, and is this a basic function of their office?
This is perhaps the most absurd and the most insulting element of the argument. Whenever someone says this, they add the qualifier, “I’m sure you wouldn’t, but…” And then they continue to say that soldiers and law enforcement are rather stupid and easily manipulated, and of course we may very well be committing or complicit in atrocities. Pro tip: the qualifier just makes me angry. I’d rather you insulted just me then my entire honor group.
So let’s address, as a start, the oaths that enlisted soldiers take. They swear an oath
first to the Constitution, and swear to obey lawful orders from their commanders. Military officers swear only to protect and serve the Constitution. In both cases, rule of law is first and foremost, and in the case of officers, there is no oath made binding the officer to obey the commands of anyone, except in service to the Constitution. While there is no standardized format for law enforcement professionals, most oaths of office resemble the military in these same ways (as well as swearing to uphold local and state laws.)
So as a basic function of our office, we are required to do exactly the opposite of blind devotion. We are required, by our oath and our honor, to examine our orders, to act justly and reflect on our actions. Moreover, in my experience in the military and the law enforcement communities, that sense of purpose and duty to be honorable and uphold the law above blind devotion is the norm. It’s a part of the military culture to abide by the terms of human dignity.
This is why the United States and her Western allies, unique among the nations, have strived to uphold the Hague and Geneva Conventions, and the Articles of War. This is why American law enforcement officers actually want accountability – provided that we are held accountable to reasonable standards such as those outlined by various Supreme Court rulings. And as imperfect as we are, and as often as we have failed, I have never heard an officer from any jurisdiction express a desire for corrupt cops to go free – nor have I heard any soldier express a desire for a legitimate war criminal to be exonerated. I’m sure such people exist – but they are abnormal and counter to the cultures of the military and law enforcement communities, so much so that in the previous decade of service I have never met one.
Therefore, I find it to be the exact opposite – that rather then follow blindly, we examine our motives and the motives of our leaders, and that instead of being required to obey without question, we are required to question and exercise judgment. And this is in sharp contrast to the training and indoctrination of the German youths, and the requirement and cultural expectation to obey the Fuhrer, no matter what.
I have already read the Urban Dictionary’s definition of Godwin’s Law. However, there is an addendum that I did not mention. It reads, “When such an event occurs [appealing to Hitler or the Nazis in an argument], the person guilty of invoking Godwin’s Law has effectively forfeited the argument.” For the reasons I’ve laid out, I hope you can see how clear this is. Nazi Germany existed in an entirely different social, economic and historical framework then the United States. The racial consensus in the US bears no resemblance whatsoever to the racial consensus in Nazi Germany (and such a comparison is a grave disservice to the survivors of the Holocaust, and the racial minorities of this nation). The government has no investment or desire to invest in the wholesale violation of civil liberties and genocide of any people group or ideology. The American people are nearly entirely opposed to fascist ideals. And the warrior class, far from being a cluster of mindless minions, is comprised of men and women who are sworn to uphold the very laws that guarantee civil liberties, and are dedicated to a code of honor that requires self-examination.
There is simply no comparison between anything going on in the United States, and the conditions that led to the rise of Hitler. So – now that we’ve cleared that up – can we all have civilized discussions about politics now?
 Attributed by A. E. Samaan in ‘From a Race of Masters to a Master Race’
 His interview, as well as surrounding context, can be found in the film Auschwitz: The Nazis and the Final Solution, now streaming on Netflix.
 http://www.gallup.com/poll/1687/race-relations.aspx, showing differing perspectives on race relations but consensus across race lines that the future of racial relations in the US is improving and will continue to improve, 56.6% positive vs. 40.8% negative between Aug 2011 and the present.
 See Auschwitz: The Nazis and the Final Solution. Seriously, go watch it.