Godwin’s law does not mean we can’t talk about nazis

When Vladimir Putin called the Jewish president of Ukraine a nazi, it didn’t surprise me that the leader of Russia could make such a bizarre claim with a straight face. I don’t know how it is in the rest of the world, but my experience in the United States is that people work very hard to enforce ignorance around fascism, and especially anything that has to do with Adolf Hitler. That’s an environment in which misinformation and disinformation can thrive.

Under Hitler, 11 million people were put to death for being undesirable—most of those for being Jewish. It was not the first act of mass brutality, nor was it the first genocide, but the documentary evidence collected after the fact made it the most memorable of these atrocities in history. Those who bore witness at the time clearly felt that it should be remembered, for engraved on a plaque at the Auschwitz concentration camp is a well-known aphorism of George Santayana, translated thus: The one who does not remember history is bound to live through it again.

Look, and remember, because if we do not understand what acts we humans are capable of committing, we will never be able to prevent more of the same.

Curiously, it wasn’t the periodic waves of holocaust deniers who have eroded our understanding of what occurred in Germany of the 1930s and ’40s. Those crackpots have always been resisted and denounced. Rather, it’s when someone tries to draw any kind of comparison that the silencing occurs. Given that we still don’t know enough to be able to identify someone like Hitler before the next genocide begins, it’s not uncommon for people to note similarities to actions taken in Germany during the nazi period, or beforehand. That tendency was summarized in 1990 by Mike Godwin. As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.

This is as it should be. Since we don’t understand what causes these brutal events, it’s appropriate to test our observations with others, and to watch events that feel chillingly familiar with interest to see how they pan out. Ideally, we will eventually be able to figure out how to prevent ethnic cleansing, genocide, and the like. I’m not talking about killing would-be dictators when they are infants; I’m talking about changing the course of human lives to prevent any from rising to power in that way—or for anyone else to be prone to following despots like that.

Something about how we relate to the horrific events of the holocaust has changed, though, and it’s reflected in what we understand about Godwin’s law. Instead of observing the inevitability of discussing Hitler, it’s common now for people to believe that Godwin’s law is something to the effect of, “whoever mentions Hitler first in an internet argument, loses.” It’s been twisted into a warning not to speak about those events at all.

In a world where it’s never okay to talk about the bad people and what they did, it’s not surprising that Putin can claim that a Jew is also a nazi. That kind of ignorance can take decades to develop in an oppressed populace—it took a long time for Tianamen Square to be forgotten in China—but we in “free” countries are free to choose that path. Sadly, many of us have done just that.

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