Godwin’s Law is a reasonably good statement about internet arguments–that the argument is over when someone accuses the other side of being just like Hitler–because “Hitler” is what rhetoricians call an “ultimate term;” that is, all connotation and no denotation. It’s a word that powerfully evokes a set of closely associated ideas, the precise connection of which is surprisingly vague (“freedom,” “terrorist,” “political correctness”). People think they’re making a clear reference, but they aren’t (as you can tell if you ask them to define the term precisely-they just get mad). Since the invocation of Hitler is simultaneously powerful, apparently clear, but actually unclear, comparing an opponent to Hitler ends a conversation because there appears to be no useful way to refute or support the comparison.
So, what would it mean to try to have a reasonable conversation about Hitler, who he was, what he did, and how he got a fairly normal country to hand over all power to him and support him in a policy of ethnic cleansing that involved “cleansing” Europe of every member of lots of religions, ethnicities, and behaviors AND take on almost every other European power and every other major industrialized nation.
If we want to know whether a leader is like a current Hitler in some significant way, then we need to look at how Hitler looked in the moment, and not just through the lens of what we know was revealed about him later. Knowing how things played out, and what we now know, is useful, but it’s just as useful to understand why people didn’t predict those things, or didn’t know what we know. And I think a good place to start for thinking about why people didn’t worry as much about him as we think they should have is his March 23, 1933 speech to the Reichstag. Talking about that speech requires some background on Hitler and his context, and talking about comparing a current leader to Hitler requires at least a little bit of an explanation about Hitler analogies.
Everyone is like Hitler in some way–they have a two-syllable name, they’re charismatic, they like dogs, they eat pasta. An argument about a historical comparison needs to be about whether the analogy is apt, if the similarities are causally important to the outcome we want to avoid (Hitler didn’t destroy Germany because he liked dogs).
After all, Hitler did a lot of things–he was vegetarian, a dog lover, a shitty painter, a racist, a lame architect, an authoritarian who was cozy with the industrial class, a poseur art critic, a millionaire who dodged his taxes, a traditionalist when it came to gender roles, a charismatic leader. We worry about whether a current leader is just like Hitler because we’re worried about whether that leader will drag a country into authoritarian government, unnecessary war, an ultimately disastrous economic policy, the jailing of all political opponents, and genocide.
And so we need to figure out which of his characteristics are causally related to those outcomes. Being a dog owner wasn’t one of them. Being authoritarian, racist, and a charismatic leader (not a leader who is charismatic) was causally related to those outcomes, but they aren’t necessarily related (in the logical sense–not all racists engage in genocide, so the two aren’t necessarily related). Genocide is always racist, but not all racism ends in genocide.
So, how did he do it? Hitler didn’t take a nation of tolerant and peaceful supporters of democracy and wave a word wand that magically transformed them into racist warmongerers. He did four things. First, he rode various very powerful cultural and political waves in Weimar German culture to power. Second, when in power, he transformed Germany into a one-party state. Third, between 1933 and 1939 (by which time it was incredibly dangerous to oppose him), he made things better for a lot of Germans. Granted, he did so in ways that would only work for the short term, but people tend not to ask about the long term. Fourth, and the one I want to talk about here, he made his authoritarianism look like not authoritarianism by reframing it as decisiveness, a stance that was helped by his carefully controlling his public image and public rhetoric, looking more reasonable than anyone expected–he had set a low bar–and saying that he just wanted peace and prosperity. He had a rhetoric that made people feel they could trust him.
And so what was that rhetoric?
Pt. I: “This collapse is due to internal infirmities in our national body corporate:” Popular science, their conspiracies, and agreement is all we Need
Pt. II: “A source of unshakeable authority:” Authoritarian rhetoric
Pt. III: Immediate rhetorical background
Pt. IV: “Decide for Peace or War:” Hitler’s March 23, 1933 speech before the Reichstag