It’s a familiar script in American politics now. Every few months some politico runs his mouth off, comparing the policies of the other party to those of Nazi Germany. Then pundits take to the airwaves to criticize the exploitation of such painful memories to score cheap political points. The guilty party usually doubles down, insisting that the comparison was taken the wrong way—that he was merely warning of a slippery slope down to Nazism. Finally, the Anti-Defamation League steps in and denounces such glib analogies with the unchallengeable moral credibility of actual Holocaust survivors.
The latest iteration of this drama has been playing out over proposed tightening of America’s gun control laws. Talk radio host Lars Larson warned that registration of assault weapons “will be ‘your papers, please’ like Nazi Germany.” On the other side, legendary crooner Tony Bennett likened opposition to gun control to “the kind of turn that happened to the great country of Germany, when Nazis came over and created tragic things.” And when the Drudge Report ran the headline “White House Threatens ‘Executive Orders’ on Guns,” it featured photos of Hitler and Stalin.
On January 24, the ADL issued a press release condemning such rhetoric. Its national director, Abraham H. Foxman, was quoted: “While Americans are entitled to have strong opinions, there is also language that is inappropriate and offensive in any such discussion.” This echoes earlier releases: “Holocaust analogies simply have no place In politics” and “invoking the Holocaust and the Nazi effort to exterminate the Jewish people is offensive and has no place in civil discourse.”
The ADL is right. Such rhetoric is deeply disrespectful. But the righteous backlash against insensitivity should not overshadow the greater danger: that frivolous analogizing bludgeons the public into cynicism about historical lessons altogether. Through callous overuse, the worst tragedy of the twentieth century has lost much of its power to educate—and to warn.
When George W. Bush moved to grant legal immunity to telecom companies for providing information on suspected terrorists, MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann declared that it “begins to look like the bureaucrats of the Third Reich trying to protect the Krupp family industrial giants”—a conglomerate that exploited slave labor. With even less cause, Glenn Beck likened the young victims of the 2011 Utøya island massacre in Norway to the Hitler Youth. Such obviously vacuous comparisons cause great offense, and for little gain: Most everyone is wise to them by now.
But to banish invocations of Nazi Germany entirely is to overlook the reason why it’s so important to preserve our cultural memory of its crimes in the first place. There are indeed some cases in which the analogy—though uncomfortable—is both apt and necessary. Put simply, while most things are not slippery slopes to evil, some things might be. And unless we can draw upon history’s bitterest lessons, we risk judging wrongly.
When the principles of eugenics rear their head in bioethical debates, we should remember how those policies were justified in the past. Sure, there’s a difference between promoting amniocentesis screening for Down syndrome so parents can choose whether to abort, and actually mandating the abortion of disabled children. Certainly, physicians were motivated by compassion, not the racist pseudoscience behind Hitler’s T4 euthanasia program, in formulating the Groningen Protocol for euthanasia of infants. Yet citizens must be wide-awake to history when they decide how slippery that slope might be.
The same is true of the many questions that war forces us to consider. We live in a dangerous world in which our nation must make wrenching decisions about torture, assassination, and the death of innocent civilians. Considering these issues in light of history does not mean that there is a moral equivalence between us and the Third Reich. It means that we cannot stay on the moral high ground if we consider it automatically offensive to remember where the low ground is.
When authoritarian regimes around the world repress minority populations, history is our best counter to the assurance that “it won’t get any worse.” Since last year, thugs from Greece’s black-shirted Golden Dawn party have been marching through the streets of depression-ravaged Athens in broad daylight, terrorizing immigrants, gays, and ethnic minorities. One of Golden Dawn’s elected lawmakers stood before parliament and read a passage from the notorious anti-Jewish forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. That can and should remind us of Nazi Germany. But as Laurie Penny said, writing during the worst of the crisis for The Independent, opportunistic commentators have stripped Nazism of its instructive force by “tossing the simile into discussions of food labeling and over-enthusiastic traffic control.”
Although we can’t expect the people who’ve been abusing Nazi analogies to stop anytime soon, those of us who know better have a duty to refute them properly. Insensitivity to victims is offensive, but anesthetizing the public to history’s darkest chapter is truly dangerous. Like a powerful antibiotic, invocation of mankind’s gravest crimes carries deadly peril with overuse. Yet neither should we fear the medicine itself.
John-Clark Levin is the winner of the 2010 Eric Breindel Collegiate Journalism Award. He is writing a book on private maritime security forces, due out from Lexington Books later this year.