Godwin’s law is an adage that, as a discussion on the Internet grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Hitler approaches 100%. A corollary is that the first person in the discussion to mention Hitler loses.
I’ve been thinking about Godwin’s law, and, while there is value in not minimizing the atrocities of the Holocaust through comparisons to trivial wrongs, Godwin’s law is problematic in that it doesn’t provide any recognition of how fascism actually develops. Thus, Godwin’s law may be use to imply an argument is fallacious when the comparison is actually fair.
The rise of fascism
The issue is that fascism doesn’t appear as an overwhelming tsunami, but rather a slowly rising tide. There’s a well-known saying about the rise of Nazism that I always thought was apocryphal that is actually from a lecture by Martin Niemöller, a pastor imprisoned in Nazi concentration camps for seven years:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
Now, this is a beautiful rallying cry about the dangers of complacency during the rise of totalitarianism, but—as long as you think it’s apocryphal—it can easily be dismissed as an elegant but cynical attempt to inspire resistance. But knowing that it isn’t just a saying makes it hold much more weight.
It’s not someone’s attempt to convince me to fight. It’s a man expressing his experience. It’s not communist propaganda encouraging me to sacrifice my own interests for others, but rather Pastor Niemöller condemning himself for choosing not to act when he could have.
To me, that’s powerful. It makes me wonder how Niemöller said those words, about the expression on his face.
And that brings me back to Godwin’s law. That law is designed so that trivial things aren’t compared the immense monstrosity of the Holocaust. But the thing is, fascism doesn’t start with the Holocaust. Rather, it is a parade of tiny incremental changes that only after long years add up to the deepest horror.
Milton Mayer discusses this idea in detail in an excerpt from his book They Thought They Were Free. It’s excellent writing, allowing the reader to truly understand how the good citizens of Germany could allow this atrocity to happen.
“You see,” my colleague went on, “one doesn’t see exactly where or how to move. Believe me, this is true. Each act, each occasion, is worse than the last, but only a little worse. You wait for the next and the next. You wait for one great shocking occasion, thinking that others, when such a shock comes, will join with you in resisting somehow. You don’t want to act, or even talk, alone; you don’t want to ‘go out of your way to make trouble.’ Why not?—Well, you are not in the habit of doing it. And it is not just fear, fear of standing alone, that restrains you; it is also genuine uncertainty.
“But the one great shocking occasion, when tens or hundreds or thousands will join with you, never comes. That’s the difficulty. If the last and worst act of the whole regime had come immediately after the first and smallest, thousands, yes, millions would have been sufficiently shocked—if, let us say, the gassing of the Jews in ’43 had come immediately after the ‘German Firm’ stickers on the windows of non-Jewish shops in ’33. But of course this isn’t the way it happens. In between come all the hundreds of little steps, some of them imperceptible, each of them preparing you not to be shocked by the next. Step C is not so much worse than Step B, and, if you did not make a stand at Step B, why should you at Step C? And so on to Step D.”
And this is the problem with Godwin’s law. Each step toward fascism is so small that it is trivial by itself and therefore Godwin’s law would apply. But these trivial steps are what create a fascist regime, so Godwin’s law serves us poorly.
The bottom line
This incremental change is why people should be concerned about leaders who introduce the idea of “false news” to attempt to silence and discredit their critics, who make edicts targeting particular religions, or who praise people for extrajudicial killings of suspected criminals. Fascism is about building a wall, not in a day, but brick by brick over the course of years.