Nazis are making a comeback, not as part of political ideology, but as a political rhetorical device. The campaign trail is littered with Nazi comparisons, some more deft and some more heavy-handed, but all boiling down to the ultimate goal of comparing one’s opponent to – well – the epitome of evil. The accuracy of the comparisons may be open to debate, but the frequency of the comparisons is what should send red flags – really no pun intended – flying.
Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum made headlines this week when he made a fill-in-the-blanks comparison, lacking in a few key proper nouns.
“Remember, the Greatest Generation, for a year and a half, sat on the sidelines while Europe was under darkness, where our closest ally, Britain, was being bombed and leveled, while Japan was spreading its cancer all throughout Southeast Asia. America sat from 1940, when France fell, to December of ’41, and did almost nothing."
“Why? Because we’re a hopeful people. We think, ‘Well, you know, he’ll get better. You know, he’s a nice guy. I mean, it won’t be near as bad as what we think. This’ll be okay.’ Oh yeah, maybe he’s not the best guy, and after a while, you found out things about this guy over in Europe, and he’s not so good of a guy after all.”
Santorum, in his own defense, denied that the “nice guy” was Obama or that the “guy over in Europe” was Hitler, and added to a CBS correspondent that “"the World War II metaphor is one I''ve used 100 times in my career.” And in his defense, there were other bad guys at the time in Europe - Mussolini, Franco, Stalin, and so forth - but none of them were invading France or bombing Britain.
Nazi comparisons are certainly not new to the American political scene. During the 1984 presidential campaign, Walter Mondale released a letter that Ronald Reagan had written to Richard Nixon in 1960, in which the incumbent had compared John F. Kennedy to Adolf Hitler. Twenty years later, the George W. Bush camp took flack for a more direct use of the dictator, including him together in a portrait gallery of “the coalition of the wild-eyed” which included Hitler alongside Bush’s opponent, John Kerry.
But despite the questionable genealogy of Nazism-as-rhetorical-device, a casual observer might note that the rhetorical train is gaining speed.
Let’s look at the past few years:
In January 2011, during the debate on repealing the health care law, Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN) said that Republicans “say it''s a government takeover of health care, a big lie just like Goebbels. You say it enough, you repeat the lie, you repeat the lie, and eventually, people believe it. Like blood libel. That''s the same kind of thing.” The history lesson/Nazi comparison continued: “The Germans said enough about the Jews and people believed it–believed it and you have the Holocaust.”
Less than a year later, the infamous Nazi propagandist made another Congressional appearance when Rep. Allen West (R-FL) told reporters that “if Joseph Goebbels was around, he’d be very proud of the Democrat Party because they have an incredible propaganda machine.” For West, this was a repeat performance; in 2010, he said that his (Jewish) opponent’s campaign tracker had employed “Gestapo-type intimidation tactics.”
Between the Goebbelses, there was the Tea Party poster of Obama dressed up as Hitler. There was Newt Gingrich’s debate comparison between radical Islam and Nazism. Actually, former history professor Gingrich is a frequent Nazi-comparer. In 2010, he compared those attempting to build a mosque in lower Manhattan to Nazis. To his credit, historian Gingrich at least also nodded to other Twentieth Century totalitarian rulers when he said that his political opponents threatened America “at least as much as Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union” did.
There was the Glenn Beck comparison of the victims of the Norwegian terror attack to the Hitler Youth. But that should also be framed in the context of his 2007 comments in which he said that “I think Jesus Christ and Hitler had a lot in common, and that was they could both look you in the eye and say, "I`ve got an answer for you, follow me." One was evil; one was good. But they both could look you in the eye and have an answer for you.” Beck himself has weathered more than a few comparisons to the dean of the Third Reich.
The list could go on and on. Nazis are everywhere, filling up our political discourse. Is it intellectual laziness? Venal abuse of history? Or simply a rhetorical device?
In an ideologically pluralistic society, it might be hard to define the Voldemort, that which we all oppose. For the vast majority of Americans, Nazis equal evil. And the history student in me wonders that in the boiling down of history education, if Nazism is one of the few historical manifestations of tyranny that candidates know their listeners will have heard of. Maybe the words “tyranny,” “totalitarian,” “repressive,” “manipulative,” or “dictatorial” simply don’t poll as well.
In an increasingly secular and morally relativistic society, we may lack the ability to speak openly of evil, to use the word evil, and to calmly ascribe such moral judgment. Perhaps it is more comfortable to use the word Nazi or to compare to Hitler.
Maybe its just easier now. In 1960, Reagan made Nazi comparisons in an internal memo. By the last decade, the comparisons were out in the open. The very act of comparing makes the Holocaust more generic, less unique in its horror. The Holocaust as a household name.
Is it coincidental that such comparisons became more commonplace as the generation of people who remember Hitler’s rise to power is disappearing? Now that there are many fewer people who can speak from the basis of personal experience to complain that the comparison is disrespectful toward the horror they faced?
By the next presidential election, voters born in 1930 will be 86. Voters who were ten when say, the Nuremberg laws were enacted will be 91 and voters old enough to remember the Holocaust – let’s call that born in 1940 at the absolute latest – will be seventy-six at the very youngest. Will the octogenarians continue – as does Elie Wiesel – to take up arms? ADL leader and Holocaust survivor Abe Foxman (who was, in fact, born in 1940) diligently assaults attempts to enlist the Holocaust as a handy political metaphor, but what will happen in another 20 years? Will the Holocaust be relegated to the position of a political meme?
-Rebecca Anna Stoil