In Defense of “Argumentum ad Hitlerum”

If you’ve visited the internet other than to visit this site, you’ve seen the interaction dozens (or hundreds?) of times by now. One person expresses a view. The view sounds crazy to someone else. The someone else says something to the effect of, “You know who else would have thought that? Hitler.” Or “You know who else did that sort of thing? The Nazis.” Usually, the group moderator or another participant in the dialogue will speak up, turning the argument against the accuser, calling that person out for using “argumentum ad hitlerum” or “reductio ad hitlerum” – that is, reducing the opponent’s view to the sort of thing perpetrated or thought by the Nazis or, in the extreme case, by Hitler himself. The argument is then summarily dismissed. And the reason for this dismissal is well-intentioned. However, I’m here to argue that we ought not to dismiss comparisons to Hitler or the Nazis so easily.

My point is simple.

Most of the atrocities in Nazi Germany (and its wartime territories) were not perpetrated by monsters, though a select group of perpetrators assuredly were. Rather, millions of average Germans and Nazi sympathizers and collaborators perpetrated or aided in these acts. And, like it or not, modern people are just as average, and are no more immune to blindly following orders or of being led down a primrose path than were Germans in the 1930s and 40s. The proof is in the regularity of genocides in human history (all the way up to the present day).

Consider: It is not at all likely that, say, a Texas border-protection militia is going to resort today to liquidation of a sub-population of Mexicans in their state. But we’re engaged in dangerous self-deception if we assume that they (or [insert any other extreme group]) are not capable of getting to that point eventually. We are all capable.

The quick dismissal of any comparison to Nazis is predicated on the assumption that the comparison is being drawn between what someone is doing or thinking now and what was the outcome of Nazi activities before and during the Holocaust. But the comparison toward which we ought to be more sympathetic is between the kind of people capable of atrocity and a person doing or thinking something scary today. We sell short the capacity for evil in the hearts and minds of so-thought modern, so-called enlightened people. When someone compares an idea to a Hitler- or Nazi-esque program or way of thinking, we should at least consider the comparison before we dismiss it. We have a lot to learn about ourselves by entertaining that comparison.

All of this is not to set aside the potential for harm and flippant use of these comparisons. Consider this USHMM article – “Why Holocaust Analogies Are Dangerous” with my argument in mind.

About Steve Capone

Writer hailing from Salt Lake City, Utah. Interdisciplinary teacher (read: generalist guiding inquiry) at an independent school. Adjunct instructor at a medium sized state school. Lover of learning. Favorite destination: Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin, Germany. @CaponeTeaches on Twitter M.S. Philosophy (Univ. of Utah 2013) M.A. Humanities (Univ. of Chicago 2007) B.A. Philosophy & English (Washington & Jefferson College 2006
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