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Godwin’s Law and its discontents

It is usually a bad thing to call one’s opponents Nazis, but it also reminds us that evil is very real.

An image of a 1934 Nazi Party rally in Nuremburg, Germany. Source: Public Domain.
An image of a 1934 Nazi Party rally in Nuremburg, Germany. Source: Public Domain.
Benjamin Kerstein
Benjamin Kerstein is a writer and editor living in Tel Aviv. Read more of his writing on Substack and his website. Follow him on Twitter @benj_kerstein. His books can be purchased here.

There is a famous axiom regarding internet discourse called “Godwin’s Law,” which holds, “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Hitler approaches 1.” That is to say, at some point, someone will call their opponent a Nazi. When this happens, the Law asserts, the very possibility of dialogue has been destroyed and the argument is now pointless.

Godwin’s Law is only one expression of a wider sentiment, which is that to compare one’s opponents to the Nazis is undesirable and offensive. First, as Godwin’s Law holds, it demonizes one’s opponent to the point that no agreement is possible. Second, it minimizes the Nazis’ crimes by equating them to something that may be offensive, but is hardly systematic mass murder. Third, given the immensity of the Nazis’ crimes, the comparison is by definition inaccurate.

These are all good arguments and, generally speaking, applicable. Yet no one seems to have gotten the message. Political discourse in the West and beyond is riddled with violations of Godwin’s Law. In the United States, for example, the left routinely accuses the right of Nazism or, in what is essentially a synonym, “fascism.”

Such accusations were routinely hurled at Donald Trump, which might be put down to the divisiveness of his presidency, except the same accusation was made against the relatively innocuous George W. Bush, who was sometimes referred to by the awkward expletive “Bushitler.”

While such rhetoric has long been the province of the left, the right has begun to hurl the same insult, claiming that since the Nazis claimed to be socialists of a kind, the left is a Nazi movement.

Even in Israel, where sensitivities ought to be highest, Godwin’s Law is not infrequently violated, though usually in the form of the “fascism” accusation, as outright references to Nazism are still mostly taboo. Nonetheless, in the run-up to the last election, the satirical—and often very funny—television show “Eretz Nehederet” (“A Wonderful Country”) broadcast a spoof of the musical “The Producers” that all but explicitly equated current National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir to Hitler.

Clearly, violations of Godwin’s Law feed divisiveness and often demolish the possibility of dialogue. But is the Nazi comparison always entirely illegitimate? I believe it is not. There is one sense in which the Nazi comparison may be too important to entirely abandon.

Although religion remains a strong force in world affairs, ours remains a largely secular age. Especially in the West, we have long since given up on the metaphysical claims of religion. The zeitgeist, despite challenge, remains mostly materialist, without a strong sense that “spiritual” ideas have a genuine, autonomous reality.

This is not necessarily a bad thing, in that things like burning witches, the Inquisition and slaughtering Jews for “deicide” are now long in the past. But it has one serious drawback: We no longer have a word for evil.

That is to say, while we still see certain beliefs or acts as “bad” or undesirable, we do not see them as the expression of an autonomous metaphysical force. Thus, we find it difficult to fully condemn even the most horrendous acts. Recall, for example, the chorus of laughter from certain circles after Bush gave his famous “Axis of Evil” speech. No, it was said, we cannot call terrorism “evil.” It is certainly a bad thing, but we must “understand” it and its root causes and then deal with it as we would any other irrational aberration.

While it is not necessarily wrong to refrain from demonizing people, this recoiling from the concept of evil has one very unfortunate side effect: It disarms us in the face of evil acts. Rather than see things like murdering 3,000 innocent people with suicide planes as the expression of a monstrous force that must be resisted, we regard it as a rather unfortunate misunderstanding. This fantasy is pleasant, but it is, alas, not true.

However, the general disdain for the idea that evil exists has one and only one exception: The Nazis. Whether due to the horrendous scope of their crimes or the hideousness of the ideology that drove them, the Nazis are rightfully viewed as a kind of Satan—the adversary of all that is good and sacred. Nazism is the one thing the West has that even vaguely resembles the devil.

This also provides the West with what may be the only moral imperative in which it absolutely believes: Don’t be like the Nazis. Indeed, the entire Western discourse on issues like racism, human rights, imperialism, militarism, authoritarianism, democracy, geopolitics, international relations and a great deal more is almost entirely driven by this imperative.

While this can often lead to irritating and hysterical rhetoric, and sometimes outright bad faith, it is probably a good thing. The world could do and has done worse than attempt not to be Nazis.

Moreover, the rightful demonization of Nazism gives the world a concept of evil that enjoys almost universal consent. Whatever its discontents, this means that, in a godless age, it can still be acknowledged that evil exists and must be fought.

Godwin’s Law is well and good for the internet and public discourse in general, but it is not a moral imperative. When we violate Godwin’s Law, at least when we have good reason to do so, we are acknowledging, all unknowing, a certain essential truth: If we are to resist evil, we must acknowledge that it exists. We need a word for it. Pace Godwin, “Nazi,” however problematic, is better than nothing.

Benjamin Kerstein is a writer and editor living in Tel Aviv. Read more of his writing on Substack and his website. Follow him on Twitter @benj_kerstein. His books can be purchased here.

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