Godwin's Law states: "As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one." Fatih Akin, the German director of the rather grueling but not uninteresting Gegen die Wand (English title: Head-On), which won the Berlin Film Festival in 2004, is a walking illustration of Godwin's law.
He had a T-shirt printed up that replaces the 'S' in Bush's name with a swastika, and has been wearing it during a film shoot in Hamburg. It is illegal to display the swastika in any context in Germany, so Hamburg prosecutors are investigating (G). Akin defends his T-shirt in the most recent Spiegel magazine: "Bush's policies are comparable with those of the Third Reich. I believe that in Hollywood, under Bush, certain films have been directed on behalf of the Pentagon, in order to normalize things like torture and Guantanamo. The Bush Administration is gunning for a third world war, I'm convinced of that. In my opinion, these people are fascists."
I don't have much interest in addressing rhetoric like this, because it's poking a stick into a nest filled with dumb and angry wasps. But the "Bush is a Nazi" meme comes up enough that it seems to merit a closer look. The federal Justice Minister under the former German coalition government, Herta Däubler-Gmelin, had to step down after comparing (G) Bush to Hitler in September of 2002. At a conference I recently attended, an American professor from a big, mainstream American university earnestly tried to convince German colleagues that George W. Bush was "worse than Hitler." Germans then tried to convince this American (!) that the comparison was inappropriate, a pretty amusing spectacle.
Two points: (1) The Germans are right: the comparison of George W. Bush with Hitler, or the claim that the Bush Administration's policies are "comparable to the Third Reich," is unfathomably stupid; (2) The claim also plays into some unsavory tendencies in revisionist discourse, a fact which may not be obvious to non-Europeans.
First to the second point, about revisionism. Germany has a public culture of Vergangenheitsbewältigung ("coming to terms with" or "overcoming" the past). The good guys in this fight -- and the vast majority of Germans -- understand that the 13-year Nazi dictatorship in Germany was a supernova of terror, bloodshed, and evil virtually without parallel in modern human history. There are, however, revisionists -- usually, but not always, right-wingers. Right-wing Germans (and Austrians) cannot publicly deny the Holocaust or minimize Hitler's crimes, because that is against the law. What they can do, however, is "relativize" or "trivialize" the crimes of the Third Reich, to use the German words most commonly applied to this practice.
This most often takes the form of comparing Hitler with Stalin. I don't really see the point of this, but I don't find it particularly controversial. If you want to go by the sheer amount of suffering inflicted, they're certainly in the same league. There are other ways, though, to "domesticate" Adolf: by naming Auschwitz in a long series of other "catastrophes" of the 20th century (such as Hiroshima, the Cold War, etc.), comparing Hitler with other unpleasant or controversial leaders, or pointing out that Nazis were not alone in believing certain unsavory things. (Hitler, for instance, really did admire America's eugenics laws).
Now, not all of these observations or rhetorical strategies are in themselves illegitimate. However, if you use them, you must provide enough context so that your audience knows you're not trying to challenge Hitler's claim to the title of History's' Most Murderously Effective Racist Warmongering Dictator. The mildly famous Historikerstreit (G) ("Historian's Dispute") that took place in Germany in the mid-1980s, for instance, started when philosopher Jürgen Habermas' accusation that right-leaning German historians were downplaying the uniqueness of Nazi crimes, a charge against which the historians defended themselves with long, incandescently irate responses. It all makes for fun, sometimes harrowing reading.
Thus, the vulgar "Bush is a Nazi" argument isn't a problem because it's too harsh a judgment on George W. Bush, it's a problem because it's too forgiving a judgment of the Third Reich. If you say that George W. Bush is somehow "worse" than Adolf Hitler, as the poor confused American professor said, you are also saying that Hitler was less morally reprehensible than George W. Bush.
Neo-nazis, and other people with horrible, smelly right-wing tendencies are pleased when this happens. Their favorite meme enters the discourse, without them even having to mention it. Plus, most Nazis, of course, despise the United States. To them, it's a country run by a Jewish cabal of super-rich capitalists which supports the state of Israel and allied itself with the despicable Bolsheviks to destroy National Socialism. Of course President Bush is more morally reprehensible than Adolf Hitler. Hitler was a glorious leader, while Bush is nothing but the moronic figurehead of a "racially mongrelized" sham democracy which has mercilessly attacked the "noble" Arab race. Keep in mind that right-wing extremists in Germay recently made headlines by burning not only Anne Frank's diary but also an American flag.
So the analogy delights people who we really shouldn't be delighting. Further, it's not even close to being workable. There are, of course, some parallels between Bush's conduct and some policies or strategies of the Nazi regime, but that's simply because Bush has authoritarian tendencies, and therefore will do some things that call to mind parallels with dozens of authoritarian states, including but not limited to Nazi Germany. Even I've remarked on this before. But to argue any "comparability" between Bush and the Nazis is nothing but a stunt. Permitting the military to finance popular entertainment (which Akin provides no proof of) and pursuing aggressive, militaristic policies is something plenty of regimes have done, including Communist ones.
Akin picks out the Nazis (duh) because he wants to get attention. That this comparison is irresponsible should be obvious. But apparently it's still not, so let's do a little thought experiment. Let's imagine what our world would look like if George W. Bush really were a Nazi.
First, to the foreign policy:
- Guantanamo Bay would, of course, exist. However, it would be receiving constant new shipments of people, because the initial residents would all long since be dead -- worked and starved to death, and then incinerated in crematoria or dumped in mass graves. Of course, no journalist or lawyer would be allowed on the premises. Except those who had criticized the Administration, and they would last no longer than the other prisoners.
- The new inmates from Guantanamo Bay -- and the dozens of other camps like it -- would have been swept up during raids in Iraq and Afghanistan, or in the United States. If they offered the slightest resistance, they would be shot on the spot. Once they were packed off into the transport planes, nobody would ever hear of them again. Their families would receive a postcard a few months later saying they "died in a work accident."
- Iraq and Afghanistan would be filled with large factories producing consumer goods and materiel for the American war effort. The workers would live in secure camps next to the factories, would work 12-15 hours a day for no wages, and would receive food rations well below what they required to stay in good health. I don't even need to mention that the oil would be shipped directly to the United States, and anyone who questioned why Iraqis were not being paid for it would be sent immediately to Guantanamo, if not simply executedon the spot.
- To deter insurgent attacks, the U.S. military would round up 50-100 civilians who lived near the site of any attack, line them up against a wall, shoot them. Their bodies would be allowed to rot in the sun for a few days to bring the message home, and then the U.S. military would announce the action and its justification in printed Arabic posters all over the city.
Now, to domestic affairs:
- Bush would be the unquestioned and absolute leader of the United States. There might still be a U.S. Congress, but it would be no more than a rubber-stamp, and a shift in power would be inconceivable. Bush would have a ruling philosophy called, let's say, Bushism. Under this philosophy, persons of Arab descent would be viewed as inferior and harmful to the human race. They would be locked away in ghettos just outside major U.S. cities; anyone who left the ghetto without authorization would be shot on sight by government guards. Their property, jobs, and all civil rights would be stripped of them. Eventually, all of them, without a single exception, would be shipped to death factories and incinerated. As at Auschwitz, the crematoria would be so busy that their chimneys would have to be regularly unclogged of human fat deposits.
- There would be no Democratic Party. It would be an illegal organization, and most of its leaders would be long dead. There would only be the Bush Republican Party. Anyone who sought serious career advancement would have to join it. The press, the military, the economic elite, writers, the legal profession, and even the medical profession would all be required to accept basic principles of Bushism. Although prominent professionals might have some leeway to timidly criticize the party line or refuse to take part in discrimination, most would not have this option. If they openly criticized Bush, they would at a minimum lose their jobs, and might well be shipped off to Guantanamo or some similar place, never to be heard from again.
- Any media outlet that criticized Bush's policies would promptly be shut down by a large, shadowy domestic security agency. Their presses and servers would be confiscated and destroyed by the government, and their editors shipped off to Guantanamo, probably after a brief show trial in which they confessed that they were traitors or spies who deserved nothing better. The public confessions would be secured by torture and threats against their remaining family members.
This cheery little sketch is drawn from my personal Library of National Socialism, which includes such books as The Face of the Third Reich by Joachim C. Fest; Hitler's Justice: the Courts of the Third Reich by Ingo Müller; Racial Hygiene: Medicine under the Nazis by Robert N. Proctor; and The German Dictatorship by Karl Dietrich Bracher, to name just English-language sources (Fest, Müller, and Bracher are German). I've also read several German books about the National Socialist dictatorship.
As the sketch makes clear, Bush Administration policies are to the Nazi dictatorship as a paper cut is to terminal cancer; as a flashlight is to the Sun, as a glass of water is to the Black Sea. They are not in the same league, they are not even close.
By all means criticize George W. Bush. Call him a warmonger, call him a war criminal (shouldn't it raise a few eyebrows to know that his allies in Congress are trying to weaken the War Crimes Act?). Point out that he's authorized torture and undermined international institutions and broken international law. Accuse him of misleading the world and the American public to justify the Iraq war, and utterly botching the occupation of that country. Vilify him for whipping up nationalistic sentiment and analyzing the world situation in hopelessly Manichean terms. Make fun of his inability to speak proper English.
But please don't call him a Nazi.