Godwin’s Law

Thursday, July 26th, 2012

As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.  –  Mike Godwin

Most well-informed internet users are familiar with Godwin’s Law, a humorous observation which acknowledges the fact that since the Nazi regime in general and Hitler in particular are widely viewed as the very worst recent examples of human behavior imaginable, they are often invoked when a critic or debater wishes to vilify his opponent in the most extreme manner possible.  Mike Godwin has written (both in articles and in his book Cyber Rights) that it is precisely because such comparisons are sometimes appropriate (as in discussions about propaganda, eugenics or oppressive regimes) that he formulated the “law” or observation, so as to call attention to the fact that frivolous use of such analogies tends to “rob the valid comparisons of their impact.”

He is particularly critical of Holocaust comparisons; “Although deliberately framed as if it were a law of nature or of mathematics, its purpose has always been rhetorical and pedagogical:  I wanted folks who glibly compared someone else to Hitler or to Nazis to think a bit harder about the The Holocaust.”  A perfect example of this is in the recent tendency of trafficking fanatics to brand those who question their wild exaggerations as the equivalent of Holocaust deniers:  To compare the ancient evil of slavery with the modern one of genocide is merely asinine, but to compare those who demand basic proof for extraordinary claims with fanatics who deny overwhelming physical and documentary evidence and thousands of eyewitness accounts is both highly hypocritical and astonishingly irrational.

But Godwin’s clear statements about the intended application of his “law” don’t prevent some people from attempting to censor others’ arguments by invoking it even when the comparisons it is leveled against are in fact valid.  What makes such misuse more worthy of note than other sleazy argumentation tactics is what it says about people’s perception of the Nazi phenomenon:  By pretending the Nazis were so evil that NO comparison to them, however apt, is reasonable, we essentially say that Nazism was some sort of fluke that could never happen again…and that, sadly, is completely untrue.  People tend to overlook the fact that the Nazis were a legitimate political party duly elected to leadership of an advanced, modern country by the exact same democratic process as leaders are elected in every Western nation today.  Hitler was not a military dictator who seized power in some bloody coup d’état but a politician who gained his position by popular vote, and all of his actions as chief executive were 100% legal under the laws enacted by the German legislature.  The Nazis came to power by the same means as politicians always come to power everywhere (namely by telling the people what they wanted to hear), and the German people accepted the militaristic oppression of the Nazis for the exact reason that the British and American people have accepted the abridgement of their civil rights and ever-expanding police powers:  they valued the illusion of “safety” over the reality of liberty.

What this means is that whatever we may think of the Nazi’s morality, it’s impossible to fault their legality.  Morals are principles which transcend human behavior, while laws are merely arbitrary rules invented by eminently-fallible humans in order to control others and/or impose their own personal views of right action.  Some laws are moral and many immoral, but the majority are simply amoral; however, even moral or amoral laws can be (and often are) used for the highly immoral purpose of exerting external control over inoffensive individuals who neither desire nor require that control.  And because this is so, the act of agreeing to serve as a policeman in any regime is at best an amoral one, because in doing so the individual agrees to enforce (by violence if necessary) all of the laws passed by his government, whether he agrees with them or not; he abdicates his personal morality to those in authority and allows his actions to be dictated by others, even if he knows those actions to be wrong.

At Nuremberg, Western society established the legal precedent that “I was only following orders” is not a valid defense against wrongdoing even if the offender was only a low-level functionary in an authoritarian system, yet how often do we hear police abuses defended with phrases like “they’re just doing their job” or “cops don’t make the laws, they just enforce them”?  If a cop is tasked with enforcing a law he knows to be immoral, it is his duty as a moral man to refuse that order even if it means his job.  If he agrees with an immoral law then he is also immoral, and if he enforces a law he knows to be wrong even more so.  The law of the land in Nazi-era Germany was for Jews and other “undesirables” to be sent to concentration camps, and the maltreatment of the prisoners was encouraged and even ordered by those in charge; any German soldier or policeman enforcing those laws was the exact moral equivalent of any soldier or policeman under any other democratically-elected government enforcing the laws enacted by that regime.  Either “I was only following orders” is a valid defense, or it isn’t; either we agree that hired enforcers are absolved from responsibility because “they’re just doing their jobs”, or we don’t.  You can’t have it both ways, and sometimes Nazi analogies are entirely appropriate.

(Originally posted on The Honest Courtesan on March 5th, 2011)

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39 Responses to “Godwin’s Law”

  1. #1 |  derfel cadarn | 

    “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”.E. Burke We must now fully realize that the concepts of freedom and liberty in America are fading rapidly. We are at a tipping point in history that none of us believed possible. If good men/women do not take a stand NO|W it is likely that the opportunity will not present itself again. Even now a political solution is in all likelihood NOT possible. Much misery and anguish is in our future regardless of the course chosen,let that misery be spent in the cause of liberty. Thank you Radley for allowing us to meet Maggie,love you Maggie

  2. #2 |  John C. Randolph | 

    Actually, you can indeed fault the Nazi’s legality. At Nuremburg, the defendants were convicted under the laws of war according to the Hague Convention, of which Germany was a signatory.

    -jcr

  3. #3 |  generalgarbage | 

    Doubling down on “Women’s studies departments are ultra-successful Giga-Hitlers”, are we?

  4. #4 |  C. S. P. Schofield | 

    I have felt for some time that the trials at Nuremburg were a mistake of some magnitude. Their legitimacy is a joke, if only because of the participation of Stalin’s henchmen. What they established is that it is somehow acceptable for the victors in battle to pillory the losers before punishing them. They have been used since as an excuse to convene international courts to “try” people that one faction or another of international politics find objectionable.

    We should have shot any Nazi officials we were seriously angry with out of hand. The message “When you lose a war, bad things happen to you” would have been clear, and that is all that Nuremburg proved anyway.

  5. #5 |  Rick H. | 

    Doubling down on “Women’s studies departments are ultra-successful Giga-Hitlers”, are we?

    Still making up shit, throwing quotation marks around it and pretending your opponent said it. Trolling is so much easier than arguing!

  6. #6 |  damaged justice | 

    “Godwin’s Law” is primarily “used to dismiss out of hand valid analogies to underlying premises.”

  7. #7 |  Yizmo Gizmo | 

    As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1. – Mike Godwin

    Wouldn’t this rule also apply to the subject of Buddha or Darwin?
    Or any famous dude?

  8. #8 |  rj | 

    @ Yizmo

    Yes.

    It also applies to the invention of the wheel, the movie Howard the Duck, aerosol deodorant, and Marie Curie.

    And yet I find I do not wish to discard godwin’s law as a meaningless observation.

  9. #9 |  Mattocracy | 

    I believe this is the first thread I have ever read that mentions Howard the Duck.

  10. #10 |  StrangeOne | 

    Yizmo, I think it has to do with the phenomenon that online discussions potentially never end. Unlike conversations in real life where politeness and time constraints force people to reach some conclusion, or at least agree to disagree.

    As an online discussion lengthens the only people left in it are those that most bilaterally disagree. Eventually the discussion gets so vitriolic or pointless that the arguments are entirely about ego and ideology, often bearing little resemblance to the original discussion. At that point someone calls someone a Nazi. Which is the worst thing ever.

    Personally I find it kind of odd that out of all the genocidal massacres in the twentieth century only the holocaust is held up as the “worst thing ever”. There have been so many more brutal killings, both in volume and methodology, but Nazi’s catch the worst criticisms. Maybe it’s because the Nazi’s were stopped. Not necessarily because of the Holocaust, but the Nazi regime was eventually defeated by an international effort.

    The thing about the millions that Stalin and Mao purged or starved to death or the victims of the Khmer Rouge or the Rwandan Genocide is that none of the major world powers exerted any real effort to stop them. Hell many of the worst actors were outright supported by or allied with western powers at the time of their killings. Maybe that’s the problem. Admitting that the Soviets (or whoever) were demonstrably worse than the Nazi’s is also an admission of guilt. That when these men killed innocents by the millions the rest of the world just watched, so we share a part of their moral failing. It’s harder to share credit for the worst thing ever, so we pick on the defeated evil instead of the evil that persisted and carried on.

  11. #11 |  Deoxy | 

    Wouldn’t this rule also apply to the subject of Buddha or Darwin?
    Or any famous dude?

    Well, in a mathematical sense, that’s true of absolutely everything.

    But what it’s implicitly pointing out is that the probability approaches one much faster than most other things – that is, fast enough to be noticeable and comment on, as compared to most other topics.

  12. #12 |  Mike T | 

    A perfect example of this is in the recent tendency of trafficking fanatics to brand those who question their wild exaggerations as the equivalent of Holocaust deniers: To compare the ancient evil of slavery with the modern one of genocide is merely asinine, but to compare those who demand basic proof for extraordinary claims with fanatics who deny overwhelming physical and documentary evidence and thousands of eyewitness accounts is both highly hypocritical and astonishingly irrational.

    Similarly, many of the leftists who oppose the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq claim we’ve killed “conservatively” over 500,000 civilians with little evidence that I’ve ever seen. Like civil libertarians who make a mad dash for the worst possible scenario a law would enable instead of focusing on the more banal abuses, such claims only serve to reduce credibility with the public.

  13. #13 |  Deoxy | 

    It’s harder to share credit for the worst thing ever, so we pick on the defeated evil instead of the evil that persisted and carried on.

    I think that’s very true, but the Nazi atrocities were also extremely well documented and exceedingly hard to deny without looking like an idiot.

    Many of those other atrocities (the Soviet ones, in particular) have been fairly well denied for a long time and by people in positions of moral authority, so any mention of them risks being side-tracked into that discussion, while the Nazi comparison essentially does not have that risk (and anyone who DOES go down that path can essentially be written off as not arguing in good faith).

    Sadly, the second part makes the first one easier to get away with. Not sure what to do about it, though.

  14. #14 |  Mike T | 

    Personally I find it kind of odd that out of all the genocidal massacres in the twentieth century only the holocaust is held up as the “worst thing ever”. There have been so many more brutal killings, both in volume and methodology, but Nazi’s catch the worst criticisms. Maybe it’s because the Nazi’s were stopped. Not necessarily because of the Holocaust, but the Nazi regime was eventually defeated by an international effort.

    It goes back to the betrayal of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact and the concerted effort of the Soviets to portray Hitler and Mussolini as right-wing aggressors. Anyone who’s actually read the Manifesto of the Fascist Struggle or the Munich Manifesto and considers either party to be right-wing is an idiot; saying that they “governed to the right” on some things other than to point to their pragmatism is about as useless as saying that Stalin’s refusal to let the Soviet State wither away according to the Communist Manifesto is “clear proof” that they weren’t Communists after all.

    The majority of the democides were committed by the Communists and there are a lot of liberals who were and are sympathetic to Communism even if they disagree with it. This is really not much different than parents who raise a real monster of a child who goes on to rob and kill people, and in court they take his side even if they are ashamed of his actions.

  15. #15 |  Other Sean | 

    Another great piece from Maggie…

    Most people never had the luxury of studying philosophy and logic. They had to learn by their wits in a bad school system that was for the most part working against the development of their capacity for higher reasoning.

    Many of those people never got above the level of thinking by analogy.

    They don’t know how to say “Why look Mortimer, here we have an example of that bizarre theory of identity politics which insists each group can have its own epistemology, its own metaphysics, etc. It’s as if they’re saying the sun revolves around the earth for men, but not for women. How ridiculous!”

    But they do know how to say: “Yeah right asshole, there’s one truth for Nordic people, one truth for Slavs, no truth for Jews. We’ve heard that bullshit before, and you see how that worked out!”

    But these are in effect that same statement. The only difference between them is one of background education and manners. Simply invoking Godwin’s Law to dismiss the second statement is bullshit.

    Probably just the sort of bullshit Goebbles would have pulled, if he was around after comment threads were invented.

  16. #16 |  Quiet Desperation | 

    I propose the introduction of the Hitler Scale for online discussion.

    Obama’s radical, hard core socialism and plan to Destroy America would be rated 4.5 Hitlers by the TEA Party. Romney personally firing people at gunpoint and moving their jobs overseas comes in at 5.1 Hitlers as measured by the Occupy crowd. Over in the geekverse, Apple creating a computing appliance for normal people rates a full 30 Hitlers because not catering to the ubergeek niche is the greatest sin imaginable. Using a non-open source program is a much less objectionable 22.7 Hitlers.

  17. #17 |  Nancy Lebovitz | 

    One of the consequences of Hitler losing is that there were photographs of the death camps. People tend to find pictures very convincing.

    However, I’ll grant that losing does make it harder to get away with atrocities.

  18. #18 |  el coronado | 

    I believe this subject was brilliantly alluded to in the famous ‘allegory of the towel boy’ scene in “Howard the Duck.”

  19. #19 |  el coronado | 

    Also, am I the only one who’s noticed these comments all seem to have missed the point here? This post, while necessitating a longish historical context involving nazis & & show trials & Godwin’s observation, is *supposed to be* about how modern cops are essentially defending their ever-increasing atrocities with a legal notion that was supposedly debunked for all time at Nuremberg. That’s what it seems to read, anyway. Yet every comment to this point, even the moronic foray above into HTD-land, all appears to be focused on Adolf & the boys, or lawyer chat about what precedents the trials did or didn’t set.

    The issue is Who Will Watch the Watchers, not ‘who killed more, Adolf or Josef?’. (hint: actually, it was Mao. But then, he had more to work with.)

  20. #20 |  C. S. P. Schofield | 

    One reason that the Austrian Corporal gets it in the neck, and Stalin mostly doesn’t, is that is that the Western Intellectuals spent the last half of 20th Century pretending as hard as ever they could that Communism didn’t regularly result in mass murder. This was because they had, all to often, been cheerleaders for Communist States right up to (and far too often beyond) the point when it became clear that they were just another murder-and-misery machine. Hard to be an Intellectual Elite when you politics are that screwed, not that they haven’t tried.

  21. #21 |  Maggie McNeill | 

    #19 – Consider yourself given a cigar. That’s why I felt it was an appropriate cross-post for this blog in particular.

  22. #22 |  el coronado | 

    mmmmmmmmm….cigars…….

  23. #23 |  Mairead | 

    At Nuremberg, Western society established the legal precedent that “I was only following orders” is not a valid defense against wrongdoing even if the offender was only a low-level functionary in an authoritarian system,

    Not quite.

    What was established (and continues in the UN Charter) is that “following orders” is not necessarily a stay-out-of-jail-free card.

    The gating principle is whether the actor can relatively safely refuse. No ethical system requires that one must save the life of a stranger even at the cost of one’s own life, or the life of a spouse, child, sib, or parent. And similar balancing applies at other levels of harm.

  24. #24 |  SP | 

    Wow! Barack Obama was elected exactly in the same way that Adolf Hitler was elected. Imagine that he is eroding the rights of citizens in some of the same ways. Totalitarians are totalitarians no matter what ideology they come from.

    Yeah, and on the cops “just following orders” thing – spot on. It is a complete abdication of moral authority and moral responsibility. Most departments have become militaristic (like the Gestapo), reject any responsibility (just following orders[just like the Nazis]), and treat themselves as above the law (just like the Nazis).

  25. #25 |  Onlooker | 

    “By pretending the Nazis were so evil that NO comparison to them, however apt, is reasonable, we essentially say that Nazism was some sort of fluke that could never happen again…and that, sadly, is completely untrue.”

    Yes. It’s dangerous to think that such evil could not manifest itself again. Complacency grows as time moves on. And that’s when it creeps in again. And that’s what it usually does – creeps. It slowly moves in so that the masses don’t even realize it until it’s too late.

  26. #26 |  Anton Sherwood | 

    We’ll prevent it from ever happening again by insisting that it cannot ever happen again! Brilliant!

  27. #27 |  Bernard | 

    Comparing the ancient evil of slavery with the modern evil of genocide isn’t just assinine. It’s weird.

    Genocide existed in the ancient world and comparisons with more recent genocides can easily be made (lots of people have).

    Likewise, slavery exists in a relatively small way now but as a thriving industry in times which can hardly be called ancient.

    This kind of thing highlights the wider principle that Godwins Law makes more specific. People who use analogies because they are lurid rather than because they relate to the matter at hand are too stupid to reason with.

  28. #28 |  mooglar | 

    Historical note: Hitler didn’t come to power “by the same means as politicians always come to power everywhere (namely by telling the people what they wanted to hear).” He wasn’t elected. The Nazi Party never won a majority in the Reichstag in a free and fair election either. Only after Hitler was named Chancellor and outlawed and repressed the other political parties did the Nazis finally win a majority in an election.

    Hitler himself never won an election at all. At the time Germany had a head of state, President Hindenburg, who got to pick the head of government, the Chancellor, who actually led the government. Because other Chancellors had failed in the role some political elites decided to convince Hindenburg to make Hitler the Chancellor because they thought he would be forced to settle down and moderate in the face of actually having to govern. (And they thought, since the Nazis weren’t a majority in the Reichstag, he wouldn’t have enough support to do anything without those elites).

    Plus, they thought he was dumb and weak and they could control him. Hindenburg picked Hitler to be Chancellor because of internal politics, and not through any sort of open and democratic electoral process. Hitler and the Nazi Party weren’t even that popular at the time and most historians believe that, had Hindenburg not been persuaded to make Hitler the Chancellor in January of 1933, that there is little chance the Nazis would ever have won a majority in the Reichstag nor come to power.

    In other words, the Germans decided they liked Hitler after Hindenburg gave Hitler to them. They never, as a nation, chose Hitler nor the Nazi Party.

    This is all to say that, at least in terms of how Hitler and the Nazis came to power, it was so extraordinarily unlikely and idiosyncratic that it isn’t really all that useful as a comparison to other situations. It’s very dangerous to generalize from how the Nazis came to power. It didn’t happen the way many think and the main lesson (I think) we can take from it is to never appoint an extraordinarily evil person to power in the hopes you can control him. Since we don’t appoint our head of government in the US (we elect him, he’s the President) like they did in Weimar Germany, that same set of circumstances can’t really happen here.

    (Which is not to say that some fascistic autocrat could never get power in the US, only that it wouldn’t happen the way it did in Germany when Hitler came to power).

    (Which is also not to say that, as noted in the original post, lots of other valid comparisons can’t be made between the Nazis and things that have happened and are happening around the world today… the Nazis weren’t some historical anomaly that could never happen again… but they did come to power in a sort of unique way, is all I’m saying).

  29. #29 |  a_random_guy | 

    An interesting article that brings up an issue I have always found disturbing.

    You write that “all of [Hitler’s] actions as chief executive were 100% legal under the laws enacted by the German legislature”. The same applies down the line: all of the official actions carried out by the German military were 100% legal under prevailing German law. A bit later, you write “At Nuremberg, Western society established the legal precedent that “I was only following orders” is not a valid defense against wrongdoing”. “Wrongdoing” as defined by external powers, after the defeat and dissolution of the German government.

    You allude to this in your discussion of legality vs. morality, saying that a moral person should refuse to carry out legal-but-immoral actions. The problem is: who defines morality? Why is one person subject to another person’s interpretation morality? First example, consider abortion: both factions are convinced of their own morality, and of the immorality of the other side. Example 2, consider Islamic fundamentalists: they are morally convinced that unbelievers should be killed, while unbelievers have a rather different view.

    The aftermath of World War II was the first attempt to formalize war crimes trials. In previous wars, the victors simply took the losers aside and executed them, perhaps after a little rape, pillage and torture. Nuremberg was an attempt to put a civilized face on this. Nonetheless, prosecuting losers according to the victors’ rules has little to do with the objective application of justice and a whole lot to do with revenge.

    Let’s come back to the real point of this post: police enforcing laws that may be considered immoral. The question is, once again: whose morality? Politicians passed those laws, and they have political support from some groups when they do so. Those groups quite apparently consider the laws – and their enforcement – to be moral. Take the “War on Drugs” – while I may personally consider these laws to be immoral, the older generation of my family has exactly the opposite view. Whose morality should take precedence? What are you asking of individual police officers? That each should selectively enforce the laws according to his or her individual morality? Be careful what you wish for…

  30. #30 |  AlgerHiss | 

    This book ought to be required reading to graduate high school:

    http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0674076087/theagitator-20/

    It’s puts things into proper perspective in that “communists” made the “nazis” look like the Keystone Cops.

  31. #31 |  The Liberty Papers »Blog Archive » Quote of the Day: Following Orders Edition | 

    […] guest blogger Maggie McNeil made some very good points in a post she titled “Godwin’s Law” that dovetail nicely with a point I was trying to make in another post about government enforcing […]

  32. #32 |  hskiprob | 

    @mooglar – I disagree. If you study the usurpation of individual rights in this country over its history, you will find that except for a couple of laws – abolition of slavery and suffrage, there has been a constant attempt by those in government to extinguish our inalienable rights. A country founded on the protection of private property rights has given us at least 115 different types of taxation and regulation that stifles both job creation and productivity. A Federal personal income tax enforcement – the 2nd platform of communism, has given rise to many abused when no law has ever been enacted that requires the majority to file and pay it. The succinct, right to keep and bear arms has been convoluted into a maze of laws and regulations in different States. Our money isn’t even constitutionally legal. Most importantly, the abuses of government agents has, become greater just in my lifetime, as the enforcement of the multitude of malum Prohibitum laws, continues to be enacted.

    The 5th platform of communism – a central bank, is not challenged by our two party system, except for the few like Ron Paul, who tells the truth, even though it is not what people want th hear. Those that exchange safety for liberty, end up with neither and pull us all into the corruptive and tyranical system. If you look at how many times democracy has failed over history, it is the lack of knowledge as to what individual rights are and the moral foundation that enbraces the protection from the majority, to the minority and individual. Communist beleive that the individual has a moral obligation to the state and the majority, they say they are protecting and that my friend is the ultimate lie as it is an eroneous argument that someone can know what is in the best interests of another.

  33. #33 |  Leon Wolfeson | 

    @20 – And yet you pretend your corporatist capitalism isn’t far worse today.

    @29 – Exactly – it’s calling for personal enforcement of morals as law.

  34. #34 |  John Pomeroy | 

    Mooglar #28 said
    Historical note: Hitler didn’t come to power “by the same means as politicians always come to power everywhere (namely by telling the people what they wanted to hear).” He wasn’t elected. The Nazi Party never won a majority in the Reichstag in a free and fair election either. Only after Hitler was named Chancellor and outlawed and repressed the other political parties did the Nazis finally win a majority in an election.

    Clinton and the Democrats “gained control of the presidency” without winning a majority in both 1992 (43%) and ’96 (49.2%). And almost 10% fewer people voted in ’96 (94.5 million) than when Clinton was first elected in ’92 (102.7 millions). Not meaning to pick on Clinton, but Hitler’s chancellorship was just as legal as Clinton’s presidency.

  35. #35 |  Other Sean | 

    The second half of this thread provides a great explanation for Godwin’s Law:

    Hitler comparisons are popular because, after 65 years of books and movies on the subject, the history of the Third Reich is one subject just about everybody knows. Even better, it’s a subject so vast that it allows everyone to know (or to imagine he knows) something the others don’t.

    Two people who want to fight must find some common meeting ground. What better place than history’s most famous and heavily traveled path?

    No doubt, if there was an entire cable channel dedicated to the Thirty Year’s War, we’d all be on here accusing each other of being Count Pappenheims or something like that.

  36. #36 |  Rich (in name only) in Reno | 

    I have posited elsewhere on the intertubes that because Right Wing apologists also have a propensity to compare themselves to victims of Joseph Stalin whenever the facts box them into a corner (see the Martyred Global Warming Deniers Op-Ed in the WSJ of a few months back,) that maybe there should be a “Stalin codicil” to Godwin’s Law, which states that “as during an on-line discussion American Conservatives are confronted with more concrete facts that contradict their beliefs, the probability of a comparison involving Stalin and the Soviet Union approaches 1.”

    And then there’s “The Party of Lincoln” codicil…

  37. #37 |  Jess | 

    Brilliant satire, Rich.

  38. #38 |  Martin Law Firm | 

    Law that can be applied to any conversation of exchange of words. As more content is added to a discussion the probability of someone mentioning Hitler, or for that matter any other conceivable topic can only increase.

  39. #39 |  My Favorite Columns « The Honest Courtesan | 

    […] on why police states are a moral abomination, but I’m so proud of this one I even reposted it on The Agitator during my guest blogging there last month.  In it, I discuss the titular internet principle, […]

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