Lloyd Blankfein, the former head of Goldman Sachs, recently issued an asinine comment on the war in Ukraine. Amid speculation that Vladimir Putin might resort to using chemical weapons, Blankfein said it was “worth noting even Hitler didn’t permit his military to use chemical weapons, though he had them.” This statement is reminiscent of what then White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said in 2017, making a comparison with the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad: “You had someone as despicable as Hitler who didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons.” Wire creator David Simon echoed the point: “Possessing sarin gas, Hitler wouldn’t use it on soldiers even as his Reich fell.”
Facile invocations of Hitler are everywhere these days. Godwin’s law of Nazi analogies posited that in any online discussion, the longer it went on, the more likely it would be that someone would invoke Nazis and Hitler. Godwin’s law doesn’t say that Nazi analogies are bad or useless; it is merely an amusing observation of their prevalence in online arguments. In one way, that’s quite understandable. World War II was probably the defining event of the last century—the last “good” war, it’s argued—and Adolf Hitler history’s greatest villain. In a world haunted by the memory of the cataclysm Hitler caused, it would be shocking (and probably unhealthy) if we didn’t talk about Nazis a fair amount. We want to make sure we never allow another Holocaust, therefore checking whether we are dealing with a new threat on the level of Adolf Hitler is probably prudent.
But it’s possible to get carried away. And because these analogies to Hitler and Nazism can be very inflammatory, we have to think clearly about what they mean (the underlying message), and whether they are or aren’t appropriate.
The Chemical Weapons Problem
Notwithstanding that someone as prominent as the former head of Goldman Sachs could be ignorant enough to make the argument, Say What You Want About Hitler, At Least He Never Gassed Anyone, the “even Hitler didn’t use chemical weapons” observation runs into a number of problems.
To begin with, it is true that the Nazis had chemical weapons like sarin gas that they did not use. Historians still do not know exactly why Hitler didn’t deploy his full chemical arsenal on the battlefield. There is unfounded speculation that Hitler’s experience being gassed in World War I made him reluctant to deploy chemical weapons against soldiers, the theory apparently being that he was fine violently slaughtering them by any method so long as it didn’t irritate their lungs. But a more plausible explanation than “Hitler had a moral aversion to gassing people” (evidence from Auschwitz says otherwise) is that one of Hitler’s main opponents in the war, Winston Churchill, had long made it clear that he himself would not hesitate to use poison gas on an enemy. (It’s a bad idea to use chemical weapons if the other side also has them, just as it’s a bad idea to use nuclear weapons if the other side has them.) Thus, a desire to avoid having German cities attacked with gas is the best available explanation for Hitler’s reluctance to use gas on the battlefield. Churchill had made it clear to his chiefs of staff that if Germany used chemical weapons, he would unleash Britain’s own gasses without mercy: “In the event of the Germans using gas on the Russians. … We shall retaliate by drenching the German cities with gas on the largest possible scale.” As he said in 1919:
“I cannot understand this squeamishness about the use of gas. … It is not necessary to use only the most deadly gasses: gasses can be used which cause great inconvenience and would spread a lively terror and yet would leave no serious permanent effects on most of those affected.”1
Now, to return to the claim that “even Hitler didn’t use chemical weapons,” there are some additional considerations:
- If we arbitrarily limit discussion of “chemical weapons” to battlefield uses, we overlook the fact that Hitler’s forces used the poisonous gas Zyklon B to murder roughly 1.1 million people in gas chambers in concentration camps as part of a larger Nazi eugenics project of mass killing that benefited from the collusion of medical professionals.
- To say that “even Hitler” did not commit some particularly appalling act implies that Adolf Hitler had moral limits beyond which he would not go, or some kind of empathy for his enemies. This use of Hitler as Moral Reference Point essentially amounts to a kind of soft rehabilitation of Hitler. It should probably be considered objectionable to soften or mitigate Hitler’s crimes by suggesting that he had more principles than he in fact did.
- Anyone being treated as “worse than Hitler” is being portrayed as worse than the man widely considered the most morally depraved human being of the modern era. The implications here are concerning—what might be a justified action against such a person if they are indeed worse than Hitler? (Aggressive sanctions? Bombings? Regime change? Nukes?)
To describe Hitler as “not having used chemical weapons” (justifying the claim by restricting their analysis to the battlefield) and then to use this “fact” to claim Hitler’s actions did not meet some extreme state of moral evil, is to set aside the entire nature of Hitler’s genocidal project. The regime’s use of Zyklon B as a method of efficient mass murder was the end point of the larger Nazi eugenics or “racial hygiene” program to sterilize or eliminate genetically or medically “unfit” people (“life unworthy of life”) from the population. In other words, “chemical weapons” were not just a kind of battlefield weapon the morality of which we could debate. Chemical “weapons” in the form of poisonous gas enabled what is often considered the most horrific act of mass murder in history. To say “even Hitler didn’t use chemical weapons” is to become enmeshed in a moral debate over the particular means that Hitler used toward his psychopathic ends, as if there were different levels of morality—more moral, less moral—with which to pursue the project of “racial hygiene.”
When they’re deployed thoughtlessly, invocations of Hitler can actually end up softening Hitler’s evil, as in the case of the “Even Hitler didn’t use chemical weapons” argument. But even if it had been the case that Hitler was restrained about the use of poison gas, the argument wouldn’t be an effective one, because the fact that Hitler didn’t do something doesn’t mean that doing it makes you “worse than Hitler.” As David Dayen pointed out in response to Blankfein, “even Hitler didn’t build a tranche of BBB-rated subprime home loans and market them to German banks as performing bonds without telling them that John Paulson hand-picked the loans and took the other side of the bet.” The fact that Lloyd Blankfein’s own crimes did not have analogues among Hitler’s does not make Blankfein’s crimes worse than the Holocaust. It also doesn’t exonerate Blankfein or mean that his crimes were mild. It just means that they weren’t Hitler’s particular crimes.
In other words, none of the following two lines of reasoning holds up very well:
- If Hitler didn’t do Thing X, then a person who does it is worse than Hitler (and they must not be Appeased).
- If Hitler didn’t do Thing X, then a person who does it is less bad than Hitler.
- If Hitler did do Thing X, then a person who does it is like Hitler.
We use these arguments because Hitler is a convenient moral reference point, a stand-in for The Worst Person You Could Possibly Be. Because there is a nearly universal shared opposition to Hitler, using him as a yardstick to measure conduct is understandable. But the results are often appallingly offensive, as when billionaires whine that making them pay tax is worse than the Holocaust, or YouTube pundits insist that COVID-19 public health measures are Nazi-like. They end up minimizing the extent of Hitler’s crimes, by comparing them to something trivial.
The conservative right tends to specialize in arguments of this kind: “A Policy I Don’t Like Is The Holocaust, Because Things That Inconvenience Me Are The Worst Things That Have Ever Happened.” Ohio Rep. Warren Davidson tweeted an image of a Nazi-era “health pass” in refernce to vaccine mandates: “This has been done before. #Do Not Comply.” Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene had to apologize after comparing the House’s face mask mandate to the Holocaust; a county GOP party in Minnesota posted a meme comparing mask mandates to yellow stars that Jewish people were forced to wear in Nazi-controlled Europe. Others have made similar comparisons.
Sometimes the right goes in the other direction, and ends up citing Hitler for his wisdom, as when Illinois Representative Mary Miller told a crowd at a pro-Trump “Save the Republic” rally in 2021, just a day before the storming of the Capitol on Jan. 6: “Hitler was right on one thing. He said, ‘Whoever has the youth has the future.’ Our children are being propagandized.” A 2018 book by Michael C. Bender alleges that Donald Trump told his then chief of staff John Kelly: “Well, Hitler did do a lot of good things.” When Kelly told Trump he was wrong, Trump persisted, “emphasizing German economic recovery under Hitler during the 1930s,” according to the story. (Trump was once reported to have kept a book of Hitler’s speeches close to his bed.) Alarmingly, some contemporary right-wing rhetoric contains Social Darwinist ideas that echoes Hitler’s thinking.
At their silliest, political Hitler analogies come in the form of “the Nazis were socialists” arguments, which usually go something like: the Nazis believed the government should do things, socialists believe the government should do things, therefore Nazis and socialists believe the same thing. These comparisons ignore the disanalogies, the things that are not common between the two groups, such as the fact that the thing Nazis thought the government should do was “exterminate those deemed inferior” while the thing socialists believe it should do is “ensure a basic standard of living for all.” It’s very easy to look for something that Nazis did, find some way in which it parallels something today, and assume the two cases are similar in ways that they aren’t. Because the Third Reich was so monstrous, and people are naturally emotionally inclined to despise Nazis, these comparisons can turn off our thinking and cloud our reasoning.
What Making Someone “Worse than Hitler” Justifies Doing
Thoughtless Hitler analogies can be positively dangerous, because once somebody is worse than Hitler, almost anything is justified to stop them. Above all, they must not be “appeased,” since it is now widely agreed that it was a mistake in the 1930s for Britain and the United States to sit idly by and watch as Hitler militarized Germany and steadily increased his power. Hitler’s aggression was tolerated, in part out of a desire to avoid war, which only made the war worse once it became unavoidable. It is very important for countries to make sure that, the next time a leader arises who poses a threat to the world, the same mistake is not made.
And yet: it’s easy to take this principle to mean that no concessions to aggressive powers should ever be made, because each resembles the appeasement of Adolf Hitler in the 1930s. With Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, many have argued that the Western countries’ reluctance to go to war with Putin will embolden Putin in the same way Hitler was emboldened, and that the rest of Europe will be next.
That might be so, or it might not. Perhaps the differences between Putin and Hitler matter more than the similarities. Perhaps Putin is not pursuing global domination, but is doing what he says he is doing, which is trying specifically to reunite Ukraine and Russia, because he believes that Ukraine and Russia have a particular connection. And perhaps a war between NATO countries and Russia, based on the theory that Putin’s ambitions necessarily expand beyond Ukraine (which he cannot even conquer), would be far more disastrous than a diplomatic settlement. But once one concludes that one is in a struggle against the Hitler equivalent of our time, any option short of total war seems inadequate to deal with the problem. We cannot be casual about labeling people Hitlers, because it may determine how we respond, and the wrong response may be needlessly fatal to millions. When we think of ourselves as in a battle for democracy against an existential evil, we may fail to exercise the kind of cognitive empathy that is necessary to avoid conflict.
Over-reliance on Hitler analogies also dulls our thinking by obscuring other important historical parallels. History is rich with lessons, and many come from outside the period of 1939-1945. For instance, World War I, rather than World War II, offers important historical lessons about how the world can drift into catastrophe without a Hitler-like figure challenging others to “appease or fight.” If we see ourselves as trying to stop a Hitler, we may end up like the parties in WWI who felt diplomacy was impossible and in doing so made war inevitable. The United States’ own recent disastrous wars, Afghanistan and Iraq, also provide important lessons for our actions today, showing that when the U.S. thinks of itself as in a battle against “evil” and deploys military power mindlessly, it can end up senselessly wrecking millions of lives. These wars themselves were partly the product of a failure to learn the lesson of Vietnam, another delusional homicidal attempt to fight “bad guys” that caused nothing but human misery.
I am not saying we can never compare anyone to Hitler or anything to the Holocaust. Doing so may be illuminating. We discuss Hitler a fair amount here at Current Affairs. But if the “Hitler card” is played too liberally, we may end up in a situation where everyone is calling each other a Nazi and nobody is thinking seriously about how a repeat of the 20th century’s catastrophic bloodletting can be avoided.
In fact, while Churchill’s words are chilling and he was a monstrous human being, there is a certain important point buried here, namely that it’s unclear why we consider blowing people up with artillery shells to be acceptable but using a chemical weapon that would incapacitate rather than kill people to be beyond the pale. The inconsistency poses no dilemma for a pacifist, who does indeed assert that the “lively terror” of gasses and the dismemberment caused by mines, shells, and grenades are both horrific and unconscionable. We ought to oppose all acts of warfare, from crippling sanctions that lead to starvation to drone attacks to chemical weapons to bombs. ↩