Reductio ad Hitlerum, for reduction to Hitler, is a term coined in 1951 by University of Chicago Professor Leo Strauss (1899-1973). With Reductio ad Hitlerum Professor Strauss sought to show that playing the Nazi card is an attempt to invalidate someone’s position on the basis that the same view was held by Adolf Hitler or the Nazi Party. For instance, Nazi Germany was against smoking; so are you, therefore you are a Nazi. Or, Hitler was a vegetarian, so vegetarianism is bad. Essentially, Reductio ad Hitlerum is a technique for undermining debate by accusing the opponent of being a Nazi.
According to Strauss, a view is not refuted by the fact that it happens to have been shared by Hitler, and Reductio ad Hitlerum proposes a rationale of guilt by association. If a policy is similar to one advocated by Hitler, then that is proof that the policy is undesirable. Reductio ad Hitlerum also takes the form of deliberately impugning certain ideas by implying that Hitler held similar ideas. Commentator Glen Beck is often criticized for his use of Reductio ad Hitlerum, for example by comparing the U.S. Government’s National Endowment for the Arts to Hitler’s Propaganda Ministry under Joseph Goebbels.
At times, both sides of an argument unreflectively accuse each other of Hitler-like behavior. Pro-gun advocates of the Second Amendment point out how Hitler, the dictator, carried out mass confiscation of private firearms; while gun control supporters accuse their pro-gun adversaries of Hitler-like behavior in wishing to deregulate gun ownership. It turns out that, when Hitler assumed power, German gun ownership was restricted under the gun control provisions imposed by the 1919 Versailles Decree, and Hitler deregulated the acquisition and transfer of long guns as well as of ammunition. Germany was officially disarmed under the Allied Occupation at the end of World War II.
There is even a rule for the use of Hitler analogies. Godwin’s Law -promulgated by American attorney and author Mike Godwin- is an internet adage asserting that: “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Hitler approaches 100 percent.” In other words, regardless of the topic, if a discussion goes on long enough, someone will compare someone else or something else to Hitler-like behavior.
Godwin introduced this principle as a memetic tool hoping to reduce the incidence of inappropriate hyperbolic comparisons to Hitler. A tradition has now developed, in news groups and other discussion forums that, when a Hitler comparison is made, the discussion is finished and whoever made the comparison loses the debate – great idea.
Both President Trump and President Obama, have been victims of Reductio ad Hitlerum accusations. Users intend their accusations as a stand-in for pure evil. But the problem with Reductio ad Hitlerum accusations in political, and other everyday debates is that it trivializes the real pure evil of the Holocaust. As such, Reductio ad Hitlerum accusations are offensive to the Jewish community, and to those that have suffered the consequences of Nazi ideology.
Nazi ideology brought together elements of anti-Semitism, racial hygiene and eugenics. It combined these abhorrent concepts with pan-Germanism and territorial expansionism. Reduction to Hitler is a lazy, unimaginative accusation. It is not intellectually acceptable to demonize political opponents over inconsequential policy differences by associating them with the horrors of the Holocaust.
I have visited the concentration and extermination camps in Auschwitz and Brzezinka where at least 1.1 million people died, 90 percent of them Jews. I have walked in somber silence among the exhibits and the barracks recalling the Nazi brutality passionately exposed in the first-person accounts of Auschwitz survivors like Elie Wiesel and Viktor Frankl. And, I find it appalling that we should elect to criticize someone’s political views with reference to the atrocities of Auschwitz.
During World War II, the Allies failed to act on early reports of the barbarism taking place at Auschwitz. It is ironic that, once again, we are rhetorically dismissive of Nazi barbarism with our frivolous use of Nazi analogies. It is time to retire Reduction to Hitler from our speech and writings.