Churchill should have known better. Campaigning in 1945, he delivered a speech suggesting that an unchecked Labour government would impose a socialist regime whose survival would require "some form of Gestapo." The British people had just finished nearly six years of war with Nazi Germany—the campaign fell between VE and VJ days—and recoiled at their prime minister's comparison of an opposition party with what he had once called "all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule" in the noble days of 1940.
His wife, Clementine, hated the evocation of the Nazi regime, and said so in advance, but the prime minister, his blood up, charged forward nonetheless. The speech became a touchstone for those who wanted to paint Churchill—the man who had saved the nation—as a hopeless reactionary. The Conservatives lost, and Churchill received, as he put it, "the Order of the Boot."
The important point for us is that even Winston Churchill, at war in the political arena, became so agitated by the passions of the moment that he likened something he hated (the prospect of a socialist government) with the thing he hated most (the Third Reich). He should not have done it—and neither should anyone else. Hannah Arendt wrote of the banality of evil she detected in watching Adolf Eichmann's trial in Jerusalem. To borrow her construction, we are in danger of turning evil itself into a triviality when we draw on the images of Hitler's Germany to make political points in debates that are in no way comparable to the terrors of Nazism.
Resorting to the Hitler card, if you will, is not a partisan sin; a quick review of the past half century suggests that voices from the right and from the left have chosen to evoke the Third Reich to serve their passing rhetorical purposes. In 1960, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley called Republican demands for a recount in the close-fought Kennedy-Nixon campaign "Hitler-type propaganda." Four years later, Barry Goldwater's running mate, Rep. William E. Miller of New York, referred to Lyndon Johnson's Great Society as the same kind of system that "came to life in Germany three decades ago when Adolf Hitler offered the people a welfare-state program, with promises to build everything they needed." In 1982, Gloria Steinem wrote: "A return to a strong family life, women's primary identity as mothers, tax penalties for remaining single, loans for young married couples and subsidies for childbearing, prohibition of prostitution and homosexuality, contraception, and abortion: all these were issues that the Roman Catholic Church...and the Nazi Party could agree on." In 1995, Reps. Charles Rangel and Major Owens of New York compared Newt Gingrich's Contract With America to the Third Reich; that same year, the National Rifle Association criticized federal law-enforcement officials as "jackbooted government thugs." In the years of George W. Bush, George Soros said the administration reminded him of living in occupied Hungary, and Michael Moore said that the Patriot Act was "as un-American as Mein Kampf."
Now the subject of President Obama's health-care plan has given us yet more examples to add to this sorry list (Rush Limbaugh is a particularly vivid entry). Given the enormity of the evil perpetrated by Nazi Germany, it seems reasonable to suggest a moratorium on the deployment of Third Reich imagery and language in domestic political conflicts that, while important, fall immeasurably short of Hitler's territorial ambitions and his Final Solution.
I am not suggesting that we forget the past and consign Hitler to history. Quite the opposite: we must always, always remember. That a seemingly civilized nation in the center of Europe committed such crimes is a perennial reminder that the human capacity for evil is bottomless. The further we move in time from the events of the Second World War, the more remote it all seems, as though the rise of National Socialism, the persistence of American isolationism, the cynicism of the Soviet Union, and the appeasement chic of the British upper classes are relics of an ancient era. But these forces are not antique. They are permanent. It could all happen again tomorrow—all of it.
That is why the example of Hitler should not be invoked lightly or often. In this case, less is more; to deploy Nazi imagery as a matter of course diminishes one of humankind's most potent lessons of its meaning and its power. The summer of 2009 has not been our finest hour on this front.