Godwin's Law Is Our New Reality | Opinion

Last week, Gina Carano, the star of the Disney Plus show The Mandalorian, was fired from the show after sharing a controversial, Holocaust-themed post on Instagram. "Jews were beaten in the streets, not by Nazi soldiers but by their neighbors...even by children," read the post. "Because history is edited, most people today don't realize that to get to the point where Nazi soldiers could easily round up thousands of Jews, the government first made their own neighbors hate them simply for being Jews. How is that any different from hating someone for their political views".

The post, which compared the horrors the Nazis meted out against Jews to the state of Republicans in America today, spawned a flurry of angry responses, galvanizing into the FireGinaCarano hashtag. But the brouhaha was merely one episode in something that's become all too common: excessive comparisons of one's political foes to the Nazis or their victims. Sadly, this has become a salient feature of our political, intellectual and political culture.

In fact, Carano's own colleague and costar, Pedro Pascal, made his own Holocaust analogy in a 2018 tweet that compared the Trump administration's immigration policy to a concentration camp. Pascal, as fans of The Mandalorian pointed out, was not fired, no doubt because he picked the right target for his comparison.

But the problem with Hitler analogies run amok is not only the hypocrisy of who is punished for them and who is not. There is a debilitating, poisoning effect on our culture when this analogy is deployed willy nilly which cheapens the true horror of the Nazis crimes while creating a toxic political environment. What these impulsive analogies lead to is only to the further dilution of the Holocaust and the association of humanity's darkest era with both the mundane and the hardly relevant.

If only it were just movie stars who had succumbed to this foible, but you see it equally from academics at America's most august institutions of higher learning. Yale historian Timothy Snyder has been a dominant voice in the propagation of the Hitler analogy, going so far as to project the burning of the Reichstag onto the events that ushered in Trump's entrance to the White House. He has been joined by another Yale scholar, philosopher Jason Stanley, who suggests in his book How Fascism Works that fascism's tenth pillar, is "Arbeit Macht Frei"—that famous slogan over the gate to Auschwitz: work makes you free. Stanley sees these words in the accusation leveled by the far right, that the progressive call for a more robust welfare state betrays an innate laziness and decadence.

Needless to say, this is ridiculous. The use of Hitler as both a political weapon and a measuring rod—allowing us to ascertain how dangerous any emerging leader with some predilection toward authoritarianism is—can be quite preposterous, as in the above example.

Yet it is nothing new. Three decades ago, the internet coined Godwin's Law: "As a discussion on the Internet grows longer, the likelihood of a person's being compared to Hitler or another Nazi reference, increases." Any Google search of Obama and Hitler, Hillary Clinton and Hitler, Benjamin Netanyahu or Yitzhak Rabin and Hitler, even Mother Teresa and Hitler, indeed brings forth plenty of sites, images, blogposts and references.

What is new about the recent wave of Hitler analogies is not only their frequency but also their self-proclaimed prophetic capacities. By refusing to take off their Hitlerian or Nazi lenses even for a moment to view our reality free of the urge to travel eight or nine decades back in time to score a political point, these comparisons bring a healthy political debate to an end as soon as it begins. Those promulgating them act as towering oracles, whose arguments stand above all others with their unique capacity to trace history's cyclical nature and offer, thereby, some rash political forecasts.

Pedro Pascal and Gina Carano
Pedro Pascal and Gina Carano arrive at the premiere of Lucasfilm's first-ever, live-action series, "The Mandalorian," at the El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood, Calif. on November 13, 2019. Jesse Grant/Getty Images for Disney

These analogies and their practitioners nip in the bud political discussions precisely where they should have been launched. Rather than invite us to a serious discussion of the roots of Trumpism and the rise of global populist trends across different nations and cultures, all we are left with are gas chambers and crematoria, victims and perpetrators, bystanders, and Righteous Gentiles—with figures and terms that, fortunately, remain beyond our grasp and our relatively peaceful reality.

In other words, those using Hitler and Nazis as an insult to our politicians are in fact not insulting the politicians they attack so much as they are us, the people they are inflicting these analogies upon. For the analogies forestall the very democratic debate that is the only alternative to fascism.

Some would argue that the prevalence of the Godwin Law in our day and age is a good sign, proof that society has learned the Holocaust's key lessons. It is vigilant when even the slightest sign of bigotry, racism or neo-Nazi sympathies rear their ugly heads. But for me, as for many other Holocaust educators and survivor families, nothing could be less true. As Professor Yehuda Bauer observed in his celebrated essay calling against the "mystification of the Holocaust," the grandest conundrum of any serious exploration of the Holocaust is when and how to draw the analogy: If it is always relevant, its unique and unprecedented nature would be lost. And conversely, if it is always irrelevant, no lesson whatsoever would ever be drawn from it.

The real lesson of the Holocaust is very simple: It is always 1933. But it is also always 1945. It is always time to be warned of what hate, racism, and violence may lead to, and always time to be busy building, repairing, and recovering.

The haunting years of the Holocaust should always remain on our minds and call our attention and reflection, but only when necessary and relevant and in a fashion that is appropriate.

Dr. Shay Pilnik is the director of the Emil A. and Jenny Fish Holocaust and Genocide Studies Center at Yeshiva University.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.