Opinion

Is It Unfair to Compare ISIS to the Nazis?

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Relatives of Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kasaesbeh, held captive by ISIS before his killing, hold his portrait as they rally in his support at the family’s headquarters in the city of Karak on January 31, 2015. The words on the portrait read, “We are all Muath.” Reuters

Is it time to repeal Godwin’s Law? The rise of ISIS–a fast-growing, fascistic, expansionist force that’s willing to murder any person who dares defying its strict tenets–gets many people thinking of World War II.

In 1990, Mike Godwin, a lawyer and author, observed that in online conversations someone will eventually invoke the war against fascism. As Godwin framed his law, in long strings of online debates “the probability of a reference or comparison to Hitler or to Nazis approaches 1.”

Soon enough “Godwin’s Law” evolved: The first person to pull the Hitler card in a debate automatically loses.

Godwin’s insight is profound. The N word (as in Nazi) in casual debate is inadequate. Hitler’s crimes were so painful that no Seinfeld-esque “soup Nazi” should introduce his name into serious discourse.

Not that there haven't been times when the comparison may have been apt. The post-Hitler era has not been free of genocide. Think of the horrors of Pol Pot, Rwanda, Darfur and murderous dictators like North Korea’s Kim family, who nurture personality cults while committing heinous crimes against humanity.

But none have come anywhere close to Hitler’s methodical and highly organized system of mass murder. Rabbi Marvin Hier, the founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, cites the infamous Wannsee Conference of January 1942 to explain the Holocaust’s singularity.

There, he notes, intellectuals “well schooled in the Western tradition of morality and ethics” sat civilly around a table and calmly planned the extermination of Jews. “There’s a great fear that the Holocaust will be trivialized” when compared to any other world event, Hier told me. But he added, “I’ve never seen anything like ISIS since the Holocaust.”

Sure, ISIS has yet to achieve the military capabilities of Nazi Germany in the 1940s. The number of its victims is also--at least so far--minuscule in comparison to WWII. But ISIS marches from Syria into Iraq, Yemen, the Sinai and Libya, while declaring the goal of confronting “Rome.” And, according to MEMRI, Libya is considered by ISIS a gateway to conquering Europe.

Like the Nazis, whose cult of death was right there in their skull and cross-bone insignia (not to mention Hitler’s suicide in the Berlin bunker), ISIS ideologues instill in their followers the notion that dying for the cause is a virtue, as is killing all non-adherents. A trail of blood, beadings, crucifixions, rape and enslavement follows.

Those ISIS throat-slashing snuff video shorts may be less complex than Leni Riefenstahl’s black-and-white Nazi propaganda masterpieces like Triumph of the Will, but they are their updated heirs. In the 1930s, Riefenstahl, Hitler’s favorite filmmaker, glorified a rising power that considered itself destined for world greatness. She marshaled the best media techniques of the era to maximize Nazi recruitment. Now, using 21st century fast editing and dramatic color schemes (orange and black against a wintry coastline), the well-oiled ISIS PR machine is doing the same.

To be sure, there are a lot of dissimilarities. The foremost ISIS scholar, Princeton University’s Bernard Haykel, for one, resists comparing ISIS to the Nazis. “They’re not a fascistic group,” he says. Unlike the Nazis, he says, ISIS does not rely on leader-worship and cult of personality.

In a recent deeply reported piece in the Atlantic, “What ISIS Really Wants,” Graeme Wood writes about his realization that “up to a point” he had enjoyed the company of the ISIS adherents he had met. He then compares such “guilty intellectual exercise” to George Orwell’s confession that he had never been able to dislike Hitler.

In ISIS’s case, it seems, Godwin violations just roll off the tongue.

Godwin himself tells me that neither he nor anyone else is in charge of his eponymous “law,” so anyone can break it. “The Third Reich taught us once and for all how fragile civilization really is, and how, surprisingly, a whole society could allow and even encourage new, ‘modernized’ forms of massive death and destruction,” he said. ISIS, for now, is a “footnote to what we learned in the 20th century about how fragile civilization is.”

ISIS isn’t the first group that’s been compared to the Nazis. Current Israeli election campaign posters depict right wing leader Naftali Bennett as Hitler. Earlier in the election cycle, a settler group’s campaign ad compared the left-leaning newspaper Haaretz to Der Sturmer, the infamous Nazi propaganda rag.

And while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu criticized the Haaretz ad, he too often talks about Iran’s explicit intention to annihilate the Jewish state. In the 1990s, President George H.W. Bush saw similarities between Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait and early Nazi conquests. War ensued.

Telling the world that, like the Nazis, some group of fanatics endangers our civilization so much that military force is required to stop it should never be made lightly. Yet at times it is an apt comparison.

In his war authorization act, President Barack Obama contends that ISIS “has threatened genocide and committed vicious acts of violence against religious and ethnic minority groups, including Iraqi Christian, Yezidi and Turkmen populations.”

Citing “genocide” is one thing. But Obama has yet to revoke the Godwin Law and face ISIS while it still resembles Germany of the early 1930s and before it morphed into the well-oiled Nazi machine of a decade later.

Follow Benny Avni on Twitter: @bennyavni

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