In this age of social media, it is inevitable that we will come across a debate where one party will portray their opponents as modern-day equivalents of Nazis. The latter is evil personified – and accusing someone with that word stirs the passions.
We have all heard or read the words – Eco-Nazi, feminazi, Soup Nazi – and now a variation on a theme, Chinazi, a portmanteau deployed by Hong Kong protesters comparing the Beijing regime to Nazi Germany. Ok, I understand that Seinfeld was being comical when writing the soup Nazi episode.
However, the misuse and exaggerated recycling of the Nazi/Holocaust analogy is anything but funny. It is sloppy thinking, serves to inflame polarising rhetoric, and trivialises the serious nature of the historical nature of Nazism, but also underestimates the growing problem of white supremacist ideology today.
Anti-vaccine protesters have misused the Holocaust analogy, and in their latest protest in France, in July, they displayed their wilful distortion of contemporary history. Wearing the yellow Star of David similar to the symbol imposed upon Jewish people in Nazi-aligned Vichy France, anti-vaxxers portrayed themselves as a beleaguered minority, objecting to the proposal by French President Macron to implement a health pass only for vaccinated individuals. That vaccine passport would allow people to mingle and visit public areas, vaccinated against Covid-19.
Arthur Caplan, an expert on medical ethics, wrote that in discussions about medical practices, inevitably, a participant will invoke the Nazi analogy:
Whether the subject is stem cell research, end-of-life care, the conduct of clinical trials in poor nations, abortion, embryo research, animal experimentation, genetic testing, or human experimentation involving vulnerable populations, references to Nazi policies or practices tumble forth from critics. “If X is done, then we are on the road to Nazi Germany” has become a commonplace claim in contemporary bioethical debates.
In countering the anti-vaxxer protest in France mentioned earlier, Holocaust survivor Joseph Szwarc, now in his nineties, condemned the far right protesters. He stated that he and his fellow Jews were victims of white supremacy and antisemitism; the anti-vaccination crowd knew nothing about the horrendous suffering of Jewish people under Nazism.
The discussions today surrounding euthanasia, gun control, medical testing conducted on animals, stem cell research and so on, are grounded in a strong foundation of bioethics, respect for the dignity of each individual person, and promoting individual human autonomy and decision-making. The Nazi party, and its cothinkers around Europe, were motivated by the philosophy of eugenics and white supremacy. Classifying people into racial categories, they were determined to exterminate all those whom they regarded as sub-human.
The Nazi euthanasia programme, for instance, had nothing to do with consideration of quality of life, nor with the provision of palliative care for the terminally ill. In fact, labeling the Nazi policy of systematically murdering the differently-abled ‘euthanasia’ is a misnomer. The white supremacist ideology is that of a death cult, condemning the nonwhite nations to oblivion through industrialised killing.
Scientifically informed and medically sound responses to the pandemic, medical approaches to serious illness and public health measures have nothing to do with the mass slaughter of the Holocaust. In fact, the latter is being trivialised when we invoke horrid comparisons with that crime against humanity, demeaning the suffering of those who lost their lives.
When Ben Carson, former Republican presidential candidate, misuses the Nazi analogy in a debate about gun control – comparing Obama’s proposed gun control legislation as akin to Hitler and the Nazis – he is demonstrating his appalling ignorance. The Weimar Republic, the regime prior to the Nazis ascent to power, had tougher gun control legislation that the Nazi regime.
Carson recycled the damaging myth of ‘good guys with guns’, stating that Jews could have reduced the numbers killed in the Holocaust if only they were allowed guns. This ridiculous, good cowboy-with-a-gun stereotype is demolished by the facts of World War 2 – Jewish people in the ghettos did fight back, with guns, and were overwhelmed and killed by German forces.
Mike Huckabee, Republican stalwart, denounced any kind of deal with Iran on the subject of nuclear weapons, by stating that former President Obama’s arrangement with Iran was like marching Israelis to the door of the ovens. Such inflammatory and wildly inaccurate statements fit the pattern of reductio ad Hitlerum. Accusing your opponent of ‘behaving like Nazis’ shuts down debate, and distracts from the very real and growing problem of white supremacist groups around the world.
Should the use of the Nazi/Holocaust analogy be completely terminated? No. Just make sure you know the history of WW2, Nazism and fascism before you start casually throwing around the Nazi analogy. Ensure that your comparison does not serve to simply slander your opponent, or merely turn up the heat of a debate without shedding any new light on your case.