When Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan cited “Hitler’s” Germany as a prime example to dramatically increase his executive branch powers, it seems that Godwin’s Law just won’t go away. Indeed, even Republican presidential contender Ben Carson and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, just to name two more influential political leaders, appeared to also be channeling Godwin’s Law.
Erdogan and Godwin’s Law
An early adopter of computers, Michal Godwin coined Godwin’s Law in 1990 after observing participants in Usenet online discussion forums using thoughtless and false comparisons to Hitler and the Nazis. Not only did he believe that people were losing perspective on what made the Nazis and Holocaust so terrible, but recognized how people were comparing all kinds of unfortunate and undesirable events to the Holocaust.
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What made Erdogan’s statements during a press conference unusual is that users of Godwin’s Law never compare Adolf Hitler to themselves, instead using him to either smear or demonize their opponents. Therefore, Erdogan’s referral to Hitler’s powers as a visionary model while maintaining the overall structure of the Turkish government caught many in the Turkish parliament by surprise. It is also little wonder they were outraged.
Recall as well that Hitler, appointed prime minister from the parliament by President Paul von Hindenburg, later seized total power with the assistance of the Nazi Party. In fact, Hitler was made head of state and commander-in-chief of Germany, subsequently changing many German laws including those that protected the rights of citizens. Furthermore, Hitler’s new powers resulted in total war and the elimination of all political opponents.
To his credit, Erdogan quickly back-tracked. In addition, Turkish officials accused the media of taking his comments out of context, explaining that Erdogan really meant to say Hitler’s Germany was an example of a bad powerful executive branch. However, Erdogan has expanded his powers to an already powerful position that can make decrees. Coupled with future ambition, political opponents have warned of an impending dictatorship.
Godwin’s Law and Carson and Netanyahu
As for Carson, and when asked about his views on abortion, he said he would not travel back in time to abort baby Adolf Hitler. Along with being criticized for not aborting Hitler and thereby possibly saving millions of people, he declared that if Germany’s Jews would have been allowed to carry guns the Holocaust would never have occurred. Carson’s gun comments came on the heels of another question about gun rights.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu claimed the Palestinian Grand Mufti gave Hitler the idea of annihilating Europe’s Jews during World War II, even convincing him to adopt the Final Solution. After criticism from Israeli historians, Netanyahu retracted his statements, adding “the Final Solution made by the Nazis were not dependent on outside influence.” Still, his remarks led to increased tension in an already volatile region.
Interestingly, maybe Netanyahu should have mentioned Turkey’s absolute rulers during World War I and the Armenian Genocide. On August 22, 1939, days before Hitler gave the order to invade Poland, he described his plan for “living space” and how the attack must be brutal and swift even if it led to the slaughter of millions of women and children. “Who, after all,” said Hitler, “speaks today of the annihilation of Armenians?”
Remembering Hitler, the Nazis and Holocaust
Godwin also believed that many modern-day comparisons to Hitler and the Holocaust made a mockery of a horrendous event and unspeakable atrocity, something all of us have probably been guilty of. In effect, Godwin wanted to promote more sincere and reflective dialogues, hoping to prevent online discussions that seemed to devolve into either making superficial comparisons to Hitler and the Nazis or misappropriating the Holocaust.
What’s more, Godwin’s Law was designed to point out how referring to someone as a Hitler or Nazi was usually based on superficialities and stifled debate, their view actually being more offensive and inappropriate hyperbole. Moreover, Godwin believed that most online users were trivializing the Holocaust, transforming it into an event which appeared all too common and therefore insignificant and meaningless.
The Holocaust, without a doubt, should be remembered. Yet, how it is remembered will continue to be debated. In the end, though, it should be recalled with great respect and sensitivity, diligently ensuring that comparisons are legitimate and incorporated into each of our lives without diluting its horror. It should as well serve as a moral compass, denying rulers an absolute grab for power while challenging their senseless wars.
1. Arp, Robert and Arthur Caplan. 1001 Ideas That Changed The Way We Think. New York, New York: Atria Books, p. 2013, p. 897.
4. Porpora, Douglas V. How Holocausts Happen: The United States in Central America, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Temple University Press, 1990, p. 3.