logical fallacies fallacy

Playing The Hitler Card

In almost every heated debate, one side or the other plays the "Hitler card", that is, criticises their opponent's position or the opponents themselves by associating them in some way with Adolf Hitler or the Nazis.

Also known as Argumentum ad Nazium, Playing the Nazi Card, Reductio ad Hitlerum

In almost every heated debate, one side or the other plays the “Hitler card”, that is, criticises their opponent’s position or the opponents themselves by associating them in some way with Adolf Hitler or the Nazis. This move is so common that it led Mike Godwin to develop the well-known “Godwin’s Law of Nazi Analogies”: “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.”

There are two related logical fallacies that fall under the term “the Hitler card”, depending on whether it is an idea or a person or group that is linked to the Nazis:

Ideas

Criticising or rejecting an idea simply because Adolf Hitler or the Nazis espoused it. This is what Leo Strauss appears to have meant by the “reductio ad Hitlerum”.

Forms

Adolf Hitler accepted idea X.
Therefore, X must be wrong.

The Nazis accepted idea X.
Therefore, S must be wrong.

Examples

Hitler was in favour of euthanasia.
Therefore, euthanasia is wrong.

The Nazis favoured eugenics.
Therefore, eugenics is wrong.

Hitler was a vegetarian.
Therefore, vegetarianism is wrong.

The Nazis were conservationists.
Therefore, conservationism is wrong.

The Person: 

Criticising or rejecting persons or groups simply because they accept some idea associated with Hitler and the Nazis, or because of some superficial similarities. Often politicians or political groups are attacked in this way. When directed at a person, it is a form of the abusive ad hominem, since few want to be associated with Nazism or Hitler.

Forms

Adolf Hitler accepted idea X.
Person P accepts X.
Therefore, P is as bad as Hitler. The Nazis accepted idea X.

Group G accepts X.
Therefore, G is a bunch of Nazis.

Example

The ideas of ecologists about invasive species—alien species as they are often called—sound…similar to anti-immigration rhetoric. Green themes like scarcity and purity and invasion and protection all have right-wing echoes. Hitler’s ideas about environmentalism came out of purity, after all.

Exposure:

  • Some instances of the Hitler card are factually incorrect, or even ludicrous, in ascribing ideas to Hitler or other Nazis that they did not hold. However, from a logical point of view, even if Hitler or other Nazis did accept an idea, this historical fact alone is insufficient to discredit it.
  • The Hitler Card is often combined with other fallacies, for instance, a weak analogy between an opponent and Hitler, or between the opposition political group and the Nazis. A related form of fallacious analogy is that which compares an opponent’s actions with the Holocaust. This is the second form of the fallacy because it casts the opposition in the role of Nazi. Not only do such arguments assign guilt by association, but the analogy used to link the opponent’s actions with the Holocaust may be superficial or question-begging.
  • Other Hitler cards combine guilt by association with a slippery slope. For instance, it is sometimes argued that the Nazis practised euthanasia, and therefore even voluntary forms of it are a first step onto a slippery slope leading to extermination camps. Like many slippery slope arguments, this is a way of avoiding arguing directly against voluntary euthanasia, instead claiming that it may indirectly lead to something admittedly bad.
  • Playing the Hitler card demonises opponents in debate by associating them with evil, and almost always derails the discussion. People naturally resent being associated with Nazism, and are usually angered. In this way, playing the card can be an effective distraction in a debate, causing the opponent to lose track of the argument. However, when people become convinced by guilt by association arguments that their political opponents are not just mistaken, but are as evil as Nazis, reasoned debate can give way to violence. So, the Hitler card is more than just a dirty trick in debate, it is often “fighting words” and may lead to the argumentum ad baculum.
  • Germany today bans capital punishment, but the history of this ban is surprising: The government of the former West Germany adopted the ban in 1949 and it continues in effect today in the reunited Germany. The law that banned the death penalty was proposed by a politician sympathetic to the Nazi war criminals who were being executed after World War 2, and was intended to block such executions. Should the disreputable historical origins of the ban influence those Germans who today oppose capital punishment to reconsider their views? Should the ban be repealed simply because it was the brainchild of a Nazi sympathiser? Capital punishment is either right or wrong. If it is right, then the ban should be repealed, regardless of its origins; if it’s wrong, then the ban should be continued, despite its origins. While the history of the origins of Germany’s ban on capital punishment is interesting, it is irrelevant to the moral and legal question of whether the ban should continue. Those Germans who support capital punishment should resist the temptation to play the Hitler card.

Notes:

  1. “Playing the Hitler/Nazi card” for the fallacy that seems to have been first identified by Leo Strauss under the rubric “reductio ad Hitlerum”―see the next two notes.
  2. Leo Strauss, Natural Right and History (1976), pp. 42-43.
  3. Mike Godwin, “Meme, Counter-meme”, Wired, Issue 2.10, 10/1994.
  4. Interview of Betsy Hartmann by Fred Pearce, “The Greening of Hate”, New Scientist, 2/20/2003.
  5. Charles Lane, “The Paradoxes of a Death Penalty Stance”, Washington Post, 6/4/2005.