Summary: People often cite Godwin’s Law because it is true. But few ask why it works so well. The answer is simple, disturbing, and cautionary. It points to truths we don’t want to see. (Originally posted in 2013, too far ahead of the pack. This is an updated version, now getting heavy traffic.)
“As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 100%.
— Godwin’s Law, formulated by Mike Godwin in 1990. A law for our time.
Evil lives inside each of us, waiting for the opportunity to emerge.
Germany was in many ways the brightest flower of western civilization, often playing a central role in western religion, philosophy, and science. Its fullest blooming was under the Nazis. During their two decade-long-reign, Germany was the first nation to break through the traditional limits of western society into the modern era. During and after WW2 the West followed Germany into a world not just new physical and political technology, but new morals.
We prefer not to remember how quickly the Germans fell into evil – or the ways we have followed their lead – or that we too could fall into evil. These things are too disturbing to contemplate, so we use “Nazi” as a casual insult and ignore the deeper issues.
The Nazis did it first. We followed.
In so many things the Nazis was early. Sometimes by years. Sometimes by decades. We should be terrified that the West’s most intense burst of creativity since fifth-century Athens was the 13 years of Nazi Germany. Some of these innovations we applaud. Some we prefer not to see. Some we pretend are unique to the Nazis, but are horrifyingly not (e.g., the Holocaust).
The list of Nazi breakthroughs is long. Here is a sampler.
Hitler invented Keynesian economics before Keynes published The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money in 1936 (further developed as “helicopters dropping money” by conservative economist and Nobel-laureate Milton Friedman in his 1969 book The Optimum Quantity of Money). Adolf Hitler. When came to power in 1933, he ordered a massive stimulus to the economy. Nobody was going to say “no” and lecture him about monetary constraints and balancing the budget. Everybody saluted and said, “Yes, Fuhrer.” He injected money broadly across Germany. You were running an Arts Council in a small town and the local NAZI Gauleiter comes and says “Spend money.” You staged concerts, opera, and exhibitions of paintings. The Nazis funded massive public infrastructure projects and expanded the military. Germany was stronger than Britain and France because Germany had smart economic policies in the 1930s and they had dumb ones.
The Berlin Automobile Show opened on 11 February 1933, 12 days after Hitler became Chancellor. At it he said “We need to build automobiles for the new age …as well as autobahns to provide freedom of travel for people.” This became the “people’s car,” the Volkswagen. In the 1950s, Eisenhower built autobahns for America, the Interstate Highway System. In the 1960s, Japan built compact and then subcompact cars, higher-quality successors to the “Beetle.”
Our military uses much technology developed by the Nazis. Some examples are wire-guided missiles (which hit the battleship HMS Warspite in 1943), infra-red night vision systems, cruise missiles, ballistic missiles, jets, the first flying wing jet aircraft, and rocket-propelled aircraft. Our military uses tactics pioneered by the Nazis, such as maneuver war (blitzkrieg) and the strategic bombing of civilians.
Nazi Germany was the first nation to aggressively implement feminism. By 1939 a larger fraction of Germany’s women worked for pay than in any European nation except France. The Nazi trade union, the Arbeitsfront, was proud of raising women’s wages to those of men in many industries. “Five years of Nazi rule in some ways did more for professional women than a decade of feminist pressure in the Weimar Republic” (from Feminist Movement in Germany). The Nazis normalized both pre-marital sex (it was a benefit of Hitler Youth membership) and out-of-wedlock childbirth.
The Nazi’s ran the first anti-smoking campaign (30 years before the US), funded research about the effects of smoking, and in 1941 banned smoking in public places. They also ran campaigns against excessive consumption of alcohol. More details here.
The Nazi’s created the first Medicare-like programs: in 1941 they expand the excellent health care system they inherited to include retirees (details here).
On a trivial level, the Nazi’s contribution to fashion might be one of their two long-term contributions to the world. The uniforms of the SS and Wehrmacht set the style for brutal authoritarians that will outlast their memory.
The Nazi’s contribution to politics
Perhaps their greatest long-term influence: the Nazi party introduced modern propaganda techniques. The insights of Hitler and Goebbels (Reich Minister of Propaganda) have been repackaged as marketing advice for generations of MBAs and political consultants. These methods became the basis for western politics during WW2 and the Cold War politics – and today.
Hitler brought the ancient tactics of identity politics to a new level of sophistication. Stoking hatreds to fragment a people is a fast track to power used throughout history. The Roman’s divide and rule built and held an empire. The South’s Jim Crow laws helped keep the white vote unified for a century. When the Democratic Party broke with its racist past, the Republicans broke with theirs and picked up that dark torch.
Today’s Leftists build upon these methods, encouraging a thousand hatreds to flourish. This is well-documented by now, obvious to any who look. See Steve Sailer’s semi-humorous analysis. Or Damon Linker’s criticism of the New York Times’ 1619 Project, which makes slavery and racism the lens through which they see everything about America.
Separating us from them
To manage the cognitive dissonance this creates we draw an imaginary line between those things which the Nazis forever stained – such as the Swastika (ripped away from its long history), antisemitism, eugenics, conquest for Lebensraum, etc – and those things which remain unsullied. Such as vegetarianism, highly structured youth groups, the conservation and appreciation of nature, conquest with a pretense of pure motives, and the other useful things listed above.
This imaginary division into clean and unclean legacies gives us a sense of order and control over the world, as it does for people following strict dietary regimes. This masks our uneasy awareness of the chaotic void that lurks beneath our civilization, the dark side within our souls.
We pretend that Hitler and the Third Reich were sui generis instead of a pathological growth of deeply rooted themes in western society (to state two obvious examples, antisemitism and eugenics). This infection appeared in Germany, in many ways the center of Europe’s culture and science. If it appeared there, we are all vulnerable.
It should not surprise us that after 60 years we’ve not come to terms with the lessons of the Nazi’s madness, just as after 150 years the South has not come to terms with its embrace of slavery and rebellion. Instead both Left and Right accurately point out similarities of their foes to the Nazis (both are blind to their own).
On to Weimar!
This is no longer a purely theoretical threat. America is in many ways following the path of Weimar Germany. Degeneracy rampant, political polarization between two mad violent extremes (fascism and communism), and widespread disorientation due to the rapid decay of social norms – to name just a few. We know where that led Weimar. Let’s not follow them to a similar dark ending.
Perhaps most discussions about America should touch upon an analogy to the Third Reich.
It’s a dark awareness we need to accept with an awareness of its danger.
Some advice from the past
“The world revolves around the inventors of new values; it revolves silently.”
— From Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra (1885). See the full quote.
The Nazis didn’t emerge from a crack in the Earth. Hitler’s mad genius created the Nazi’s values and ideology. But he drew these from the springs of modern western philosophy, as Allan Bloom explains in The Closing of the American Mind.
“But when one ventures out into the vast spaces opened up by Nietzsche, it is hard to set limits. Measure and moderation are the real aliens there. Weber was just one of many serious persons who were affected by Nietzsche and popularized him without believing in the extremism that Nietzsche himself asserted is the result of positioning oneself beyond good and evil. The open-ended future contains many surprises, and all these followers of Nietzsche prepared the way by helping to jettison good and evil along with reason, without assurance of what the alternatives might be. ..
“Hitler did not cause a rethinking of politics here or in Europe. All to the contrary. .. After Hitler, everybody scurried back under the protective cover of morality, but practically no one turned to serious thought about good and evil.”
We have the infection from two sources. America draws from the same stream of western civilization as did Germany. And we grappled with Germany at the height of its sickness — an illness spread by contact.
He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.
— Aphorism 146 in Nietzsche’s Beyond Good & Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future (1886).
Interesting comments posted at Naked Capitalism
A version of this post went up in 2013 and was listed on the daily links at Naked Capitalism. The comments from the liberals and leftists there were (as usual) fascinating. This post hit a sensitive spot, with vehement and ritualistic denunciations. Few specific objections and many reading fails (i.e., rebuttals to things I did not say). Many commenters had obviously not read the post.
For More Information
Ideas! For shopping ideas, see my recommended books and films at Amazon.
Needless to say, there are many great works about the Nazi infection. Here are a few.
- “The Question of Nazi Modernity” by Alexander Mosca (Florida State University), presented at the 2007 Florida Conference of Historians (this PDF has a better copy; start at p102). It has excellent references for more information.
- How Green Were the Nazis? Nature, Environment, and Nation in the Third Reich by various scholars (2005) – the answer: very, until the war.
- Three New Deals by the great historian Wolfgang Schivelbusch – about the similar aspects of the “new deals” in Mussolini’s Italy, Hitler’s Germany, and FDR’s America.
Ideas! For shopping ideas see my recommended books and films at Amazon.
Please like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, and post your comments. Also see all posts about the Nazis, about Hitler, about the far-Left, the alt-Right, and violence, about reforming America: steps to new politics, and especially these …
- Gallup warns us to prepare for fascism!
- Edward Luttwak: Why Fascism is the Wave of the Future.
- The Left calls Trump a “fascist”, ignoring the many experts who disagree.
- America is mainlining fascism. It won’t end well for us.
- 2016 revealed the true nature of America’s left & right. It’s bad news.
- About a cause of America’s rising tide of hatred. We can still stop it.
- Left and Right use race as a way to divide America.
- DEFCON 2: both Left and Right have turned against us.
- The middle in American politics has died. Now extremists rule.
- The Left helps bring us Weimerica, a prelude to big changes.
- The Left crushes the Right. The counter-revolution will be ugly.
See how it happened the first time
Hitler in Hell.
By Martin van Creveld, retired professor of history at Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Hitler in Hell is the extreme version of an unauthorized autobiography. Let’s learn from “Hitler’s” insights as interpreted by one of the foremost historians of our time. From the publisher …
“After his death in the Berlin bunker, Adolf Hitler finds himself in Hell. To his surprise, he finds it to be a place of more tedium than torment, although he is depressed to learn that he will never see his beloved German Shepherd Blondi again because all dogs go to Heaven.
“With nothing better to do than to pass the time, Hitler reflects upon his life in light of the post-World War II world. He is boastful, unrepentant, and absolutely determined to tell his side of the story, set the record straight, and get even with his enemies – both his contemporaries and those who abused his legend since his demise. In Hell, Adolf Hitler is finally free to tell the true story of the Nazi Party, World War II, and the final solution that eventually came to be known as the Holocaust.
“Dr. Martin van Creveld is a military historian who is a major contributor to the literature of war. Professor Emeritus at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Dr. van Creveld is one of the world’s leading writers on military history and strategy, with a special interest in the future of war. He is fluent in Hebrew, German, Dutch, and English, and has authored more than twenty books.”
28 thoughts on “The terrifying reason why Godwin’s Law works so well”
More about the Weimar years from Bloom’s great book, Closing of the American Mind.
The social sciences have dealt with Nazism as a psychopathology, a result of authoritarian or other-directed personalities, a case for psychiatrists …. Social science denies that thought, especially serious thought, even the very thought at its own root, could have had anything to do with Hitler’s success. But the Weimar Republic, so attractive in its left-wing version to Americans, also contained intelligent persons who were attracted, at least in the beginning, to fascism, for reasons very like those motivating the Left ideologues, reflections on autonomy and value creation. Once one plunges into the abyss, there is no assurance whatsoever that equality, democracy or socialism will be found on the other side. …
The image of this astonishing Americanization of the German pathos can be seen in the smiling face of Louis Armstrong as he belts out the words of his great hit “Mack the Knife.” As most American intellectuals know, it is a translation of the song “Mackie Messer” from The Threepenny Opera, a monument of Weimar Republic popular culture, written by two heroes of the artistic Left, Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill. There is a strange nostalgia among many of the American intelligentsia for this moment just prior to Hitler’s coming to power, and Lotte Lenya’s rendition of this song has long stood with Marlene Dietrich’s singing …in “The Blue Angel” as the symbol of a charming, neurotic, sexy, decadent longing for some hazy fulfillment not quite present to the consciousness.
Less known to our intelligentsia is an aphorism in Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, a book well known to Brecht, entitled “On the Pale Criminal,” which tells the story of a neurotic murderer, eerily resembling Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, who does not know, cannot know, that he committed murder out of a motive as legitimate as any other and useful in many important situations, but delegitimized in our pacific times: he lusted after “the joy of the knife.” This scenario for “Mack the Knife” is the beginning of the supra-moral attitude of expectancy, waiting to see what the volcano of the id will spew forth, which appealed to Weimar and its American admirers. Everything is all right as long as it is not fascism! …
Both helped to constitute that ambiguous Weimar atmosphere in which liberals looked like simpletons and anything was possible for people who sang of the joy of the knife in cabarets. Decent people became used to hearing things about which they would have in the past been horrified to think, and which would not have been allowed public expression. An extreme outcome in the struggle between Right and Left in Weimar was inevitable.
Truth in fiction
From Len Deighton’s great cold war spy novel, Funeral in Berlin (1964).
A conversation between Colonel Stok, of the Soviet secret police, and Vaclav of the Czechoslovakian secret police.
And we see, IIRC, a similar swing by the Social Democrats to the left occurred in pre Nazi Germany that split their party. From WIKI entry for Communist Party of Germany.
We see the USA’s leaders of the leftward extreme even taken up the name Antifa. Though in my opinion, if we make Trump out as Hitler, we are definitely in ClownWorld.
“if we make Trump out as Hitler, we are definitely in ClownWorld.”
History is a process, not a portrait. The Democrats have moved to the Left. The next step for America on the road to Weimar would be the Republicans to move to the Right. Time will tell.
Agree. The Republicans already have their anti-antifas. Is there a good report on the recent Portland event to read?
Good question about Portland. Lots of propaganda, but a blackout by the major news media. Trivial events get front-page coverage, but some things are just not fit to print.
Actually, as far as transportation is concerned, Hitler followed Mussolini who had an 11 year head start on him. Mussolini built the autostrade network in Italy and a vast railroad system that Hitler marvelled at and copied once in power.
Thanks for that history. Every day we can learn something new!
Interesting and, as usual, well written.
Thank you for the feedback. It is always appreciated, whether positive or negative.
The U.S. Department of Justice is dusting off a rarely used 1968 anti-crime measure known as the “H. Rap Brown Law” to launch prosecutions of both the far-left Antifa and white supremacists, DOJ sources told Newsmax on Tuesday.
Interesting. Thanks for the links Larry.
I suggest caution when reading the news. This is, imo, the hard core of the story. It has been used only against the Right.
I think the Nazis learned propaganda from Edward Bernays, Wilson’s thought architect who made up the American peoples mind to support the Great War. He wrote a book literally called Propaganda, and when propaganda started to get bad PR, he invented the term Public Relations to replace it. Prominent American oil companies, banks, and IBM supported Hitler during the war with oil, money, and tabulating machines that made the Holocaust so efficient. Not to mention Dulles smuggling thousands of Nazis, most famously Wernher von Braun, into the US after the war. Pots and kettles, I think.
“the Nazis learned propaganda from Edward Bernays”
There is no question that the Nazis learned much from previous generations. We all stand the shoulders of those before us, which is why few things are truly new. Which is why I said “the Nazi party introduced modern propaganda techniques” – not that they “invented propaganda.”
Mein KaufMein Kampf (1924) broke new ground in propaganda -saying things not so clearly said before. For example, in chapter 10, he described use of the “big lie” – something Bernays’ never wrote about.
Goebbels refined Hitler’s insights into practical methods – such application of the “big lie” and use of political spectacles on a scale not seen before. In turn, others further refined Goebbels’ methods, as Leni Riefenstahl did in Triumph of the Will (1934) – whose techniques are still studied in film schools as a breakthroughs.
Since then, these methods have been used for a thousand purposes in a thousand ways. They are some of the foundation stones of modern propaganda.
Typo nitpick, is that meant to be Mein Kampf? That said, Mein Kauf (“My purchase”) would be a pretty good propaganda title.
Thank you for catching that! My high school German classes were eons ago.
Another interesting slice of history, a portion of which I was unaware. Thanks history professor.
Decades ago, I read a book written by Dr. Erich Fromm describing some underlying cultural and psychological aspects of the German population which facilitated the advance of Nazism in spite of Germany being a front runner in ethics education and technological matters.
What were those aspects – don’t remember, but your article pushes me in a direction to reread his book.
You are, I believe, referring to Erich Fromm’s Escape from Freedom (aka Fear of Freedom). It is a piece in the massive effort to explain how western philosophy led to the Third Reich. Intellectually, it is first cousins with the South’s retconning the Civil War from freedom to have slaves to freedom from tariffs.
My favorite part is an explanation of how they ignored Nietzche’s warnings about the depths that he discovered. For instance, before Hitler they were excited about the three kinds of leadership: charismatic, traditional, and bureaucratic. The first being the exciting fun one. Then they got the real thing, and it was exciting like falling off a cliff. So they invested a 4th category: authoratarian. Much word salad followed.
Bloom puts Fromm in a useful context. Continue to play with the nuclear fire unleashed by Neitzsche! It’s fun and easy!
Fromm and company are the ringmasters for the current Leftist crusades. Communism didn’t work, so they confidently enlist us as lab rats in their next experiment!
Thank you for the refresher. I didn’t buy into his socialist/communist perspective, as it was obvious the Germans who were attracted to the Nazis were the same types that were attracted to the Communists, but I learned from him that capitalism could exert a friendlier force on society.
His expose on the authoritarian character helped me personally to be a better boss and better person.
Larry have you ever read ‘The Death of Democracy’? It is a book about the Weimar Republic. Interesting read and sadly, many parallels for contemporary America.
An interesting analysis from the book was that democracy was unpopular with many of the top 10% of Germans because they could not attract a majority to their interests, and so they were quite pleased to see it subverted and then torn down. Of course Germany had democracy imposed by the Allies (to a degree) and so it was logically linked to the standing world order which Germany hated after World War I. It will be interesting to see if American democracy becomes associated with the standing world order or if it is seen as a patrimony.
In another book ‘The Mean of Hitler’ the author made the important point that the left was never as serious a threat to Hitler’s rule as the right, who had big business, the military, the police and much of the government. The left was divided and prone to infighting and more interested in tearing down the center than the far right. The right got too much of what it wanted from Hitler to risk their position very much.
This is evident when the Weimar Reichstag threatened to overthrow Hindenburg if he declared a state of emergency and denied Hitler a government. Imagine that! In 1933, the social democrats thought it made more sense to oppose Hindenburg and his Prime Minister Schleicher, than to prevent Hitler from getting power.
Thank you for the additional color on that interesting period, and the pointers to those two books!
So I read FM’s post today and was struck by the fact that I have had many conversations over the past 4 years about politics; many of them long, and Hitler and the Nazi’s never came up in any of them.
There is at least as much danger in forgetting your history as in remembering it incorrectly. While History rarely repeats itself, it frequently rhymes.
“Hitler and the Nazi’s never came up in any of them.”
My guess is that in the past few years – since Trump came on the scene – Nazis come up much more frequently in internet conversations than at any time since the invention of the WWW.
Side note: use Google’s time parameter to search for mentions of “Nazi OR Hitler” by year. You’ll see that they censor it, so that only a few dozen entries appear.
“Our military uses much technology developed by the Nazis. Some examples are wire-guided missiles (which hit the battleship HMS Warspite in 1943), infra-red night vision systems, cruise missiles, ballistic missiles, jets, and rocket-propelled aircraft. Our military uses tactics pioneered by the Nazis, such as maneuver war (blitzkrieg) and the strategic bombing of civilians.”
Things are, shall we say, a bit more complex. The germans were indeed ahead in some fields, in the case of ballistic missiles by miles, in others much less so and in further others lagged behind.
Take guided bombs for example: the “Fritz” (it was radio guidance, wire would probably have been iffy) did score a few famous hits but the US had the sophisticated radar guided ASM-N-2 Bat in service by 1945; since it sank only a few minor japanese units it is less known. The Me 262 came a bit ahead but the Gloster Meteor and british development of jet engines pre war is worth noting. And I bet that if by an act of God Nazi Germany had won they would have been shocked discovering items like proximity fuzes, to say nothing of the nuclear weapons program.
In short like it normally happens they had strengths and weaknesses.
On the civilian side it was the US that pioneered mass motorization. If Tooze of “The wages of destruction” fame is to be believed german leadership looked up to Ford and while the highway system (with a modest Italian precedent and I stress modest as the bulk of the network came postwar) was innovative it was also questionable investment in the medium term.
(1). “Things are, shall we say, a bit more complex.”
That’s the most generic and useless possible. It can be said about every brief statement made, ever. Books have been written about this subject. Did anyone read this and think “those 51 words explain everything about this subject”?
(2). Do you seriously believe in the broad equivalence of German and Allied military tech in WW2 (tech, not production capacity)? If so, most experts disagree with you. Also, that does not mean the German were ahead in every single thing.
“Take guided bombs”
Yes, a good example of my point. The Germans deployed theirs in July 1943. The US deployed theirs in April 1945.
“In short like it normally happens they had strengths and weaknesses.”
Do you seriously believe that is news to anyone reading this?
“Yes, a good example of my point. The Germans deployed theirs in July 1943. The US deployed theirs in April 1945.”
The former was a weapon with a non trivial exploitable weakness as the radio guidance was largely countered with effective jamming within a few months (early 1944 IIRC) while german counter countermeasures never materialized; the latter was an arguably more capable one (radar guided with fire and forget capability). I would argue that’s a nice case of lesser known american tech surpassing the famous german one during the war.
But in terms of absolute first you are correct.
By that criteria however for example strategic bombing of cities/civilians was already theory (and not a german one) by 1921 and old news in practice by 1918.
But more broadly my point is that german technical efforts in WW2 in general get a lot of fawning I would suggest is only partially warranted.
For the most part they came late: the advanced subs for example were barely ready at the very end of the war for example while the Type II/VII/IX workhorses were very conventional and basically iron coffins by 1943.
Often they were reactive: the somewhat more useful and very iconic heavy tanks of mid-late war were a hasty reaction to allied efforts and designs like the T-34.
Even the technical masterpieces are rather problematic: V2 missiles were pretty poor bang for the buck, rocket powered interceptors a technical dead end if there ever was one.
Which is not to say they did not have a number of advanced weapons/tech which were useful and introduced before others. But it is a lot less impressive.
The same on the society as a whole. Did they mobilize women for war production to the same extent the allies did?
No at all, if I recall correctly they did pretty poorly.
You are discussing 50 words in this post, and pretty much ignoring those. This wasn’t a discussion of Germany’s war policy, their social mobilization, or whatever.
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