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Reductio ad Hitlerum

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“Make everything about Hitler? That's something HITLER would do!”

In 2017, critics of Donald Trump used this image - of the most depressing game of rock paper scissors in history - to attack his immigration policies.

The term reductio ad Hitlerum is an eternally popular rhetorical tool in which one likens the opposing side in the argument to Hitler in some way, shape, or form.

The reductio ad Hitlerum argument is of the form: "Your behaviour is comparable to X. X is something which The Nazis did. Therefore you is a Nazi."

This tactic is often effective, because Hitler is one of the few historical figures whose acts are entirely and emotionally reduced to Bad by almost every member of the public, and so anyone juxtaposed with him can be tarnished by the association, no matter how tenuous or non-existent the link.

Practitioners of reductio ad Hitlerum are less likely to experiment with historical figures who do not provoke such an extreme reaction, and therefore it is unusual to hear, "That's just what MUSSOLINI would do" or "Hey General Franco, Fascist much?"


Comparing people to Hitler is a sign of emotional insecurity. Unlike comparing them to a child.

Reductio ad Hitlerum was surprisingly unpopular in the 1930s, when Hitler was just another right-wing nationalist European leader, which were ten-a-penny at the time. Your great-grandfather, smoking a cigar and drinking a type of beer which no longer exists, was unlikely to say, "But, that's just the kind of thing the Nazis would do!" because quite a lot of people in Europe pre-World War II thought the Nazis were alright.

That all changed with the outbreak of war, and the subsequent discovery of the huge scale of the Holocaust. Academics generally agree there was a brief post-war period in which reductio ad Hitlerum was uncommon, because people simply tended to look terribly, terribly sad whenever the Holocaust was mentioned, and stare off into the distance while wearing trilby hats and braces instead of belts.

As time passed, however, the evocation of Hitler as The Worst Man Who Ever Lived© became useful in arguments, especially to sophists and absolute cretins. The first televised instance of Reductio ad Hitlerum was uttered by John F. Kennedy in a 1960 presidential campaign. He told a crowd of beehive-sporting women: "Ask not what your country can do for you - that's what they did in Nazi Germany."[1]

During the 1980s, the practice suffered something of a reversal in popularity, as the prospect of a nuclear war with Russia meant that reductio ad communismum became prevalent.[2]

Epidemic use in modern age

While reductio ad Hitlerum has long since had a place in the retarded man's rhetorical arsenal, the main theatre of war for such debating prowess was generally the family home or the nearest establishment serving alcohol.

The birth of the internet changed all this, and suddenly created a place for debates consisting of slow, epistolary exchanges devoid of tone of voice and heavy on personal attacks, sarcasm, and histrionics. Such a context led to a contagious use of reductio ad Hitlerum, as many trolls, professional provocateurs and plain idiots applied Hitlerian characteristics to anyone and everyone in the hope of winning the argument in fellow idiots' eyes.

The practice achieves astronomical levels of commonness during any major political campaign, as a search for almost any major politician's name with the word Hitler quickly reveals.
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Process of incubation

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Because Nazi Germany was a relatively recent phenomenon, and World War II was the last time someone tried to take over everything, the subject is seen as important enough to be taught to children in primary school.

Unfortunately, this means they are at an age where they cannot really process the information. It's one thing being told that Henry VIII chopped a few of his wives heads off - that can lead to quite a fun display of posters in the classroom, as long as there are enough red crayons to go around. But Nazi Germany For Kids is a hard lesson plan to perk up, so teachers tend to favour putting on puppet shows in which Hitler has an unpleasant, abrasive voice, followed by gratuitously violent depictions of the Final Solution using the school kiln.

As a result, Nazism becomes processed in a special part of the child's brain, which psychologists call the Naughty Place. As a child grows into adolescence, the Naughty Place also comes to feature the n-word, rape, paedophilia, poo-poo and goatse.

A ten-year-old's concept of Hitler, based on the following exchange with a parent or teacher, goes like this:
- "Who was Hitler?"
- "He was a very bad man who tried to kill lots of people."

This becomes no richer or more profound with time, despite the endless stream of documentaries broadcast about Hitler the individual is likely to be exposed to during his lifetime, as they all have the basic message:

Look how bad this man was.

Thus Hitler is established as the ultimate taboo, and even people who have to speak out loud when they type realise that, once in a while, you can make an undeserved impact on an argument by saying something which is no more valid or considered than telling a hiking enthusiast: "Yeah? You know who else likes walks in the forest? The fucking Bogey Man!"

Use against right wingers

The Nazi party is generally thought of as right-wing (although historians may try to corner you and give you a fascinating lecture on the debatable meaning of fascism and the essential divergence in the policies of so-called "fascist" dictators) and so reductio ad Hitlerum can be applied to anyone who is more right-wing than you would like. This includes:

  • Racists, especially anti-semites, but can be stretched to include xenophobes, jingoists, and patriots.
  • Homophobes.
  • Pro-life campaigners - Hitler wanted German women to be domestic breeding machines.
  • Any leader who invades a country, especially if the people there are of a different race.
  • Anyone to whom the adjective "officious" might be applied - traffic wardens, security guards, etc.
  • Anything to do with Israeli aggression.

Use against left wingers

While superficially it might seem more difficult to relate Hitler to left-wing politics, remember that the use of logic or intellect here is not essential.

The main line of comparison between Nazism and anything resembling socialism is the spectre of Big Government, meaning that a centrist government's interest in, say, improving healthcare for its poorest citizens, can be likened to the Hitler Youth programme, because it requires nationwide organisation. While such comparisons may be more limited than the more wide-ranging potshots that can be taken at right-wingers, lovers of reductio ad Hitlerum attest to a certain delightful frisson of being able to taint a loving liberal with the big bad smear of Adolf. Possible outlets include:

  • Nationwide schemes involving new taxes.
  • Use of identity cards or CCTV.
  • Pro-choicers - linking their taste for abortion to Hitler's sterilisation programmes.
  • Medical practitioners whose techniques are on the ghoulish side - animal testing, stem cell research, etc.
  • Any instance where the slur "nanny state" can be creatively stretched to "Nazi state".

Classic ad Hitlerum structures

Because of the monkey-see monkey-do nature of the rhetoric at hand, reductio ad Hitlerum practitioners can often be spotted using tried-and-tested structures when making their attacks.

  • "You know who else did that? Hitler."
  • "That's exactly what Hitler would do."
  • "I am sure Adolf would approve."
  • "I guess you were just following orders."
  • "Great idea - maybe ask Joseph Goebbels to work on the campaign poster?"
  • "Germans in 1933 said exactly the same thing."
  • "You should ask 6 million dead Jews if they feel the same."
  • "Lucky our grandparents didn't think that way in 1939."
  • "Ja, mein Führer!"

Godwin's Law

A diagram of Godwin's law.

Related to reductio ad Hitlerum is Godwin's Law, a theory that suggests that, in any given internet discussion, the possibilities of Hitler or the Nazis being mentioned rises exponentially with time.

At the beginning of the argument, the probability that such a mention will take place is a mere 0.8, meaning that for every 6 million arguments which take place online every day, just 4.8m will see a reference to Hitler/Nazis in the first exchange.

This rises to 0.99 after 3 or more exchanges, at which point most arguments feature both sides accusing the other of bearing an uncanny resemblance to a man who systematically killed millions and millions of people.

Goosestepping footnotes

  1. Not that JFK thought particularly poorly of Adolf Hitler. Auction of Rare Diary Highlights What John F. Kennedy Really Thought About Hitler
  2. And if you don't agree with that, you're a no-good Ruskie Red.

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