One of the more popular ways to degrade today’s politicians is to fit a thin moustache to their face while slapping a swastika on their sleeve. George W. Bush and Barack Obama have both received this treatment. Likening public figures to the Nazis is quite effective at communicating that you disagree with their policies. However it also communicates an embarrassing political and historical ignorance that can be very dangerous.
The sheer scale of suffering caused by Hitler’s regime has naturally made the trappings of Nazism virtually synonymous with pure evil. Over time, freedom’s greatest enemy has been caricatured into a cartoony villain. The term “Nazi” is now a catch-all insult that applies to those that want Health Care Reform, those who support a troop surge in Afghanistan, or anyone else who holds any view that someone else might find politically disagreeable. When someone calls a politician a “Nazi” today, the insult very clumsily ties that figure to the emotions and connotations that the word elicits. It saves the user the hassle of actually learning someone else’s position because they already know that they must be against it. It is maximum emotional effect for minimal intellectual effort.
It’s comforting to think of Hitler’s Third Reich as a monstrous aberration because that’s the only way we can envision anyone doing the things that its subjects were responsible for. We must hold this conception of the Nazis in order to use the term in this way. Hitler and the Nazis are truly frightening not because they were satanic abberations, but because they were human beings. Lampooning them into grotesque demons dismisses the social forces and situation that made the people of a modern nation like Germany susceptible to their philosophy.
Though the world has changed drastically since the 1930s, man himself has changed little. The attitudes, prides, fears and angers that Americans experience today are not appreciably different from those that the average German experienced so many decades ago. The desperateness of the situation made even such a radical and dangerous choice as totalitarian fascism seem attractive. The challenges facing nations today are different than those faced by those in the past, but they are not so different that perfectly sane and rational human beings will not continue to be swayed by those who preach hate as a solution to them.
Continuing to insult people so incorrectly and simplistically also ignores the potential in people to fall prey to such temptations in the future. Framing our view of Hitler’s Third Reich in a way that recognizes the forces that led to its rise does not excuse its crimes, but helps to guard against them in the future.
And in the meantime we can come up with more creative and less anachronistic insults for our politicians.