“As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.” This is “Godwin’s Law of Nazi Analogies,” or just “Godwin’s law,” for short. Mike Godwin had created this funny observation in 1990, and one that I have made a reference to before. It’s not meant to be taken too seriously – after all, you can erroneously chalk up an argument that hasn’t referred to Nazis as “not yet being long enough” – but it’s so prevalent that Godwin’s law really doesn’t only apply to internet forums anymore. Hitler is basically referred to as the pinnacle of evil, and we see him being brought up on TV just as much as the internet, just as he was a few days ago when American musician Hank Williams compared President Barach Obama to him (apparently to Williams, economic stimulus spending is the same thing as killing millions of people). Now, I’m not sure, but I imagine that before Hitler became a well-known figure, people had used other examples to make bad arguments. So this brought me to the question: Who was considered the embodiment of pure evil before Hitler?
The Evil Thirteen
There’s a documentary series called “The Most Evil Men in History” (available online) in which each week includes the exploits of 13 evil men throughout history. These are the brief excerpts of each men, as seen on the Top Documentary Films website:
- Attila The Hun. Attila was Khan of the Huns. He is remembered as the epitome of cruelty and rapacity.
- Bad King John. He murdered his nephew, inspired the legend of Robin Hood and caused the creation of Magna Carta.
- Caligula. The Roman emperor’s reign is a legendary frenzy of lunacy, murder, and perverse sexuality.
- Francisco Pizarro. Francisco Pizarro was one of the European explorers who went to South America to colonize it and had natives murdered so he could plunder their gold and silver.
- Hitler. Adolf Hitler tried to mold Germany and a large portion of the 20th century into his own twisted design. Luckily for posterity he failed but not before destroying the lives of millions of people.
- Idi Amin. Idi Amin rose to become a brutal and utterly ruthless dictator who committed atrocities on his people.
- Ivan the Terrible. Ivan IV of Russia, also know as Ivan the Terrible, was the Grand Duke of Muscovy from 1533 to 1547 and was the first ruler of Russia to assume the title of Tsar. He was also a devout theist.
- Joseph Stalin. Perhaps 7 million or more people were shot with a total suppression of about 50 million under uncle Joe Stalin. One of the great tyrant’s of the 20th century and indeed any century.
- Nero. He brought the entire Roman Empire to the brink of collapse with his legendary excesses and cruelty.
- Pol Pot. Responsible for the Killing Fields and Year Zero Pol Pot waged a gruesome war on his own population.
- Rasputin. He was an uneducated peasant who gained a reputation as a faith healer. His strange behavior and incredible influence over the imperial family made him notorious and his death made him a legend.
- Torquemada. Torquemada tortured and burned thousands of innocent Spaniards and expelled Spains Jewish population. Thomas De Torquemada was head of the Spanish inquisition and was renowned for his cruelty.
- Vlad the Impaler. Vlad is best known for the legends of the exceedingly cruel punishments he imposed during his reign and for serving as the primary inspiration for the vampire main character in popular Dracula novel.
Maybe in the economically ravaged Germany, before Hitler was Hitler, Hitler was talking about earlier figures with their economic woes, saying stuff like “You know who also probably liked Jews? Bad King John!” though I’m assuming conversations didn’t end up as they do on places like internet forums or YouTube comments today (“shut up retard!” “No you’re the retard!”).
But according to Slate, there’s yet another individual who was not on this list, who was despised with such fervor that he was historically considered to be a figure of heinousness and evil well before the Nazi regime. And no, it’s not an American president, despite the numerous proclamations you can find on the web.
The “Hitler” of the Pre-Hitler Era
Actually, without the access to information like we have today, people did not seem to bring up earlier references as much as we do today. As reported by Slate:
Generally speaking, hatred was more local and short-lived before World War II. Nineteenth-century polemicists occasionally used Napoleon Bonaparte as shorthand for an evil ruler—they sometimes referred to “the little tyrant” rather than name the diminutive conqueror—but those references were rare. There is little record of oratorical comparisons of political leaders to Genghis Khan, Attila the Hun, or Ivan the Terrible.
[...] In the absence of a universal boogeyman, different regions latched on to a particular person as the personification of evil at different historical moments. Yet genocide and murder were less likely to earn a man universal revilement than treason or other forms of disloyalty.
But there was that one person who does indeed occasionally come up in the records of history: The Pharoah of Exodus.
In the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries, many Americans and Europeans had a firmer grasp of the bible than of the history of genocidal dictators. Orators in search of a universal symbol for evil typically turned to figures like Judas Iscariot, Pontius Pilate, or, most frequently, the Pharaoh of Exodus, who chose to endure 10 plagues rather than let the Hebrew people go.
[...] In the run-up to the Civil War, abolitionists regularly referred to slaveholders as modern-day Pharaohs. Even after VE Day, Pharaoh continued to pop up in the speeches of social reformers like Martin Luther King Jr.
Some people who viewed Abraham Lincoln as a traitor – because “both of his parents were Virginians, and Lincoln was born on slaveholding soil” – apparently also called him a “modern Pharoah.” One of America’s founding fathers, Thomas Paine, also once spoke ill of the Pharaoh, writing this:
“No man was a warmer wisher for reconciliation than myself, before the fatal nineteenth of April, 1775 [the date of the Lexington massacre], but the moment the event of that day was made known, I rejected the hardened, sullen tempered Pharaoh of England for ever.”
So perhaps, to some extent, people were always using hated figures they didn’t like as a reference to… well, other people they didn’t like. But it’s a lot more prevalent now. Today, it’s easy to see Reductio ad Hitlerum – an offshoot of Reductio ad Absurdum – in everyday usage, on political TV shows, comedy sketches, and the internet. The argument of Reductio ad Absurdum can be understood from this scene from the TV show The Big Bang Theory.
In the end, perhaps we shouldn’t insult our opponents by comparing them to pure evil when we’re making an argument (as it’s better to argue against the message, not the messenger).
Because you know who else did that? Hitler.
[December 30, 2012 Update: Comedian and Daily Show host Jon Stewart had a great segment on this topic:]