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Reductio ad Hitlerum
Reductio ad Hitlerum, also argumentum ad Hitlerum, or reductio (or argumentum) ad Nazium (dog Latin for “reduction or argument to Adolf Hitler or the Nazis“) is an ad hominem or ad misericordiam argument, and is a formal fallacy in logic. The name is a pun on reductio ad absurdum. The phrase reductio ad Hitlerum was coined by an academic ethicist, Leo Strauss, in 1953. Engaging in this fallacy is sometimes known as playing the Nazi card, by analogy to playing the race card.
It is a fallacy of irrelevance where a conclusion is suggested based solely on something or someone’s origin rather than its current meaning or context. This overlooks any difference to be found in the present situation, typically transferring the positive or negative esteem from the earlier context. Hence this fallacy fails to examine the claim on its merit.
The fallacy most often assumes the form of “Hitler (or the Nazis) supported X, therefore X must be evil/undesirable/bad,”. For example: “Hitler was a vegetarian, so vegetarianism is wrong.” The tactic is often used to derail arguments, as such a comparison tends to distract and to result in angry and less reasoned responses.
The widespread use of this fallacy on internet message boards led to the creation of “Godwin’s Law“- a humorous adage that claims the longer an online discussion, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis/Hitler approaches one. Hitler/Nazi comparisons received widespread mainstream media attention in 2009 during debate onhealth care reform in the United States, due to comments from citizens attending town hall forums as well as radio and television commentators.
Fallacious nature of the argument
Reductio ad Hitlerum is rationally unsound as guilt by association (a form of association fallacy); it illogically attempts to shift culpability from a villain to an idea regardless of who is espousing it and why. Specific instances of reductio ad Hitlerum are also frequently likely to suffer from the fallacy of begging the question or take the form of slippery slope arguments, which are frequently (though not always) false as well.
Those policies advocated by Hitler and his party which are generally considered evil are condemned in and of themselves, not because Hitler supported them. In other words, genocide and race supremacism, as two examples, are considered evil on their own merits, while Hitler is considered evil for numerous reasons largely becausehe advocated them. A common example of the fallacy in action is, “The Nazis favored eugenics, therefore eugenics are wrong.” But, euthanasia aside, the ethicaldebate over eugenics is not directly connected with Hitler or the Nazis in particular; both eugenics and criticism of it considerably predate Nazism, and have gone well beyond it, into concerns about modern genetic engineering, unknown to Hitler. Used broadly enough, ad Hitlerum can encompass more than one questionable cause fallacy type, as it does in the eugenics example, by both inverting cause and effect and by linking an alleged cause to wholly unrelated consequences. The fallacy of guilt by association can readily be seen by noting that Hitler was fond of dogs and children; arguments that because of this, affection for dogs and children is evil do not convince.
The argument being false, however, does not prove that X or its supporters are not evil (assuming so would be another fallacy, namely affirming the consequent). Moreover, recall that the argument is false in itself, no matter whether X is actually good or evil. So, “Hitler killed human beings, therefore killing is wrong”, is nonetheless a fallacy, however truthful the premise and conclusion may be, because there is no logical connection between the two. It would be akin to “I wear trousers, therefore the sky is blue”. This sentence is logically faulty, even if the speaker does wear trousers, and the sky is blue that day.
Various criminals, controversial religious and political figures, regimes, and atrocities other than Hitler, the Nazis and the Holocaust can be used for the same purposes. For example, a reductio ad Stalinum could assert that corporal punishment of wayward children is necessary because Joseph Stalin enacted its abolition, or that atheism is a dangerous philosophy because Stalin was an atheist for most of his life. Similarly, one example of a reductio adCromwellium would be to equate enjoying chamber music with hating the Irish, while a reductio ad bin-Ladenum might equate making propaganda or non-mainstream media in general with terrorism. Such constructions, as a class, make no more sense than saying moustaches are evil because Hitler and Stalin had moustaches.
Countering the fallacy
The fallacious nature of reductiones ad Hitlerum is, however, most easily illustrated by identifying X as something that Adolf Hitler or his supporters did promote but which is not considered unethical, such as painting, owning dogs or being a superb soldier.
The fallacy has been referred to dismissively as enthymetic. For example comparing someone’s argument to the straw man “The Fascists also made the trains run on time” might implicitly reference the reductio ad Hitlerum.
Many of Hitler’s qualities and talents were admirable if seen in isolation. He is generally considered an excellent orator and a political organizer of first rank, despite his use of those talents to further a program of genocide, aggressive warfare, and other atrocities. It must be remembered that not all arguments involving Hitler or Nazism are reductio ad Hitlerum, although they may be otherwise fallacious.
History of the term
In following this movement towards its end we shall inevitably reach a point beyond which the scene is darkened by the shadow of Hitler. Unfortunately, it does not go without saying that in our examination we must avoid the fallacy that in the last decades has frequently been used as a substitute for the reductio ad absurdum: the reductio ad Hitlerum. A view is not refuted by the fact that it happens to have been shared by Hitler.
The phrase was derived from the better known (and sometimes valid) logical argument called reductio ad absurdum. The argumentum variant takes its form from the names of many classic fallacies, such as argumentum ad hominem. The ad Nazium variant may be further derived, humorously, from argumentum ad nauseam.
In 2000 traditionalist Catholic Thomas Fleming described its use against traditional values –
Leo Strauss called it the reductio ad Hitlerum. If Hitler liked neoclassical art, that means that classicism in every form is Nazi; if Hitler wanted to strengthen the German family, that makes the traditional family (and its defenders) Nazi; if Hitler spoke of the “nation” or the “folk,” then any invocation of nationality, ethnicity, or even folkishness is Nazi …
Allegations of Reductio ad Hitlerum in practice
Marek J, Chodakiewicz alleges that the Communist Polish Government used Reductio ad Hitlerum to discredit the Polish independentist underground. For example, on April 19, 1946, at an official state function to commemorate the third anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Colonel Mieczyslaw Dàbrowski of the Communist army delivered a speech, stressing that “The [Nazi] air force, the SS, German tanks, Polish hooligans, Polish reactionaries, and, in fact, the Home Army: they all fought against the [Jewish] insurgents.”
Professor Michael André Bernstein alleged Reductio ad Hitlerum in a full-page advertisement placed in The New York Times in 1991, by the Lubavitch community, following the Crown Heights Riot, under the heading “This Year Kristallnacht Took Place on August 19th Right Here in Crown Heights.” Henry Schwarzschildr, who had witnessed Kristallnacht, wrote to the New York Times that “however ugly were the anti-Semitic slogans and the assaultive behavior of people in the streets [during the Crown Heights riots] . . . one thing that clearly did not take place was a Kristallnacht.”
Neve Gordon, in a 2002 book review of Olivier Razac’s Barbed Wire: A Political History, questioned why: “the architectural similarity and differences between the campsIsrael has constructed to hold Palestinians and the concentration camps Jews were held in during the Holocaust urges one to ponder how it is that the reappearance ofbarbed wire in the Israeli landscape does not engender an outcry among survivors.” In a January 2003 response to this review, Andrew Silow-Carroll alleged Gordon’s use of Reductio ad Hitlerum with, “Logical Fallacy Alert: The Nazis used barbed wire. Israelis use barbed wire. Thus, the Israelis are like Nazis.”
In 2004 IPCC chairman, Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, was quoted in Jyllandposten saying of eco-skeptic Bjørn Lomborg “What is the difference between Lomborg’s view of humanity and Hitler’s?”, and “If you were to accept Lomborg’s way of thinking, then maybe what Hitler did was the right thing.” Lomborg had followed the consensus practice of economists in applying a discount to present costs for future benefits, and comparing the range of out-comes with other world problems alongside climate change.
In 2005 Sen. Richard Durbin read extracts from an FBI memo, describing the ordeal of a prisoner at Guantanamo who was allegedly, subjected to mistreatment including extreme heat and bitter cold, forced to listen to loud rap music and chained to the floor. Durbin said: “If I read this to you and did not tell you it was an FBI agent describing what Americans had done to prisoners in their control, you would most certainly believe this must have been done by Nazis, Soviets in their gulags, or some mad regime — Pol Pot or others — that had no concern for human beings. Mark Leibovich in the Washington Post described the outcome as follows: “It prompted yet another episode in what has become a familiar Kabuki in American political discourse: Someone invokes the behavior of Nazis in some non-genocidal context. This is followed by an outcry (in which members of the opposing party are “saddened”), condemnation from the Anti-Defamation League, futile attempts by the speaker to “clarify” his remarks, repeated calls for him to apologize and, inevitably, some acknowledgment of regret, often tearful.”
In 2009, the New York Post printed an editorial which criticized Columbia University Professor Joseph Massad for “[specializing] in reductio ad hitlerum.” The Posteditorialist supported his conclusion by quoting an essay by Massad written after Operation Cast Lead: “If Germans spent the day on the beach when the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, and Americans cheered in bars and at home the fireworks light show the US military put up over Baghdad while slaughtering hundreds of thousands of Iraqis in 1991 and in 2003, Israeli Jews insisted on having front row seats on hills overlooking Gaza for a live show, cracking open champagne bottles and cheering the murder and maiming of thousands of civilians, more than half of whom were women and children.”
In 2002, José Bové claimed that “Israel is a reductio ad Hitlerum, so Jews can be accused of being racists if they support the Jewish state….Indeed, Israelis are perpetrating antisemitic acts in France, as it is they who profit from the crime.”
Some creationists, particularly religious Christians in the United States, have alleged that acceptance of evolution as a scientific theory leads to Nazism. The argument is that social Darwinism was inspired by Charles Darwin’s discovery of natural selection, and that Hitler’s evil philosophy can be explained in terms of social Darwinism, and therefore evolution is evil. This was carried out in the 2008 documentary film, Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, in which the evolutionary biologists are juxtaposed with images of Nazis. Richard Dawkins and Eugenie Scott, two scientists that were interviewed in the film, have been among the most vocal critics of many statements contained in the film. After a viewer of the film wrote to Dawkins that he accepted the film’s argument, Dawkins wrote back that the film did not consider the long history of anti-Semitism in Europe that preceded Nazism of which Hitler took advantage and that evolution is a scientific theory, that “whether or not we like it politically or morally is irrelevant,” and that “[s]cientific theories are not prescriptions for how we should behave.” Expelled also equated an understanding of biological evolution with the rise of communism in the 20th century and the Berlin Wall was used as a double entendre in many parts of the film (part implying evolution and atheism are to blame for communism, part implying that academics in 21st century America are silenced for questioning Darwinian evolution).
Use of Reductio ad Hitlerum has been alleged in criticisms of United States Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama, and against 2008 Presidential candidate John McCain. For example, A Penn State trustee compared Reagan’s rhetoric when addressing aYoung Americans for Freedom chapter to Adolf Hitler indoctrinating the Hitler Youth. Moreover, American radio commentator Rush Limbaugh compared “the Democratic Party of today” and U.S. President Barack Obama to Nazis. If the audience is meant to derive an equivalence between the two addressed organizations, this would constitute the fallacy; comparing the speakers’ rhetoric alone might be hyperbolic or a bad analogy, but would not constitute a fallacy.
In popular culture
The concept behind reductio ad Hitlerum sometimes makes appearances in the mass media. For example,
- In the film Office Space, main character Peter Gibbons, while trying to rationalize his embezzlement to his waitress girlfriend, notes that “the Nazis had pieces of flair that they made the Jews wear,” in reference to cloying buttons and slogans she’s required to wear at work.
- In the episode of Daria (“Pinch-Sitter”), the children Daria is babysitting for tell her that “Sugar is bad. Sugar rots your teeth. Sugar makes you hyper. Hitler ate sugar.”
- In the “Atomic No. 33” episode of Numb3rs, the character Susan Doran criticizes science because it was embraced by the Nazis.
- In several high-profile ads, PETA vilified the food industry, comparing its use of animals to The Holocaust.
- In Ben Stein’s film Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, Stein vilifies the theory of evolution claiming it gave rise to Nazism and The Holocaust.
The relative frequency of such comparisons in Usenet discussions led to the formulation of an adage called Godwin’s Law in 1990, which posits that the probability of analogies involving Hitler or the Nazis approaches 1 as the duration of an online discussion increases.
- ^ a b c d e f g Curtis, Gary N. (2004). “Logical Fallacy: The Hitler Card“. Fallacy Files. Retrieved 2007-10-08.
- ^ a b Curtis, Gary N. (2004). “Logical Fallacy: Guilt by Association“. Fallacy Files. Retrieved 2007-10-08.
- ^ Tobin, Paul N. (2004). “Hitler, Stalin and Atheism“. Rejection of Pascal’s Wager: A Skeptic’s Guide to Christianity. Retrieved 2007-11-24.
- ^ “Natural Right and History“. University of Oklahoma. 2008. Retrieved 2008-08-11.
- ^ Thomas Fleming, editor, Chronicles (Rockford, Illinois), May 2000, p. 11.
- ^ http://www.glaukopis.pl/pdf/23art6.pdf
- ^ http://www.escholarship.org/editions/view?docId=ft3x0nb2ns
- ^ In These Times, 6 December 2002. Gordon, Neve. Don’t Fence Me In. Retrieved on 9 June 2009.
- ^ The Forward, 3 January 2003. Silow-Carroll, Andrew. “The Featherman File.” Retrieved on 9 June 2009.
- ^ http://www.aei.org/docLib/200502151_epojanfebg.pdf
- ^ http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/06/21/AR2005062101753_pf.html
- ^ Gershman, Jacob. “COLUMBIA TENURES AN ISRAEL-BASHER.” New York Post. 29 June 2009. 29 June 2009.
- ^ http://www.eyeontheun.org/assets/attachments/articles/524_with_a_clenched_fist_and_an_outstretched_arm.doc.
- ^ “Hitler and Eugenics.” Expelled Exposed. 1 May 2008.
- ^ Rennie, John. “Ben Stein’s Expelled: No Integrity Displayed.” Scientific American. 9 April 2008. 19 May 2008.
- ^ “You Say You Want an Evolution.” Newsweek. 14 April 2008: 17.
- ^ Dawkins, Richard. “Open Letter to a victim of Ben Stein’s lying propaganda.” RichardDawkins.net. 20 April 2008. 1 May 2008.
- ^ a b Shauna Moser (March 02, 2006). “Penn State Trustee Compares Reagan to Hitler“.
- ^ “Study of Bush’s psyche touches a nerve | World news“. The Guardian. Retrieved 2009-07-19.
- ^ Madonna infuriates McCain with Hitler-Mugabe sequence at Cardiff concert, Times Online, August 25, 2008
- ^ Benjamin, Mark (2008-07-22). “National Review writer compares Obama to Hitler — War Room“. Salon.com. Retrieved 2009-07-19.
- ^ 37 Diggs (2008-02-14). “FOX’s Tom Sullivan compares Obama to Hitler“. Crooks and Liars. Retrieved 2009-07-19.
- ^ Lowell Greenbaum (2009-06-09). “Cartoon an insult to president 060909 – The Augusta Chronicle“. Chronicle.augusta.com. Retrieved 2009-07-19.
- ^ “Editorial: The US health care debate.” Jerusalem Post. 18 August 2009. 19 August 2009.