By Thomas Colley:
Why do so many political leaders seem incapable of analogising undesirable behaviour to anyone other than Hitler and the Nazis? Conflict in Ukraine has seen the protagonists base their propaganda on demonising the other side as ‘Nazis’ and ‘fascists’. David Cameron recently compared the dilemmas of dealing with Putin with those of Neville Chamberlain dealing with Hitler.[i] Tony Abbott recently claimed that The Islamic State (IS/ISIS/ISIL) were akin to Nazis and Communists. It is almost surprising that the Ebola virus hasn’t been compared to Hitler.
The extensive use of the Hitler analogy has fuelled debate over the extent to which such analogies are accurate.[ii] Arguably however, a more important issue is how useful such analogies are, and what they say about political leaders that they continue to use them.
An analogy is a comparison between two things based on some sort of shared characteristic. In politics, this tends to involve a comparison between current events or actors and those of the past, in order to make current events more easily intelligible, or even prescribe future action. Similarity cannot and need not be absolute, since focusing on the similarities in analogies tends to obscure differences. In this way, Al Qaeda may be immeasurably different to Imperial Japan, but focusing on the idea of ‘surprise attack on America’ makes 9/11 akin to Pearl Harbour, the differences obscured. In the same way, Putin’s annexation of Crimea is akin to Hitler’s annexation of the Sudetenland, while obscuring the obvious strategic differences between their aims.
The first way such analogies are used might be to prescribe strategy. If one likens Putin to Hitler, collective memories of the Second World War support the idea that Putin should be challenged, as appeasement will only fuel Russian aggression. Multiple European leaders have used rhetoric to this effect, arguing that Europe faces an existential threat if Putin is not stopped. Admittedly, the analogy is not wholly unfounded. Putin’s conduct in Ukraine has some similarities to the Nazi leader. Both his actions and rhetoric used in annexing the Crimea did resemble Hitler’s annexation of the Sudetenland. But Putin is not Hitler, and it is disturbing to think that such a crude comparison might be used for strategy-making.
Thankfully, based on the West’s response, it is relatively obvious that they know Putin is not Hitler, and are not acting as if he is even if they are saying so. After all, if Putin were Hitler, and to use another analogy, the West’s economic sanctions might be the equivalent of freezing the accounts of Himmler, Heydrich and Goering. Would this deter Hitler, once Goebbels, Bormann and Speer were added to the list, and are the West even thinking this way? Clearly not. There is little that indicates that Putin’s grand designs are in any way equivalent to Hitler. Bismarck would be a better comparison for his grasp of realpolitik; Stalin is a far more apt comparison in terms of his desire to maintain influence in states bordering Russia. However, this search for the least distorting analogy is of limited strategic use; the situation with Ukraine is unique and must be understood on its own terms.
If the Hitler analogy is not being used to prescribe strategy, it is being used to legitimise strategy. This is achieved through the most elementary level of playground logic: that Hitler was a bully; Putin is a bully, and as every child learns in primary school, if no one stands up to bullies they keep on bullying. This legitimises Western foreign policy towards Russia since states can at least claim they are acting against the bully. Whether their actions are sufficient to deter the bully is doubtful; only time will tell. Certainly the West’s rhetoric about what should be done has been extensive. But when faced with the West’s rhetoric, Putin can draw again from a primary school lesson recounted in Britain, that ‘sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me.’
Aside from Putin, the Hitler analogy continues to be invoked based on another metaphor, that of Hitler as ‘evil’. This appears by far the most common use of the Hitler analogy in political discourse; that through instigating the Second World War and perpetrating the Holocaust, Hitler epitomises human evil. Analogising to Hitler is therefore a common use of hyperbole to undermine an opponent, be it in the debating hall or in international politics. In fact, so popular is the ‘Hitler as evil’ metaphor that using it to demonise one’s opponent seems to be one of the first acts of many leaders’ propaganda playbooks. Putin repeatedly compared Poroshenko’s government to the Nazis; the Ukrainians responded in turn. Accusation and counter-accusation flowed, and the West joined in in what increasingly resembled the sort of name-calling found on exactly the same primary school playground from which the bullying analogy is understood.
The analogy was even more crudely exemplified by Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s claim that ISIS were comparable to the Nazis and the Communists based on the evil inherent in their provocatively public beheadings. Leaving aside the heterogeneity of global communism, the analogy seems only to function through the basic idea that ‘these people are evil, really, really bad, so we should stop them’. The ostensibly sagacious can then reinforce this with Burke’s dictum that ‘all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing’, and action against the evil threat is justified. Faced with Burke’s eloquence, no one apparently notices that evil will presumably also flourish if ‘men do the wrong thing, or don’t do enough for long enough’. Still, this makes the Hitler analogy a simple tactic to secure public support – we must act, or evil (Hitlers) will win.
However, this basic tactic illuminates several troubling issues with our political leaders’ grasp of communication and their faith in their publics. First, if every state repeats the same analogy, then its persuasive effects are limited. If the aim of using Hitler is to evoke fear and stir collective memory, if both sides are constantly doing so, then what effect is it likely to have? Second, once strategy is shown to contradict the analogy, then the analogy is inevitably revealed as propaganda – as just another person playing the Hitler card, as if they can’t think of anything better to say.
So why does the Hitler analogy remain such a compelling rhetorical device for political leaders? The answer seems to be that those using it assume that such analogies will stir an emotional response from an irrational, volatile public that has limited knowledge of international affairs, but at least understands that ‘Hitler was an evil and a bully, and so evil bullies like Hitler should be stopped.’ This logic reflects the same assumption that it is enough to shout ‘terrorist threat’ to engender mass fear and secure extensive public support. There is some irony here. David Cameron’s statement that ISIS are ‘a greater and deeper threat to our security than we have known before’ appears currently to be a securitising move of immense hyperbole.[iii] Yet it is precisely the understanding of the existential threat posed by Hitler that highlights how unnecessarily hyperbolic Cameron’s claim appears.
This suggests that many political leaders continue to base their communication assumptions on those of almost a century ago, assuming like Lippman, Almond and Bernays that publics are emotional, volatile and ignorant masses.[iv] This ignores a vast body of research that has shown the public to be, if not highly knowledgeable, at least reasoning on matters of foreign policy.[v] Why, for example, did Abbott feel that it was necessary to compare ISIS with Hitler? Did he or his speechwriters assume that it was beyond the public to grasp the evil of blunt-knifed public beheadings without the need for lazy hyperbole and overused analogy?
In this way, the use of the Hitler analogy betrays the lack of faith political elites have in their publics. Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond’s comparison between the Scottish referendum and the post-apartheid elections in South Africa demonstrated a similar viewpoint. The analogy did support the otherwise persuasive narrative of oppressive Westminster rule over Scotland, but the comparison is tenuous at best, crass at worst.[vi] The only rational explanation for the choice of analogy is the assumption that the publics Salmond was trying to persuade are too ill-informed, or overwhelmed by nationalist fervour, that they would notice the difference between democratic Scotland and post-apartheid South Africa. The irony is that in using such crude analogies, politicians make themselves look as ill-informed as they assume their publics to be. This is probably not the case, but it contributes to the pervasive distrust between political elites and their publics.
I am of the view that if political leaders decide to use historical analogies, their choices should be carefully considered, grounded in a more optimistic perspective of the publics they are trying to persuade. Some might argue this is naïve, and that publics are largely ignorant of foreign policy matters and susceptible to crude analogies. However if one adopts this viewpoint, the tactic is still questionable, since governments would be better off trying to influence the active citizenry that are engaged in the political process. Surely these are the exact people that would expect more from their politicians than ‘everyone is Hitler’?
Perhaps the most telling indictment comes from one of the ‘rules of the internet’. Godwin’s law states that as online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison with Hitler or the Nazis increases.[vii] Interestingly, the person who first analogises to Hitler automatically loses the debate, for recourse to the Hitler analogy is to lack the ability to construct a more meaningful argument. Applied to political leaders, this would mean that the first person to be reduced to using a Hitler analogy loses the debate; the person who compares a peacetime democratic referendum to a people emerging from decades of racial oppression loses the debate; the leader who just lists ‘evil people we don’t like’ loses the debate.
As Hoggart wrote sceptically of the working classes, people may appear to have views on political matters, but they usually consist of
‘a bundle of largely unexamined and orally-transmitted tags, enshrining generalisations, prejudices
and half-truths, and elevated by epigrammatic phrasing into the status of maxims…. These are often contradictory of each other; but they are not thought about, not intellectually considered.’[viii]
In their use of analogies, many political leaders don’t seem to be doing much better.
Thomas Colley is a PhD student in War Studies at King’s College London. His research interests include propaganda, strategic communication and public attitudes to the use of military force. You can follow Thomas on Twitter @ThomasColley.
[ii] For reasons of brevity, ‘the Hitler analogy’ refers to analogies relating to Hitler and Nazism in general.
[iv] Almond, Gabriel A. The American People and Foreign Policy. New York: Praeger, 1950; Bernays, Edward L. Propaganda. Ig Publishing, 1928; Lippmann, Walter. Public Opinion. Transaction Publishers, 1946.
[v] Aldrich, John, Christopher Gelpi, Peter Feaver, Jason Reifler, and Kristin Thompson Sharp. “Foreign Policy and the Electoral Connection.” Annual Review of Political Science, 9 (2006): 477–502; Popkin, Samuel L. The Reasoning Voter: Communication and Persuasion in Presidential Campaigns. University of Chicago Press, 1994.
Page, Benjamin, and Robert Shapiro. The Rational Public: Fifty Years of Trends in Americans’ Policy Preferences. University of Chicago Press, 2010.
[vi] It is possibly that Salmond’s analogy may have been more thoughtless than calculating. However, he probably knew that he had been described as the ‘paler Mandela’ months before on social media, which suggests the analogy was deliberate. See http://www.scotsman.com/news/drumlanrig-gordon-brown-nelson-mandela-geoff-hurst-1-3224520, 29 September 2014.
[viii] Hoggart, Richard. The Uses of Literacy: Aspects of Working-Class Life. London: Penguin Classics, 2009, 86.