Going Hitler: The Importance of John Kerry’s Nazi Reference

Certainly nothing makes a statement quite like pointing a finger at the leader of the Nazi Party—and then pointing at a political opponent

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Jacquelyn Martin / AP

Secretary of State John Kerry testifies before a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Sept. 3, 2013.

Secretary of State John Kerry joined the ranks of public figures who have invoked Adolf Hitler for political purposes Tuesday in a Senate hearing. Syrian President Bashir Assad, meanwhile, joined the growing group of modern leaders who have been compared to der Fuhrer.

Here is how Kerry ventured into Third Reich territory, speaking about the use of chemical weapons and the case for military action:

It was used by Adolf Hitler to gas millions of Jews; it was used by Saddam Hussein in order to gas [Iranians and his own people]; and now it has been used by Bashir Assad. Three people in all of history. And if the United States, knowing it and knowing that we’ve drawn a line that the world has drawn with us, is unwilling to stand up and confront that, it is an absolute certainty that gas will proliferate.

The Hitler reference can be impactful. It’s a word beyond grey areas, said when one wants to make it crystal-clear that things are bad, probably heading toward worse. Playing on his name can play on Western countries’ greatest regrets. Those six letters are a universal tool for reminding everyone how much blood one man can have on his hands, if he isn’t stopped by forces of good.

The Hitler reference can also be hackneyed and reductive—the metaphorical equivalent of comparing something good to rainbows—ignoring both particulars about Hitler and whoever else is being linked to him. After Rick Santorum made comments on the 2012 campaign trail that seemed to suggest similarities between the German dictator and Obama, the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank penned an editorial about the trope. “Nazi comparisons are the most extreme form of political speech,” he wrote. “Once one ties his political opponents to the most deplorable chapter in human history, all reasoned argument ceases.”

But, poignant or cheap, there’s no doubt that mentioning Hitler is a popular rhetorical device.

One example came on the same day as Kerry’s. Wyoming’s Jackson Hole News and Guide reported on Wednesday that Liz Cheney, the daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney and current Senate candidate, “compared herself to Winston Churchill standing up to Adolf Hitler” when addressing Tea Party supporters Tuesday night. The managing editor tells TIME that the reference came in a string of examples about times in history “when the world faced a choice.”

Both Bush Presidents played the H-Card. In the midst of the Gulf War in 1990, President George Bush argued that Saddam Hussein’s regime was worse than Hitler in some respects, in an attempt to prepare the American people for the prospect of “dramatic action”:

”[Saddam's forces] have committed outrageous acts of barbarism … [Americans] are held in direct contravention of international law. Many of them reportedly staked out as human shields near possible military targets, brutality that I don’t believe Adolf Hitler ever participated in.”

In 2006, President George W. Bush gave a speech to the Military Officers Association of America shortly before the fifth anniversary of 9/11. He made a case for continuing the war in Iraq, suggesting that standing down would be equivalent to standing idly by during World War II. “The world ignored Hitler’s words and paid a terrible price,” he said. “Bin Laden and his terrorist allies have made their intentions as clear as Lenin and Hitler before them. The question is: Will we listen? Will we pay attention to what these evil men say?”

The year before, Bush’s Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld referenced Hitler when speaking to the 82nd Airborne Division about another American nemesis in the War on Terror. Trying to reaffirm America’s confidence in the “outcome of this struggle,” Rumsfeld spoke of how that division had battled the Nazis and drew parallels to al-Qaeda leader Abu Mousab al-Zarqawi:

Consider the terrorist al-Zarqawi who recently advocated killing innocent Muslim women and children to advance his cause. Reminiscent of Hitler in his bunker this violent extremist, failing to achieve his military and political objectives, now appears committed to trying to destroy everything and everyone around him. History teaches us that this kind of evil over time fails, and it will.

Rumsfeld also compared Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez to Hitler—saying both were legally elected leaders who dangerously consolidated their power—and Chavez in turn said that “Hitler would be like a suckling baby next to George W. Bush.”

The examples go on. Senator George Voinovich once said Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is “a Hitler type of person.” And Florida Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen has compared the whole country to him, saying “Iran is not going to listen, in my opinion, to anybody … If we try to negotiate with them, [they] will see that as a sign of weakness. And they will just press ahead just like Hitler did.” Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani once likened both “Islamic terrorism” and Ahmadinejad to Hitler in one speech. In one hearing, Sen. Lindsey Graham compared Hitler to both Ahmadinejad and Osama bin Laden.

Godwin’s Law, an informal theory about online commenting, states that “as an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.” A corollary might be that as armed conflict looms larger, the probability of a politician invoking Hitler also moves in that direction. Certainly so long as invoking Hitler is correlated to generating headlines and rousing public reactions, the allusions have little reason to wane.

22 comments
AlexanderIsaías
AlexanderIsaías

A Military attack on Siria is not going to solve any problem in Siria, as it didn't save anything or anyone in Afganistan or Irak. The only problems that is going to be solve is the Budget's of US Military suppliers, and contractors. 

At the very end we will have a new destroyed country, either by the Dictator on turn or the Invader on turn will no make any difference, and a new set of chemical weapons developed to convinienly appear on the next "fair" war iniciativy from West countries to Middle East, or anywhere there is some resource to use in West benefict, in name on the World Peace

A new set of fake democrats claiming to be the bigest Pacifist in the world, waiting the turn for the Nobel, or the Oscar.

I really sorry for sirian's people, they need help, but US Military in control of a foreing country is not better than what they have now. Same as Jews aren't any better to Palestinians now than Hitler were to not Arians in the 1940-1950, as not only Jews were victims of Hitler maniac attacks, also Romans, people with disabilities (even Arian Germans) and homosexuals.

Finally, don't try to fool us again with the Chemical weapons, terrorist, planes demolishing buildings attacks, and Dictators Free Environment story, because we know what you are capable of, as we know about Hitler...

georgfries
georgfries

You made my day, Katy Steinmetz. I come from a family in which many were killed by the Nazis and thanks to Hitler's regime.  Now since years do I ask myself, what would the victims say if they could listen to all this?

Well, I don't want to write much more, you just made my day. It is just fine that there are still people who are not like, to take another example, Joschka Fischer, who called Milosevic Hitler (no, he rather was Milosevic. Isn't that enough that Assad is Assad and the two sides that killed over 100 000 people are themselves?), and all those others. 

If we could be in a bit of upbeat-mode right now, we all could say - who uses the Hitler-comparison could well, after waking up again, resign. "I did say such a horrible nonsense? Sorry. I go fishing from now on. Excuses to all."

Thank you very much for this article.

TomHes
TomHes

Adolf Hitler never used chemicals in warfare, but used it to massacre innocent civilians in camps. As such this comparison is wrong and outrages, as even if a chemical attack has taken place (yet to be proven) and it is the Syrian army (yet to be proven) on orders of Assad (yet to be proven), it is uncomparable.

More over, western nations & leaders have used posion gas as well (David Lloyd George's  UK and Clemenceau's France in World War 1), whereas it is the US itself that has been the only country to use the most horrifying weapon, the nucleair bomb.

ryan4uonly
ryan4uonly

US is anti christ. they have helped the islamic to kill christian in Libya, Iraq, Egypt and now Syria. Dont get carried by the CNN and BBC news you watch. they are controlled by vested interest. Assad is not anti christ. he is the most secular leader in Syria. US helps the liver eaters and Jihadi terrorist to cleanse the christians and other minorities.

Kaul784
Kaul784

Some of John Kerry's own family members were killed in Hitler's gas chambers.Two siblings of his Austrian grandmother Ida - Jenni and Otto were killed. The following Austrian cousins of John Kerry's father were also gassed : Alfred Kaulbach (Kohn) together with his wife Paula and daughter Edith, Dr,Richard Kaulbach (Kohn) together with his wife Sofie, Oskar Kaulbach (Kohn) and Hans Kaulbach (Kohn), Another cousin Dr, Bruno Kaulbach (Kohn) was imprisioned in Dachau Concentration Camp and freed by the Americans. He hasn't mentioned anything of this yet but perhaps he should.

MrObvious
MrObvious

Can we not, like compare things to Hitler? I mean the dude is bad (Assad) but he pales in comparison to Hitler. Heck - Assad is not even in the 10 ten list of murderous brutal Authoritarians.

A little more reasonable frame work for a better solution then trotting out 'JUST LIKE HITLER' please.

theScreamS
theScreamS

. . . and the USA fries hundreds of thousands of civilians with nuclear destruction and fallout for decades after they became the only nation to utilise nuclear weapons and then have the audacity to accuse others of being global terrorists.Kerry is scum,the US administration are modern day nazis,invading and degrading humans all over the planet.

thrugateofhorn
thrugateofhorn

@TIME US & pelosi needs to think of countless millions innocent dead & murdered we're responsible for using hitler Munich analogy!

pessoist
pessoist

@TIME @TIMEPolitics incomparable polemic crap. Show proofs and you might go on. Otherwise this is just a east vs west placeholder war.

BobrovSergey
BobrovSergey

@TIME @TIMEPolitics Govts of countries supporting a intervention in Siria were supporting Hitler during WWII: Croatia, Rom, Latv, Greece etc

Skeptical_Lady
Skeptical_Lady

@TIME @TIMEPolitics Anytime there is anything someone doesn't like they compare it to Hitler. It's disrespectful to all who lost their lives

Wriseup
Wriseup

@TIME @TIMEPolitics Its history, that the U.S. used Agent Orange in Vietnam, just as Hitler used gas in the Holocaust.

sacredh
sacredh

The problem I have with people getting compared to Hitler is that you're starting out at the top (bottom). How can you escalate the rhetoric? Compare them to Emperor Palpatine? The Devil? Hitler after a visit to the dentist? My own humble opinion is that making comparisons to Hitler lessens the weight of an argument and puts people in the position of debating the rhetoric and not the actions that precipitated the debate.

deconstructiva
deconstructiva

Katy, thanks for mentioning Godwin's Law. People need to be reminded of it. Alas, you and your teammates know from swampland comments that too often, the Law is proven "right" when rightie bad apples go down that road in their angry comments.

retiredvet
retiredvet

I'd add that it's lazy and unoriginal.