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

  • Share
  • Read Later
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.