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24 January 2002Printer-friendly versionEmail a friend

I'm right because...you're a Nazi

by Josie Appleton

A recent book review accused the text of 'employ[ing] the same strategy of those who…argue…that Jews were not singled out by the Nazis'.

Guess the book's subject? Not far-right racism, not even mass murder, but environmentalism. It was Professor Bjørn Lomborg's challenging of statistics on species extinction in The Skeptical Environmentalist that provoked reviewers Stuart Pimm and Jeff Harvey to say that, like those who deny the Holocaust, Lomborg was using the 'name those who have died!' tactic (1).

This is only one recent example of how the charge of Holocaust denial now tends to be used as an all-purpose trump card in debate. In discussions about issues as diverse as AIDS, Kosovo, abortion, state intervention, animal rights, the global economy and gay rights, one side has accused the other of being akin to 'Nazis' or 'Holocaust deniers'. What should be a rational debate, a battle between the arguments for and against particular points of view, becomes posed as a defence of moral absolutes.

In all kinds of debates today, there is a tendency for a particular viewpoint to be established as an orthodoxy that that cannot be questioned. A particular opinion gets established as moral and true, and dissent is considered unacceptable.

For example, rather than argue with Lomborg's figures on their own terms, Pimm and Harvey simply associated him with Holocaust-deniers, thereby branding his views as beyond the pale. And in the case of the Kosovo conflict, as playwright Harold Pinter pointed out, the UK government's claim that the Kosovo conflict was 'a replay of the Holocaust and Milosevic is Adolf Hitler', was effectively saying, 'We tell the truth. They lie'. Pinter continued: 'The trains on to which ethnic Albanians were forced did not lead to gas chambers but to Macedonia….But if you even question these assertions you run the risk of being called an appeaser or pro-Serb.'

'"Aids-denial" scientists are like Holocaust-denial historians', said one scientist (3). South African president Thabo Mbeki - who has apparently questioned the link between HIV and Aids and the usefulness of respected immune-boosting drugs - was accused by Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, the ex-wife of the former president Nelson Mandela, of presiding over a 'holocaust' to destroy poor South Africans (4). However wrong Mbeki's ideas about AIDS may be, it would surely be better to argue the point with scientific evidence, rather than insult.

On any contentious issue today, there is a desperate scrabbling for the moral high ground. People wanting to promote a cause too often invoke the charge of Holocaust denial to say to their opponents, 'You are not just wrong - you are immoral' - a tactic that tends to make the argument into an increasingly shrill affair.

Anti-abortion ('pro-life') activists claim that 'abortion is akin to the holocaust, family planning officials are officers of the Gestapo' (5). One elaborates on this comparison: 'The abortion fanatic, like the Nazi, speaks of "removing" the victim to avoid admitting that the victim is being killed. And, like Nazis, those who participate in abortions frequently suffer excessive drinking, sleep disturbances, and disrupted relationships' (6). An anti-abortion website that contains the names of abortion practitioners states its goal as: 'to record the name of every person working in the baby slaughter business across the United States of America so, as in the Nuremberg Trials in Nazi Germany, we can punish these people for slaughtering God's children.' (7)

A similar association is invoked against the use of pre-implantation genetic diagnosis techniques (PDG), which allow for embryos to be screened for disabilities before being implanted in the womb. One father of a disabled child, opposing the introduction of PDG in Germany, invoked his country's Nazi past, arguing that 'Germany is a burdened country. We should be careful even to think about starting a discussion on this matter' (8).

Meanwhile, Ingrid Newkirk, president of the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), has famously remarked that 'six million Jews died in concentration camps, but six billion broiler chickens will die this year in slaughterhouses'. Animal rights protesters have dubbed the Huntingdon laboratories for animal experimentation 'the animal Auschwitz'. The Dutch-Belgian Animal Liberation Front has attacked the fast-food restaurants McDonald's and Quick as symbols of a global system that perpetrates a 'permanent Holocaust against Man's fellow mammals' (9). And parallels are frequently drawn between species extinction and the Holocaust.

Animal rights protesters have dubbed the Huntingdon laboratories 'the animal Auschwitz'
Even debates that seem like straightforward arguments between left and right have been posed - by both sides - in terms of the Holocaust. Liberals have accused conservatives of being 'Nazis' - 'in South Africa, we call it apartheid. In Nazi Germany, we'd call it fascism. Here in the United States, we call it conservatism', said US civil rights campaigner Jesse Jackson (10). In a debate about the Republican contract, US congressman John Lewis first read out Martin Niemoller's speech about the Nazi takeover ('They came first for the Communists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist. Then they came for the Jews…'), then said, with gravity: 'Read the Republican contract. They are coming for the children. They are coming for the poor. They are coming for the sick, the elderly, and the disabled.' (11)

Conservatives have retorted with comparisons between the Nazis and left wingers who advocate state intervention. Editor of National Review Jonah Goldberg suggests asking 'social-welfare state leftist[s]': 'Aside from the murder and genocide, what exactly don't you like about National Socialism?', because that would show 'who's really closer to being a Nazi' (12). Some libertarians claim that new left interventionist state policies on health or lifestyle have echoes of the Third Reich.

That Nazi allegations have become an all-purpose tool in debate is indicated by 'Godwin's Law' for internet discussions, formulated by Mike Godwin: 'As a Usenet discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.' (13) One visitor of internet forums commented, 'Abortion and gun control debates always lead to Nazi comparisons; talk with a Libertarian for more than a few hours and he'll almost certainly bring up Nazis; book-burning is pretty much considered a sub-topic of Nazism at this point. Hell, talk about anything politically related and you'll eventually get there' (14). This suggests that the tactic has shifted from being the preserve of loonies like PETA to becoming part of the mainstream.

The use of the charge of Holocaust denial in arguments about everything under the sun reflects a culture that cannot handle rational debate. In one sense, it is a return to the unthinking sanctimoniousness of the Middle Ages. We have opinions - on abortion, state intervention, animal rights - because we believe they are right, full stop. We are not prepared to have them challenged or to defend them through rational argument (perhaps because we are not sure about them ourselves).

Except now, unlike the Middle Ages, there is no God to call upon as the arbiter of moral absolutes. As the ultimate symbol of evil, the Holocaust gets dragged in as a post-religious substitute.

But because the Holocaust is bandied around by anybody with a cause, it cannot truly inspire the fear of God in people. Rather, the tactic often just looks childish - it is a kind of, 'I am right because…you're a Nazi!'. Ultimately, it is a foot-stamping, self-righteous refusal to engage with other people in debate. It is the cheapest of cheap shots.

In this sense, the reviewers who likened Bjørn Lomborg to Holocaust deniers have much in common with the protester at an Oxford bookshop who simply decided to shove a pie in his face. Invoking the moral authority of the Holocaust functions as a defensive, blind lunge (and unfortunately, this tactic often instils a defensive retreat in the accused).

Not only does the use of the Holocaust in this way distort the present - it diminishes the meaning of the Holocaust in history. When everybody uses the Holocaust to justify their opinions on issues from animal research to economic management to abortion, the Holocaust inevitably loses some of its unique and shocking significance.

Read on:

'This is a case of table pounding', by Helene Guldberg

spiked issue: The Holocaust

(1) Nature 414 , 8 November 2001. See the full text of the article, interspersed with Lomborg's rebuttal, on Lomborg.com

(2) Daily Telegraph, 2 May 1999

(3) The absurdity of HIV dissidents, Daily Mail and Guardian, 28 June 1999

(4) Independent, 11 July 2000

(5) Protect life - by whatever means, Guardian, June 21 2000

(6) Letter 242 on the Priests for Life website

(7) Alleged abortionists and their accomplices, Christian Gallery website

(8) Germany's eugenics controversy, BBC News Online

(9) Telegraph, 26 April 2000

(10) Springtime for Slanderers: Who are you calling a Nazi?, National Review, 5 January 2001

(11) Springtime for Slanderers: Who are you calling a Nazi?, National Review, 5 January 2001

(12) Springtime for Slanderers: Who are you calling a Nazi?, National Review, 5 January 2001

(13) See posting on Godwin's Law FAQ, Tim Skirvin, 15 August 2000

(14) See posting on Godwin's Law FAQ, Tim Skirvin, 15 August 2000

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