There’s a saying that you’ve lost any argument as soon as you mention Hitler. In which case, no-one will win the upcoming election, because they’re all at it.
The latest is Paddy Ashdown, who should know better, saying he sees “horrifying parallels” between 1930s Germany and post-referendum UK. The Guardian reported that he feared for his country, “with a huge number of people left voiceless” as Labour moved left and the Tories right. Though he might have meant Lib Dem voters left without any MPs come next week.
Anyway, politicians should make their bloody minds up — one minute they’re complaining the parties are all centrist and there’s no clear water between them, the next they’ve moved apart and turned in Nazis. Honestly.
For the Tories, Boris Johnson compared the EU to Hitler not so long ago, while Labour’s Ken Livingstone claimed collaboration between the Nazis and Jews (the Jews agreeing to be murdered so the Nazis could have their houses, maybe). Meanwhile, the alt right on social media were this week suggesting that Jeremy Corbyn is worse than Hitler — I didn’t read the last, as it was clearly nonsense but you get the picture. Everyone is as bad as Hitler.
How much nonsense this is, you can find out yourself by buying Laurence Rees’s recent excellent book The Holocaust: A New History for some summer reading — for an account of mass murder and psychopaths, it’s eminently readable and interesting.
Rees is a former head of BBC television history programmes, and has made documentaries on the Nazis; some of the testimonies in the book will be familiar to people who’ve seen his TV series.
The book shows from page one that any serious comparison with modern politics is at best far-fetched. How far removed most westernised countries are from Nazi ideology can be seen by the global revulsion to acts that do stand on a par with Hitler; gay men being murdered in Chechnya for example.
No modern politician is anywhere near Adolf Hitler, who was viciously anti-Semitic from the start. Even UKIP’s idea of banning burqas is but a pale imitation: Hitler barred Jews from holding certain jobs, made them wear identifying symbols and took their money even before he started killing them. We’re not even contemplating thinking about such draconian steps, and we have decades of laws that would get in the way.
In the US, The Donald’s Muslim-baiting travel bans have failed to take off — there are laws protecting citizens in civilised countries. A burqa ban here would probably similarly fail, discriminating as it does against women and a religion: a raft of laws would have to be rewritten to prevent it applying from young men wearing hoodies, or nuns, let alone its targeting one gender and a specific religion.
Moreover, the US and Europe are not post-WW1 Germany. The latter had lost a war, lost its monarchy, suffered hyperinflation that destroyed the middle classes (their support being essential) and then endured a depression. Hitler peddled myths to an already hacked-off populace: the Jews had lost them the war and everyone was out to get them: Communists, moderates liberals, and Jews. Hitler wanted to remove Jews from German life, initially by sending them away, then by deporting them and finally, at the end, by murdering them. He managed to assume total power and almost immediately suspended democracy – can you imagine Trump saying he was doing away with all those elected representatives on Capitol Hill?
Outside of this, there was the (admittedly global) belief at the time that white people were at the top of the human pyramid, and the belief in eugenics: that breeding meant some humans were better than others. This lent a pseudo-scientific angle to the belief that some people (Jews, Slavs, black people) were no better than animals. We don’t think like that any more.
Over here, UKIP doesn’t want to deport migrants who have jobs and pay taxes, and while Trump is sending home law-abiding Mexicans who contribute to the economy but who don’t have permission to be there, he’s not touching the ones who are in the country legally.
If you read The Holocaust, you will notice some things that can be seen weakly reflected in modern politics, for example trying to dehumanise groups of people — David Cameron and his swarm of migrants, Katie Hopkins calling migrants cockroaches — but they don’t compare in any way with Hitler saying in 1919 that the final aim of Germany had to be the elimination of all Jews.
So yes: as soon as someone ropes in Hitler to bolster their case, they’ve lost the argument.
Worse, they are reducing a dangerous man behind one of the world’s worst mass murders to the level of the everyday.
● Laurence Rees’s The Holocaust: A New History costs £25.