White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer ignited a firestorm of controversy by seemingly questioning whether Hitler used chemical weapons during World War 2. As Spicer was giving a press conference on April 11th and talking about the situation in Syria, he attempted to put the actions of the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in perspective. Even Hitler, according to Spicer, was not as bad as Assad because he didn't gas his own people.
“We didn’t use chemical weapons in World War II. Someone who is despicable as Hitler who didn't even sink to using chemical weapons,” said Spicer.
The remarks caused disbelief and condemnation because it's a well-documented fact that Nazis used gas chambers filled with hydrogen cyanide gas in concentration camps to kill millions of people (mostly Jews), including those who were previously German citizens. They also conducted inhuman research, testing mustard gas on prisoners. And in an ironic detail, Nazis were the ones who actually created the sarin gas that was used by Assad in his recent attack on a village. In fact, Hitler is truly one of the worst ever at using gas, even if he didn't use it on a battlefield like Saddam Hussein or Assad.
Ashley Parker, the White House reporter for the Washington Post, exemplified the reaction of many in the press room to Spicer’s comments:
Spicer's words were not made any better by his subsequent attempts to clarify what he meant.
"He [Hitler] was not using the gas on his own people the same way that Assad is doing. He brought them into the Holocaust centers, I understand that. But (not) in the way that Bashar al-Assad used them where he went into towns, dropped them down, into the middle of towns,” offered Spicer.
Even though Spicer tried to make a narrow distinction that he was talking about gas that’s dropped from airplanes, this explanation didn’t go down well either because a chemical weapon is a chemical weapon regardless of how its distributed. Spicer's strange reference to “Holocaust centers” - presumably concentration camps - also drew further criticism.
All such statements amounted to Sean Spicer sounding like someone who just doesn’t know fairly basic history, something he fairly quickly remedied by going on CNN to apologize.
"I mistakenly used an inappropriate, insensitive reference to the Holocaust," Spicer admitted to Wolf Blitzer. "I apologize. It was a mistake to do that."
He later doubled down on the apology to Politico:
"I made a mistake by trying to make a comparison that was completely wrong," said Spicer. "I don't even know how to explain it. It was a straight up mistake."
This incident illustrates an old Internet dictum known as “Godwin’s law” aka “Godwin’s rule of Hitler analogies”. It originated as a kind of folk wisdom and code of conduct on old Usenet boards, but the insight is very applicable to modern media exchanges.
Godwin’s law says that ”as an online discussion continues, the probability of a reference or comparison to Hitler or to Nazis approaches 1.”
What this means is that as a discussion grows longer, it becomes quite probable that Nazis or Hitler will be invoked and the discussion will end. In other words, as people get into an increasingly heated debate which evolves into insults, the tensions will boil over and someone surely will bring up Hitler, as the worst kind of attack. In Internet forum tradition, when this happened the thread likely degenerated into a flamewar and would soon be finished. Whoever mentioned Hitler lost the debate.
Mike Godwin, an attorney and an author who came up with this idea in 1990, is a pioneer of Internet law who worked with Wikimedia and is on the board of the Open Source Initiative. He saw his “Godwin’s Law” as a memetic tool to prevent the trivialization of the Holocaust by inappropriate hyperboles.
"Although deliberately framed as if it were a law of nature or of mathematics, its purpose has always been rhetorical and pedagogical: I wanted folks who glibly compared someone else to Hitler to think a bit harder about the Holocaust", wrote Godwin.
Memorial flowers placed by visitors lay on the floor of the gas chamber in the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland on May 25, 2006 during a visit by Pope Benedict XVI. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
Godwin’s law has been quite influential and is a mainstay of Internet culture. The pushback received by Sean Spicer was a demonstration of how Godwin’s law works the same way in politics, even at the highest level. Bringing up Hitler as the proverbial bogeyman is an easy but dicey proposition. There better be a very clear, provable connection to your point because you will inevitably enflame emotions and be in danger of being misunderstood. And when you don’t have the facts straight, especially such well-known and monumental ones like how Nazi used gas and what concentration camps were, you are setting yourself up for rhetorical failure.
You are also, whether you want to or not, disconnect Hitler and the Nazis from their historical reality by bringing them up as a crutch to solve modern-day arguments. They should be remembered exactly for who they were and what they did and not turned into a haze of inexact references.
Mike Godwin stressed why this is important:
My feeling is that "Never Again" loses its meaning if we don't regularly remind ourselves of the terrible inflection point marked in human culture by the Holocaust... our challenge as human beings who live in the period after that inflection point is that we no longer can be passive about history—we have a moral obligation to do what we can to prevent such events from ever happening again. Key to that obligation is remembering, which is what Godwin's Law is all about," he wrote.
As another reminder, this stark footage from the liberation of the concentration camp Buchenwald was tweeted by the U.S. Holocaust Museum: