Historical juxtapositions and Godwin

I wrote about how the notion of Godwinning, mentioning Hitler or WWII in conversation is a conversation stopper, not because it’s a priori untrue but because this always triggers the Godwin remark at which point no argument can be made in return, even if the analogy made was correct.

Crying Godwin isn’t much better than making a bad comparison between any historical figure or period to something else. but there is something even worst than the Godwin fallacy.

In the Netherlands, nationalism, populism and xenophobia have been steadily on the rise for decades. The populists slowly but surely chip away at our social standards, making us slightly more indifferent to the racial slurs that they spout ever time, pushing the envelope on what they can get away with.

Where Jan Maat in the 80’s and 90’s was shunned and bashed for “vol is vol (Full mean full)” and “Eigen volk eerst (Own people first)”, these opinions have become almost quaint and have invariably been used by political movements usually not connected to extreme ideologies. Through two decades with some minor and major forms of populism, we inherited the figure of Geert Wilders. Wilders, who would only refrain from the former two mantras due to their lack of impact. If you really want to be part of the populist nationalist movement nowadays, you need to openly discriminate a specific group of people and promise to get rid of them.

Now the slippery slope argument is a fallacy and only correct in hindsight, but it is unmistakably the case that we are slowly being inoculated against higher degrees of racial vitriol and hate and if we’d make a graph it would show a steadily climbing line of extremism and racism in politics and our own complacency in this. I would argue that these even increasing forms of incitement and prejudism will take on a physical form in the sense that these words will inevitably become action.

But we have seen, in history, many occasions of a people being numbed to the point where they are blind-sighted by the atrocities committed in their name. Since such events are up for grasps I’d argue that a historical comparison between contemporary events and historical events are very much so justified. Not only to find similarities, but also to find differences. But here we hit a snag.

Geert Wilders has now said that he’s fed up with being compared to Hitler and that he will legally persue anybody who does so. Apart from being extreme hypocritical for various reasons (1. He’s an avid godwinner himself, comparing the Koran with Mein Kampf and Islam with fascism and 2. the V in PVV stands for (vrijheid) Freedom, Freedom of speech being a thing that he often cites as the justification for what he says.), It also has some implications regarding historicity and non of them are good.

John Tosh has written about this at length, so for somebody interested in these matters I would suggest reading “why history matters”, but a short introduction on historical comparisons is in order right now.

Comparing “what was” with “what is”, sometimes to deduce “what will we” is innate in us. Though hardly perfect, it is the way we make sense of the world. In history, historians do it all the time to highlight both similarities as well as differences. In this, there are many pitfalls and caveats which can produce falsehoods and skewed perspectives but nevertheless, it is all we have and we must do the our best to use it wisely.

Historians traditionally are very weary of the problems of comparative analysis in history and often shy away from using it as a method of deduction. It is currently still a fierce debate, whether or not the historian really could use history to elaborate on contemporary or even future events, but this shows their humility in the face of history.

People who systematically do NOT show this care and humility when approaching history are, traditionally politicians. The examples of politicians abusing, nullifying, skewing or blatantly lying about historical events or figures just to press home a point or policy are numerous. Tosh cites a lot of examples in his book like Thatcher and her views on Victorian family values or Tony Blair that, for his convenience, proclaimed that the Iraq situation was one where we could not look back on history for guidance. My favorite example is the former prime minister of the Netherlands, Peter Jan Balkenende (A student of history himself!), who developed the idea that the Dutch should again develop the VOC mentality. What he mean was, of course, that the dutch should be more adventurous and entrepreneurial, reaching out and taking risks. What his appeal on history really said was “We have to protect our economy of slave-trade and extortion  with a pseudo-military institution that operates under the guise of trade but in reality can only survive with massive government subsidies and backing.” Not the best of analogies I feel.

So, you might ask, what is the problem with shunning such comparisons. They are clearly easy to get wrong or misuse in some form. The problem is that nobody, especially politicians, should be the arbiter on deciding which historical entities are suitable for study and comparison and which are not. The moment when a politician, like Wilders, starts to make legal threats in stead of counter arguments against even a Godwin, you have to ask yourself why and on what grounds could he do that? In most cases you’ll find that the counter arguments are weak or non-existent and that the comparison did hit on some key issues.

But even if it didn’t. Even if I compared the battle of Waterloo with the battle of Midway and came to the conclusion that Napoleon needed more battle-cruisers, would this automatically render any comparison between the two moot? Of course not. There probably is a lot to say on historical tactical evolution and strategy. Similarities and differences in organization could shed light on both events. Juxtaposing these key historical entities is a valid endeavour.

What is more, is the fact that the older the event is the more detached and different the Zeitgeist will be. This makes for argument that younger history is a better source for comparing similarities than ancient sources.

Like I’d be weary of a politician making a point from history, I would be even more weary when a politician tries to regulate how others may make a point from history. If Wilders does not like being compared to Hitler, all he can and may do is provide reasoning why said comparison fails. If he is unable to do so and the comparison is properly made, then perhaps there simply is a point to be had.

In our past there was another fellow who regulated what was to be acceptable history and what was not and he build a myth on that. That was, of course, Hitler.


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