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10 March

Why we can’t escape Nazi comparisons

As Gary Lineker shows, the Second World War has become Britain’s reference point for good vs evil.

By Tom Jones

Is Britain becoming a fascist totalitarian ethno-state? That depends, apparently, on who you ask. Gary Lineker drew such a conclusion recently. He was joined by figures on Twitter such as Alastair Campbell and Tanja Bueltmann, a professor of migration, who suggested that Britain under the Conservatives shares more than a passing similarity with the Nazi state of the 1930s.

Is the government of Suella Braverman, Greg Hands and Penny Mordaunt really comparable to that of Martin Bormann, Heinrich Himmler and Heinrich Müller? If there is an intelligent comparison to be made – which is doubtful – it’s not likely to be found in tweets from Campbell and Bueltmann, which are high on condemnation and low on facts. But they raise an interesting question – even as it disappears beyond the horizon of living memory, Britain’s national debates reflexively draw on our collective cultural remembrance of the Second World War. Why, after all these years, does it retain such a hold over us?

The war remains the furnace in which Britain’s modern national identity was forged. It’s only natural that we still bathe in the afterglow of one of history’s most noble acts – as AN Wilson wrote, “there was a genuine glory and a dignity to the story of the old hero returning to slay some dragons before, bloodied and weakened, he and his Victorian world sank into the regions of twilight”. Evoking the extraordinary courage and sacrifice of the war – a challenge to which the nation was unequal – allows the evokee to mawkishly liken themselves to the cartoonist David Low’s Tommy, defiantly shouting, “Very well, alone.”

[See also: What the Nazis did next]

Its narrative simplicity, too, lends itself to sophistry – the horrors of Nazism are the defining moral event of the modern age. The Nazis were such a perfect evil and revulsion to them is so universal that it creates a black-and-white sense of good and evil that plays perfectly to the all-or-nothing nature of contemporary debate: other definitions of evil necessitate context, and, if they aren’t well known, become diminished through explanation. The commonality of abhorrence to Nazism, however, has given us what Alec Ryrie describes as “an all but universally accepted definition of evil, a fixed point on our moral compass”.

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As a result, Nazism or references to Hitler have become ubiquitous in public debate. This isn’t, of course, a mark of quality. Reflexively comparing an opponent to the Nazis is obvious and invariably the hallmark of a poor argument, when the accusation alone is intended to be sufficient proof of guilt. That Godwin’s Law came into existence with the internet is no coincidence – the increase in quantity of arguments seems to have done nothing to increase their quality. The regularity with which Nazism is invoked – particularly, inevitably, against those on the right – should serve to remind us that humans are usually more predictable than they are original.

However, our inability to escape the shadow of the Second World War, or to stop comparing ourselves to the moral übermensch of the Greatest Generation is intellectually impoverishing. The limited capacity for historical understanding in public debate is rarely commented on, but Britain’s rich history can offer many answers to the challenges we face now and will face in the future. 

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But the increasingly jejune use of our national myth leaves public debate short-changed. It leaves no room for nuance; in fact that’s largely the point. The level of argument is reduced to the level of “them BAD, we GOOD”, and between the black and white we lose the nuance of the human condition. The real horror of Nazism is not, as Slavoj Žižek writes, “that bad people do bad things – they always do. It’s that good people do horrible things thinking they are doing something great.” That these words were intended to describe the horrors of the Stalinist regime should remind us that the threat exists to all sides of the political spectrum, and that things are not usually as black and white as we’d like to believe. 

[See also: From the NS archive: When the Nazis became the second-largest party in parliament]

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