Stop talking about Godwin’s Law: real Nazis are back

Comparison of modern times with the 1930s used to be a joke. It’s not funny any more. We have to call them out; we must not look away.

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Sometimes the news is so unremittingly bleak, the state of the world so alarming, people seemingly so lacking in compassion, that we become exhausted.

We want to look away, to think about anything else, to try to forget what’s happening all around us.

This is one of those weeks. The USA – a country founded on the principle “that all men are created equal… with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” – has been separating children from their parents as they arrive at the border, many of them fleeing persecution at home, and caging them in camps with wire-link fences.

In the last few days alone we have also witnessed:

● The White House accusing the media of “misinformation”, falsely stating that it is required to separate families by law, rather than its own decision to do so, while the president – a role once unironically referred to as “the leader of the free world” – refers to people “infesting” the USA, the most blatant form of dehumanising language.

● In Italy, the far-right interior minister calling for a “register” of the country’s Roma population, with the overt aim of expelling as many as possible. “Unfortunately we’ll need to keep Roma with Italian citizenship,” he said – drawing horrified condemnation from groups, including Jewish groups.

● In Hungary, far-right prime minister Victor Orban consolidating his hold on the country, his primary opposition now a rival far-right party as the left and liberal groups fall even further back. Simultaneously, as independent media in the country struggles for survival, a university founded by a Holocaust survivor is facing losing its licence – in part because of its founder’s support for the refugees fleeing violence in Syria.

And as this takes place across the world – across what we would once have referred to as stable, Western democracies – billions more eyes focus on the spectacle of the World Cup, a propaganda coup for its host country Russia, exculpating it even as it persecutes gays, turns a blind eye to domestic violence, annexes its neighbours, and manipulates and undermines Western democracy.

When the news is like this, we want to look away. It is also the time when we absolutely must not: reluctant as we have been to say it – too reluctant – world events and the current tide in politics is something our parents and grandparents watched and lived through in the 1930s. We can hope we are still far short of the world of 1939, but we can no longer expect inaction to save us.

In a more innocent era of the internet – in a more innocent era for the world – attorney Mike Godwin, a civil rights campaigner, coined a wry internet rule: that the longer an online conversation continues, the more likely it is that someone will mention Hitler or the Nazis. The law – actually a mathematical truism – began as a joke.

But now it holds us back, because it has been weaponised. Try, as an experiment on social media, to call out the signs that what we are seeing has happened before. Someone from the far-right will inevitably jump in and shout “Godwin’s law”. This builds on our natural reluctance to avoid hyperbole, to avoid accusing people of being in step with one of history’s most horrifying regimes.

But that era is over for Mike Godwin. “By all means, compare these shitheads to Nazis,” he tweeted. “Again and again. I'm with you.” That era should be over for the rest of us too: there is a rising tide, and the sooner it can be stemmed, the better the world will be for us all.

People argue that Trump and his equivalents who share his views in other countries are chaotic, mismanaged, and will burn themselves out. They said that in the 1930s, too. People argue that what’s happening now falls far short of the eventual violence – people are talking expulsions, not extermination. They said that in the 1930s, too.

We do not know where the road we are on ends. Perhaps this time it would never reach the levels of horror that millions lived through in the last century. But the only way we can make absolutely sure of that is to stop walking that road at all – to call out what we see, to not let exhaustion blind us to horror, and to make sure we learn the lessons from history. We need to keep our eyes wide open.

James Ball is an award-winning freelance journalist who has previously worked at the Guardian and Buzzfeed. He tweets @jamesrbuk