It’s not taken long for ‘Godwin’s Law’, or ‘playing the Hitler card’, to come into operation. The ‘law’ itself refers mainly to blogs, and runs: ‘As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1’. It’s then time, according to conventional wisdom, to bring the discussion to an end. Unfortunately, Boris has played the Hitler card right at the beginning. Of course their ‘methods are different’, he admitted in an interview in the Telegraph yesterday. But essentially the Europhiles’ aim, to create a European super-state, is the same as Hitler’s.
After the stew that Ken Livingstone got himself and the Labour Party into with a different Hitler analogy just a few weeks ago, you’d have thought that Boris might have trodden more carefully here. But Boris sees himself as a historian (mainly of classical Greece, but he has also penned a biography of Churchill), so maybe he feels himself more qualified.
Of course Hitler wanted to create a European super-state. So did the Roman emperors, Charlemagne, the ‘Holy’ Roman emperors, Napoleon (whom Boris also mentions), and various rather less famous groups of idealistic pacifists. All these people failed, which was perhaps the only point Johnson was trying to make. If so, he’s of course right, historically. But the ‘H’-word is a problem. (That applies to Ken Livingstone’s recourse to it too.) The question is, what can be inferred from Hitler’s place in this list? It was surely the Nazis’ ‘methods’ and ideology that made their designs obnoxious. Or is Boris saying that it was simply their dreams of unity that were objectionable? Or that other paths towards unity are bound to become Fascist eventually? If neither, why bring his name into the debate at all? It was dicing with political death.
History can be misleading and dangerous. I’m not saying that it can’t teach us anything: as a professional historian that would be unlikely, coming from me. Many of us have already made comparisons between the 1930s and today in connexion with Donald Trump. That analogy is closer, I think. But the past needs to be handled with sensitivity, nuance, a knowledge of context (‘context is all’, as I once wrote), and an awareness that contexts change, over time. Simply holding up simple and sensational apparent historical parallels to buttress simplistic present-day political points is to abuse history. And to make us real historians despair.
All of which is not meant to be an argument in favour of Britain’s membership of the EU, only one against a bad argument against. There are so many of those around just now, on the pro-European side too, as to make me begin to doubt my own intention (at the moment) to vote ‘Remain’. But just as one should be careful not to be won over by bad arguments, so one should also not be swayed the other way by them. Otherwise my inclination would be not to vote at all.
By the way, Hitler was also a vegetarian, and loved dogs.