On a China-related internet discussion group of which I’m a member, there was recently an exchange about the appropriateness of Nazi comparisons. One member, in support of an argument that Europe should be more alert against China, wrote, “Europe did not heed warnings of rising dangers in the 1930s.” In response, another member wrote simply (and I dare say sarcastically), “Ah, the Nazi card—wonderful. How apt.” Both members have kindly permitted me to quote them. Being real people, they have complex views that can’t be reduced to a few words taken out of context and without the benefit of subsequent elaboration; this post is about the words, not the people. I want to use these two quotations as stand-ins for two particular views that I come across: (1) that China is like Nazi Germany in many important respects, and (2) that comparisons of China to Nazi Germany should be dismissed as gross exaggerations.
Some arguments can be refuted simply by identifying them. That’s because they are well known fallacies, and the critic need not go into the details—for example, the ontological argument for the existence of God (or anything), or motte-and-bailey arguments. But is the “Nazi card” that type of argument? More particularly, is it that type of argument as applied to China? Does it sufficiently refute a comparison of China to Nazi Germany to point out that the speaker is making such a comparison?
It is certainly true that some people overuse Nazi comparisons. And in accordance with a kind of cultural Third Law of Motion [corrected from “Thermodynamics”], this action has elicited an equal and opposite reaction: a scorning of Nazi comparisons, expressed most famously in Godwin’s Law, which states that “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1,” and in the concept of the reductio ad Hitlerum.
But perhaps the pendulum has now swung too far. That some Nazi comparisons are absurd does not mean that all are, and merely pointing out that someone has invoked one is not sufficient to show that the argument is wrong. History happened and has lessons, disputed though they are, and it seems odd that we should be barred from talking about what might be learned from this one particular period.
The mistake that the automatic scorners of Nazi comparisons make is to forget how that history looked at the time it was happening. Hitler and the Nazis committed horrendous crimes against humanity. Thus, it seems to many that any comparison to the Nazis is exaggerated unless one can point to comparable crimes against humanity. But we only know what the Nazis did in hindsight. They were in power for a long time before their most infamous crimes were committed. At the start of World War II, German concentration camps held only 21,000 people. The large-scale extermination of the Jews did not start until 1941, and the Wansee Conference, which formalized the program, was not held until January 1942. It took a very long time for the world to realize what was happening because for a long time it was happening only on a scale that made it easy to ignore or downplay, with the hope that it would somehow stop on its own. Check out Andrew Nagorski’s Hitlerland, which looks at Hitler’s rise to power as it was seen at the time through the eyes of American diplomats, military officers, journalists, and others. As the Economist reviewer wrote, “‘Hitlerland’ brings back to life some early delusions about Hitler’s rise that now seem unthinkable. Any reader trying to puzzle out today’s world will be unsettled by the reminder of how easy it is to get things wrong.”
Another group member had previously written that comparisons of Xi Jinping to human rights abusers on the scale of Hitler or other tyrants were mistaken, as shown by just looking around a city like Shanghai and the fact that there was an active intellectual life in a range of fields. But could not one have said the same thing, or least close to the same thing, about Berlin in the mid-1930s when the Nazis were in power? Activists in China in a range of fields, many not distinctly political, are disappearing at an alarming rate.
The implicit argument seems to be that one must not compare any government to the Nazis until the mass killings have actually begun, but that approach turns “Never Again” into a meaningless slogan. If the admonition means anything, it means that we have to identify situations with the potential to turn into humanitarian disasters before they get there. It is hard to argue that the world’s governments have erred on the side of oversensitivity on this issue, finding too many false positives instead of too many false negatives. The civil war in former Yugoslavia, the massacres in Rwanda, the expulsion of the Rohingya in Myanmar, and the detention of approximately a million Uyghurs in China all tell a story of intense reluctance to act by the world’s governments.
In 1933, about 522,000 Jews lived in Germany. By 1939, mass emigration in response to persecution had reduced that number to roughly 214,000. As noted above, concentration camps at that time held about 21,000 people—not just Jews, but also Communists, Socialists, Social Democrats, Roma, Jehovah’s Witnesses, gay people, the disabled, some criminals, and other “racially undesirable elements.” Thus, it seems fair to say that even after mass emigration had drastically reduced the total number, right up to the eve of World War II, the Nazis actually had a smaller proportion of Jews—certainly not greater—than the Chinese government now has of Uyghurs in detention camps. And in both cases the detentions were and are entirely extra-legal, with no foundation in domestic law. Is it so obvious that Nazi comparisons are far-fetched? How much more does the Chinese government have to do?