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talkingIt is a peculiar habit we all share of rating things that are simply unquantifiable. Who was the greatest heavyweight boxer, the most accomplished artist, or the best poet? These are absurd propositions yet we carry on making our lists at the end of the year to reorder our selections based on the latest available data.

When it comes to the ultimate unquantifiable, there have been certain standout ‘champions’ for the past half a century. ‘Nazi’ is the word we so often use to describe something of utter barbarity and, as personifications of evil go, none are as bad as Adolf Hitler.

There are innumerable problems with this, least of all being people’s willingness to attribute Hitler the attribute of ultimate ‘evil’. In the strictest dictionary sense of the word, Hitler was evil in that he did morally objectionable things. Yet ‘evil’ as a concept also involves an unhealthy inference about the otherworldly or the bestial. It is simply unhelpful to portray Hitler as the devil or somehow not of human birth. It is wrong because reducing him to a moral absolute strips his actions of their context. We fail to understand how Hitler was the product of history, circumstance and, of course, psychology. To ignore Hitler’s popularity in the 1930s is to absolve people of their guilt. Hitler did not rise to power on the specific promise of committing genocide on an industrial scale or turning Europe into a smouldering pile of ash. He did so with the same kinds of promise that all politicians make about a greater tomorrow and better lives for his followers. To understand Hitler and his evils is to understand the nature of popularity and the psychopathology of large groups of people and their political grip upon a nation.

Of course, we rarely wish to dwell on such difficulty. It really is easier to think of Hitler as some kind of Satanic force than it is to think of him as one potential outcome of a frenzied discourse among people pursuing what they see as a moral ‘good’. It means we treat the words ‘Nazi’ and ‘Hitler’ as if toxic or as a poison with which we can pollute the intellectual watercourse.

For example, the ‘Nazi equivalence’ is one of rhetoric’s cheapest tricks. You can shut down any argument (or, at least, ensure that you deeply irritate your opponent so much that they’re thrown off their game) if you simply compare them to Hitler. The laziest casual observer will usually side with you, whether you are indeed correct, simply because nobody wishes to be seen in favour of a ‘Nazi idea’. In any televised debate the Nazi equivalence will usually trigger the loudest applause. Yet whenever you see the Nazi equivalence made, you can usually guarantee that an argument has being simplified in order to achieve a cheap ‘victory’. So, for example, this past week when Donald Trump suggested that America should temporarily stop Muslims from entering the country, social media rushed to portray him with a Hitler moustache. The outcome was that supporters of Trump hardened their positions and most of his most vocal opponents did not even bother to address the obvious flaws (moral, political, legal, and practical) of his plan. Watching the whole sorry spectacle, I could only reflect on the sad irony that to understand how Hitler rose to power, you only need witness the crudity of argument used by people comparing the opposing point of view to that of Hitler.

As a friend recently asked me: isn’t it strange that the more places and opportunities people have to discuss ideas, the fewer ideas are expressed and everybody merely parrots the rest? It doesn’t, on reflection, seem strange at all. Original ideas are rare, difficult ideas are challenging, and the natural instinct is to follow whatever is easy. Evil, I would suggest, is perhaps the easiest concept to understand.

aaaaaaaaYet the reason I write this today has nothing to do with Donald Trump but a story I read this morning about the continued brutality of Daesh. The news that Sharia judges have ordered the execution of infants with Down’s Syndrome and other disabilities has naturally shocked all who has read about this sickening development. Unsurprising, the rhetoric has been fraught with emotion. Daesh’s actions have been described as ‘worse than the Nazis’.

Because I’ve been thinking about the Nazi equivalence since people first suggested that Trump was ‘worse than Hitler’ (an argument so specious that it’s not worth dwelling upon), my instinct was to say: ‘sorry but no, Daesh are not worse than the Nazis’. It is, I know, unfair and pedantic to make this point at this time but I think it is worth making. The worst you can say about Daesh is that they are the very same as the Nazis.

This might seem self evident and hardly worth pursuing but I think it’s important that we understand and speak of our realty as though it’s not divorced from the past. An interesting article over at The Atlantic yesterday discussed the habits of historians to write to an existing narrative that actually makes it harder to understand the current moment as it exists in the span of Time. The author of the piece, Ta-Nehisisi Coates, neatly summarises the way black history is too often written out of a sense of hope for the future when, in fact, there is a possibility that white supremacy might be something we cannot escape in our culture. I’m not entirely convinced that it will necessarily be a white supremacy that will persist (we had, for example, a Roman supremacy that existed across Europe for centuries and why might we not have a Chinese supremacy become dominant in the future) but I thought it a strong argument because it accepts the fact that human nature will continue to be flawed. Tall or short, fat and thin, black or white, difference between individuals will always be noted and very often politicised.

We face a similar charge of false accounting when it comes to the situation in Iraq and Syria. That we wish to write Daesh into history as an evil far worse than those of previous generations is understandable but simply wrong. I’m not even sure how healthy it is to put a term like ‘worse’ to a thing like genocide. If you agree that Daesh have been worse than the Nazi regime, then doesn’t that make Nazis slightly ‘better’? Conversely, if you agree that the Nazis were worse, does that then offer some degree of respectability to Daesh?

It is not only wrong to quantify evil but it’s practically impossible. By what measure do you judge the crimes of the Nazis against those of Daesh? By the number of people killed? Some estimates put the number killed by the Nazis at 11 million people. The upper limit of Daesh’s actions are a few hundred thousand. Yet, of course, the casualty numbers are not the reason why people think the Daesh are worse. It is the barbarity of Daesh that makes them leapfrog the Nazis in people’s loathing. Yet even this is to misunderstand the subject and, indeed, our history. There is certainly a twisted sensationalism about the spectacle of Daesh’s brutality but that is a product of our miserable selfie generation. As I’ve argued previously, Daesh are the Jackass Jihadists and their obsession with spectacle merely reflects our own obsessions. Yet to say that this is somehow worse than the Nazi’s industrialised genocide is to misrepresent the darkest period in modern history.

Daesh worse? Can anybody be so calculating as to count? If you did, you would conclude that the World is not at war and, beyond Syria, there is no existential threat to any nation involved in the fight. In that sense, Daesh are better. Yet terms like ‘worse’ and ‘better’ are themselves problematic. Evil is simply an indivisible quality if, indeed, it even exists at all beyond a manifestation of ignorance. Defined as such, Daesh is one of the greatest forms of ignorance we currently face. Our solace is surely in knowing that evil is no supernatural demon and ignorance can always be defeated.


David Waywell writes and cartoons at The Spine.


14 Comments on "Worse than the Nazis…"

  1. David, in agreement as usual. It’s the same shrieking hyperbole practiced by utter clowns that has become tediously common I’m afraid. For the keyboard warrior any tin pot two bit dictator becomes Adolf Hitler, if you disagree with that view then you must of course become Neville Chamberlain, whose reputation was conveniently trashed by the idiotic polemic Guilty Men, written by among others a hypocritical, disarmament demanding Michael Foot, working for the appeasement supporting Beaverbrook. ISIL always remind me of an old pirate state, in years to come I’m fairly sure they will be a small footnote in history. Interesting what you say about Hitler absolving the German people of guilt, I have read this before, possibly in Ian Kershaws mammoth biography of the man but it reminds me of a quote by Hannah Reitsch the famous test pilot and Hitler acolyte, ‘I am not ashamed to say I believed in National Socialism. I still wear the Iron Cross with diamonds Hitler gave me. But today in all Germany you can’t find a single person who voted Adolf Hitler into power … Many Germans feel guilty about the war. But they don’t explain the real guilt we share – that we lost.’ Sorry must have got out bed on the wrong side this morning.

    • I’ll do my best next time, Rob, to make sure I write something you disagree with. Perhaps I’ll even do it now…

      I laughed at the Chamberlain line because I’ve been living under a cloud for a week believing people think me an apologist for Trump, who I do, admittedly, find fascinating. In a way, he’s the modern Nixon and therefore a fascinating deep dark hole through which we can peer at the American psyche.

      I try not to think in terms of party, sides, or ideology. It means that I agree with the right and then I can agree with the left. It leaves me open to accusations of being both on the left and the right. So, I defend Trump, which makes me right wing, but because I believe in free speech with is really leftish. For the same reason, I defend Corbyn who tries to make serious points but then is shoehorned into the old model of right/left adversarial politics. Yet, for criticising this ideology battle, I am therefore accused of being on the left. Yet conservatism was always (in my mind, at least) about the rejection of ideology, so really, that makes me of the right.

      This sense of fitting in or not fitting in interests me. Do we always seek to fit in? Does it make us stop thinking certain things if we think the group thinks otherwise? Is that why people followed Hitler? Out of a sense of belonging to something? I can’t understand, for example, the tribalism of British politics: the psychology of Young Tories or the Old Trots. It is much more than policy that motivates their bad behaviour but living up to some ideal. Perhaps that’s why I always find party politics far more interesting that the politics of policy. It reveals something about all of us and our very strange behaviour.

  2. Interesting stuff. I agree how you can quantify that any evil is worse than any other. Were the crimes of Fred West worse than say The Yorkshire Ripper or the Killers of Lee Rigby. All are horrific in their own way but by saying one is of a greater evil than the other does not that too diminish the suffering of the victims and the families of the other ones? Was Stalin worse than Hitler or do we discount Pol Pot because it was not European? As for Hitler he did not commit the murder of 11 million people on his own. Apart from his own direct accomplices he was aided by other dictators and Civilians across Europe who had sympathies with his warped ideology or felt compelled to go with him. Then were some of Hitler’s henchman worse than Hitler? Were the men who did his bidding and exterminated those in the Gas Chambers worse than Hitler himself? I think it is human nature to look for the “who is more evil” person or event. 9/11 for example is always brought up due to I guess the scale and daring of the attack. Recently the Paris attacks were referred to by some as “France’s 9/11” as if to say this was comparable in its effect and intent. People want to have a yardstick to compare but agree making an equivalence between Daesh and the Nazis is not helpful but finding out common strands between them that may help us understand better why people do Evil things might be more productive

    • Thanks Paul. Your examples are better than my own and I didn’t know that about Paris being ‘France’s 9/11’. I suppose it’s human nature to seek patterns and matches but, when it comes to these things, I think a case should be made for them to stand on their own. Why should anything be ‘like’ the Holocaust? Why can’t the Rwandan genocide be a horror in itself and without comparison to other casts of ethnic cleansing? It’s useful to compare but not useful to simply think in shorthand and I think that’s what I was trying to say having spent a day trying to defend myself against people vilifying Trump. There are too many places where thinking is curtailed and it’s the Nazi comparison in particular which liberals use far too often and fail to see the long term dangers.

    • I would go further Paul, how can you actually quantify what is evil?.Hitler is accepted as evil, but what about Churchill?, he allowed 1.5 million Indians to starve because he wouldn’t agree to allow food to be shipped to Bengal even though he was implored to do so, stating that it was their own fault for breeding like rabbits, a man who like Assad favoured using poison gas on rebels, yet apparently he is not evil at all, quite the opposite, he is our greatest Briton ever. Is beheading a terrified prisoner worse than say piloting a drone strike on a wedding party?, one involves killing a person face to face, the other killing a large number of women and kids from the comfort of your seat many miles away, why is one evil and the other simply ‘collateral damage’. You have a clue as to why people do evil things right there, those Afghans weren’t victims, they weren’t even human to the people who killed them any more than the beheaded prisoner was human to his captors, or the Indians were human to Churchill, they were ‘collateral damage’, dehumanise someone and they are easier to kill, Lee Rigby was nothing more than a uniform to his killers, a symbol of something they hated,the people they later conversed with instead of killing presumably they felt some empathy for.

      • Those a dark paths you tread, Rob, though I agree with every word. There was a great cartoon by Peter Brookes the other week of two beheadings. One by an ally (Saudi) and the other enemy (ISIS). It made just that point. The difference in the examples you offer, I suggest, is that we *know* that these things are wrong and we do our utmost to prevent them from happening again. We do our best to avoid collateral damage. That’s not to say that we don’t occasionally commit acts which might be considered evil. Was fire bombing Dresden morally right? What about the examples from Churchill’s history? We could argue they were wrong but only by recognising those wrongs against the ideals we set ourselves to live by. America knows it has done wrong in recent years and, in a sense, the West’s failure to act over Syria is a result of that guilt. There is, I guess, a psychology of nations and guilt can also drive our geopolitics as much as notions of good and evil. Perhaps that’s the only real morality here. Not in actions good or bad but the degree of guilt we feel. Or maybe I’ve just been reading/listening to too much theological debate lately…

        • Yes I ought to lay off when I am tired and cranky David, as well as not articulating my points particularly well I end up writing like a ten year old into the bargain. I saw the cartoon you speak of and liked it. I’m not sure how much guilt the mass of the population feel for the casualties we have caused in recent years, it has always seemed to me that our own losses have been what has driven public sentiment away from intervention but perhaps I am being unkind, though the outpouring of support for the Marine Sgt who murdered the wounded Taliban fighter may suggest not, imagine if the roles had been reversed, the absolute fury it would have sparked, yet apparently he has been hard done by and ought to be released.

  3. Thanks Rob I do not know much about the plight of the Indians and the involvement of Churchill so will have look it up. I agree for sure what you say about if you dehumanise someone it is much easier to kill them .It all seems very subjective .I guess there are some today who see Trump,Thatcher,Nixon,Pinochet and Castro as evil but others at the same time will see them as heroes. In General JFK.Churchill, Mandela, and Attlee receive a positive press so most people see them as forces for good and any mistakes or bad actions are glossed over. Is that the fault of the Media or do we like to pick and choose our heroes and villains according to our own set of values?

    • Churchill has a very positive press in the UK and USA Paul, where his sins tend to be deliberately omitted and strengths played up, this is much less the case in the rest of the world, understandable when you consider he once said of the Indians for instance ‘I hate the Indians,they are a beastly people with a beastly religion’ and of Gandhi that he ought to be lain at the gates of Delhi and trampled by an elephant (I’m not kidding). I think a bit of a Churchill myth has been cooked up over the past 30 years or so, Churchill of course famously wrote that ‘history will be kind for I intend to write it’ but the problem was that until the 1980/90’s there were a large number of people still living who remembered Churchill and contrary to what we are often led to believe he was not a popular man in his own lifetime, he polled less than Attlee at the ballot box on all 3 occasions he faced him, being elected 3rd time by the vagaries of our electoral system. I think as the simplistic and sometimes downright inaccurate telling of Britain’s WW2 story grew up more recently, of a united nation fighting facism, with heroic Churchill inspiring us to greater efforts all balance flew out of the window. Who wants to hear about all the mistakes Churchill made?, who wants to hear that there was a crime epidemic during the blitz? Attlee interestingly enough was a big opponent of rearmament in the early 30’s opposing Chamberlains increase in the defence budget in 36, a position he had abandoned by 38 as the political wind changed direction, yet like many others he emerged unscathed post war as the appeasement tail was pinned onto Chamberlains donkey. And there I suppose you have it, we like heroes and villains, Churchill is the hero despite his flaws and bearing no little responsibility for Britains weak position in the 30’s and Chamberlain is the villain despite having championed the limited rearmament which enabled the RAF to keep control of our skies because of his misreading of Hitler and dubious role in the Sudeten crisis.

      • Have a badge for comment of the day, Rob. I’d tinkered vaguely with the idea of writing about the Churchill myth but now I think I won’t bother and encourage you to do it instead.

        • Crikey, that would be a long piece David. Churchill made so many mistakes in his career, including during the war, that it would be a job just thinking where to start. On occasion I have debated with people about him and their argument is to say nothing he did before the war matters, only the fact he led us to victory and was a great war leader, I then I ask them, once the cabinet had decided to fight on in 1940 what exactly did Churchill do during the war that materially changed it’s course in our favour?, they can’t tell me, his entire reputation as a war leader seems to be based on him keeping us in the war rather than anything he actually did to lead us.

          • The trouble with revisionist history is that the poor buggers whose lives are being revised didn’t know the outcomes and wider context as well as the revisionists do now. So, my top of the head answer would have been the obvious: opposed the appeasement of Hitler, helped bring America into the war, and provided a symbol of resistance in both his physical self and his words. In fact, I would probably put his oratory as his greatest achievement.

            However, I suspect it really doesn’t matter what I think or even modern historians think. The only true judges are people who lived through that time and even that it made tricky by the election result in ’45. Churchill’s reputation today would surely have let him walk any election. So what happened then? It’s one of those odd things that historians explain away as ‘war weariness’. Was it really?

            In the end, I’m minded to think Orwell’s judgement was largely sound and given that he tended to call out the bad guys, the fact that he named his lead character of 1984 after Churchill must count for something.

  4. Dr K Prabhakar Rao | 27th May 2016 at 6:39 pm | Reply

    ISIS is aiming at Islamizing entire world. At present they are confined to a small country but their presence is being fely everywhere.European nations have become targets and other asiatic, African nations are easy targets. America of course is the primary target but a difficult one.They will prove disaster to the world. Nazis hated jews and along with them killed gypsies, romanis, Bolsheviks and of course jews. But ISIS want to kill all non muslims.Obviously they will prove worst than nazis.World must wage war and destroy them in the nip of the bud

  5. To deny objective truth; that one cannot differentiate one evil event from another is a crime in and of itself. Do better.

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