Reductio ad Hitlerum
Reductio ad Hitlerum, also argumentum ad Hitlerum (Latin for "reduction to Hitler", with Hitlerus serving as a Latinized form of Hitler's name), is a term coined by philosopher Leo Strauss in 1951. According to Strauss, the Reductio ad Hitlerum is a humorous observation where someone compares an opponent's views with those that would be held by Adolf Hitler or the Nazi Party.
According to Strauss, Reductio ad Hitlerum is a form of ad hominem or ad misericordiam, a fallacy of irrelevance, in which a conclusion is suggested based solely on something's or someone's origin rather than its current meaning. The suggested rationale is one of guilt by association. Its name is a variation on the term reductio ad absurdum.
Reductio ad Hitlerum is sometimes called "playing the Nazi card". According to its critics and proponents, it is a tactic often used to derail arguments, because such comparisons tend to distract and anger the opponent.
Fallacious nature of the argument
Reductio ad Hitlerum is a form of association fallacy. The argument is that a policy leads to – or is the same as – one advocated or implemented by Adolf Hitler or the Third Reich and so "proves" that the original policy is undesirable. Although previously acceptable policies (particularly eugenics) have been abandoned in part owing to such comparisons, the fallacious nature of reductio ad Hitlerum is easily illustrated by identifying X as something that Adolf Hitler or his supporters did promote but which is not considered unethical, such as painting (like Sir Winston Churchill), enjoying classical music (like some of the July 20 plotters), owning dogs (like Franklin Delano Roosevelt), advocating good roads (like Dwight Eisenhower), demonstrating nationalistic patriotism (David Ben-Gurion), speaking well (like Martin Luther King), or in some contexts having difficulty with existing authorities (like Mohandas Gandhi), all of whom were either enemies of Hitler or ideological opposites. For example: "Hitler loved animals, so animal protection is a fascist activity [because the things Hitler did were wrong, or because it could lead to results ideologically or morally aligned with Hitler]." Used broadly enough, ad Hitlerum can encompass more than one questionable-cause fallacy type, by both inverting cause and effect and by linking an alleged cause to wholly unrelated consequences. For example, Hitler was fond of children, but to argue that affection for children is wrong on this basis is not persuasive.
Another instance of reductio ad Hitlerum is asking a question of the form "You know who else...?" with the deliberate intent of impugning a certain idea or action by implying Hitler held that idea or performed such action. The phrase is often used ironically for its humorous effect.
An invocation of Hitler or Nazism is not a Reductio ad Hitlerum when it illuminates the argument instead of causing distraction from it.
History of the fallacy
The phrase reductio ad Hitlerum is first known to have been used in an article written by University of Chicago professor Leo Strauss for "Measure: a critical journal" in Spring 1951; it was made famous in a book by the same author published in 1953 Natural Right and History, Chapter II:
In following this movement towards its end we shall inevitably reach a point beyond which the scene is darkened by the shadow of Hitler. Unfortunately, it does not go without saying that in our examination we must avoid the fallacy that in the last decades has frequently been used as a substitute for the reductio ad absurdum: the reductio ad Hitlerum. A view is not refuted by the fact that it happens to have been shared by Hitler.
The phrase was derived from the legitimate logical argument called reductio ad absurdum. The argumentum variant takes its form from the names of many classic fallacies, such as argumentum ad hominem. The ad Nazium variant may be further derived, humorously, from argumentum ad nauseam.
In 2000 traditionalist Catholic (and neo-Confederate) Thomas Fleming described its use against traditional values:
Leo Strauss called it the reductio ad Hitlerum. If Hitler liked neoclassical art, that means that classicism in every form is Nazi; if Hitler wanted to strengthen the German family, that makes the traditional family (and its defenders) Nazi; if Hitler spoke of the "nation" or the "folk," then any invocation of nationality, ethnicity, or even folkishness is Nazi ...
Limits to classification as a fallacy
It have been argued by historians studying the Holocaust that not all comparisons to Hitler and Nazism are always logical fallacies since if they all were, there would be nothing to learn from the events that led to the holocaust. That would undermine the entire significance of studying the holocaust to avoid future genocides.
Proponents of this point do make distinctions between many different categories of comparison(s) to Hitler, some of which are fallacies, some of which are not, and some of which may or may not be fallacies. This approach is also critical to strict refusal to acknowledge similarities to holocaust, since there were early stages leading up to it and policies today can be comparable to those without being comparable to the "final solution". Advocates of this approach argue that such early stages are those where something can really be done about it, before it is too late. Categories include:
- Similarities that are not in any way related to political or institutional decision making, e.g. going on walks or wearing expensive clothes. These are invariably fallacies when used as arguments.
- Similarities that are related to politics, but does not have centralized power. This example usually refers to parties and movements still struggling to gain power. These similarities can only be to early stages of Nazism, not to a full-blown organized genocide. These comparisons may or may not be fallacies, a detailed analysis of methods, decision-making and ideology is necessary to determine that.
- Pointing out that Hitler did some things that are often considered to be related to being good in the context of criticizing psychological assumptions of them being connected, without implying that anyone doing them are like Hitler in other ways. E.g. that Hitler's engagement for animal protection shows that treatment of animals is divorced from treatment of humans, not implying a negative connection but mere non-connection. This is not an example of the fallacy though not directly related to the study of organized genocide either.
- Pointing out that the Nazis believed in some things that are often thought to be protection from persecution within the context of rejecting assumptions about connections between concepts and tolerance. For example that the Nazis believed homosexuality to be innate and far from tolerating it extended their homophobia to relatives as well, just to show that ideas on origin of a behavior (in this case homosexuality, but also appliceable to other things) is unrelated to tolerance of said behavior and not implying that an idea is Nazi-like. This is not a fallacy. It does not show what should be done to prevent repetition, but it narrows it down by eliminating irrelevancies.
- Pointing out similarities between Nazi chain of command and modern chain of command as a risk factor for genocide shared between Nazi and modern society in general without applying it to individuals specifically, e.g. that administrative and military laws are significant risk factors. It does not imply advocacy of a repetition of the Nuremberg trial to those who only follow orders/obey laws, part since referring to that trial as a source of authority would promote death penalty exactly as much as "superior orders is no defense" and part since forcing individual executioners into a damned if you do and damned if you don't situation is ineffective for preventing organized genocides like the holocaust. Instead, it is criticism of structures and laws that lead to dangerous officiousness. This is not a fallacy. It is relevant for genocide studies.
Although named for and formalized around Hitler, the logical fallacy existed prior to Hitler. There were other individuals from history who were used as stand-ins for pure evil. In the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries the Pharaoh of the Book of Exodus was commonly seen as the most villainous person in history. In the years prior to the Civil War, abolitionists referred to slaveholders as modern-day Pharaohs. After VE Day, Pharaoh continued to appear in the speeches of social reformers like Martin Luther King Jr. Judas Iscariot and Pontius Pilate were also commonly held up as pure evil. However there was no universal Hitler-like person and different regions and times used different stand-ins. In America in the years after the Revolution, King George III was often vilified. During the Civil War, some Southerners spoke of Lincoln in Hitler-like terms, some Confederates even called Lincoln a "modern Pharaoh."
Invocations of the fallacy
In 1991, Professor Michael André Bernstein alleged reductio ad Hitlerum over a full-page advertisement placed in The New York Times by the Lubavitch community, following the Crown Heights Riot, under the heading "This Year Kristallnacht Took Place on August 19th Right Here in Crown Heights." Henry Schwarzschild, who had witnessed Kristallnacht, wrote to the New York Times that "however ugly were the anti-Semitic slogans and the assaultive behavior of people in the streets [during the Crown Heights riots]... one thing that clearly did not take place was a Kristallnacht."
American conservative radio and television host Glenn Beck is often criticized for his frequent use of reductio ad Hitlerum, including a controversial statement comparing the victims of the 2011 Norway attacks to members of the Hitler Youth. Beck has also compared the National Endowment for the Arts to Joseph Goebbels and ACORN to Hitler's "Brown Shirt" soldiers.
That Nazism and contemporary liberalism both promote healthy living is as meaningless a finding as that bloody marys and martinis may both be made with gin. Repeatedly, Goldberg fails to recognize a reductio ad absurdum. ... In no case does Goldberg uncover anything more ominous than a coincidence.
A variation of the fallacy, Reductio ad Stalinum, also known as red-baiting, has surfaced in political discourse, often targeted at social democratic figures to compare them with Josef Stalin and other Communist dictators in history.
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The Lubavitcher community itself, in the form of the 'Crown Heights Emergency Fund,' placed a full-page advertisement in The New York Times on September 20, 1991, under the heading 'This Year Kristallnacht Took Place on August 19th Right Here in Crown Heights.' Their version of Leo Strauss's reductio ad Hitlerum was rightly perceived by those who had been in Germany on Kristallnacht (November 9, 1938) as an outrageous comparison.
- "Glenn Beck: Site of Norway Massacre 'Sounds like the Hitler Youth'". Time. 2011-07-26.
- The Glenn Beck Show, November 3, 2009
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- Mike Huckabee's Reductio ad Hitlerum, Lincoln Mitchell, April 7 2013
- Harris, Adam J. L.; Hsu, Anne S.; Madsen, Jens K. (11 June 2012). "Because Hitler did it! Quantitative tests of Bayesian argumentation using ad hominem" (PDF). Thinking & Reasoning (London, UK: Psychology Press) 18 (3): 311–343. doi:10.1080/13546783.2012.670753. Retrieved 14 January 2015.