Saturday, April 06, 2019

On Godwin's Law

As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.

Years ago my friend Eileen and I visited the Dachau memorial in Munich. The first surprise was how we got there: we took the S-Bahn to the Dachau stop, then an ordinary city bus that ran through a pleasant residential suburb — streets of houses that run almost right up to the gate of the camp. I'd imagined Dachau, or any concentration camp, out in some remote area far from human habitation, where atrocities could happen out of people's sight and minds. Dachau's not like that at all. It's situated more like the Naval Academy in Annapolis, a large institution in full view at one edge of town. 

It's hard to imagine how a town could go about its business with 30,000 being starved and worked to death in their backyard. But of course it didn't start that way. It started with the announcement of a camp for political prisoners, mostly Germans, numbering 5,000 at most. Adolf Hitler had just taken office, and Heinrich Himmler, who was Munich's Chief of Police as well as Reichsf├╝hrer of the SS, was a man known for his organizational skills. Dachau was the first concentration camp he set up, and it became, as he intended, a model for all the others. It was orderly. It was discreet. It offered employment to hundreds, even thousands of men who had been too long unemployed in Weimar Germany. 

This week Kris Kobach, the former Kansas Secretary of State who is openly campaigning for the yet-to-be-created position of "immigration czar" in the Trump administration, told Lou Dobbs that the US should "create processing towns that are confined" for refugees at the border — "We process them right there, in that camp," he said. 

The United States is a vast country. The neighborhood I live in — Pentagon City, Arlington County, Virginia — is one of the wealthiest in the country, and about to get a lot wealthier as it becomes the site of one of Amazon's new headquarters. The Texas-Mexico border is approximately 1,500 miles away. 

It's upsetting and unpleasant to watch the images on the news, to read about the families being separated and the children being taken from their parents — practices, I should say, that did not start with this administration, but have certainly gotten worse. It's alarming to hear the President of the United States say on camera, "These aren’t people, these are animals." 

Godwin's Law, cited above, evolved as a tongue-in-cheek observation about how quickly people compare things they don't like to the worst human crimes imaginable. The danger of these comparisons is that when it is time to compare something to the Nazis, the comparison has lost its power. 

But I think about Dachau. I think about how happy people were to have jobs. I think about how it all seemed benign, even worthwhile, in 1933. I think about the 30,000 prisoners liberated in April 1945, and how thousands of them died anyway, after liberation, because it was too late to save them from starvation, typhus, and everything else they'd been put through. 

Twelve years passed between Dachau's opening and its liberation. You can get used to a lot over the course of twelve years. 

I do not want to get used to any of this, but I don't know what to do. I'm running a voter registration table in my building later this month. I just sent another $50 to Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley

And I think it's time to start talking about Hitler. To hell with Godwin's Law.