Godwin’s Law, myth-making, and the Republic

Posted on Mar 20, 2017 | 0 comments

Last Days of HitlerAccording to Godwin’s Law, the probability of “Hitler” being deployed in any online discussion approaches 1 the longer it continues. There is a reason why this law holds and that is because the Second World War is the cataclysm that is closest to our own generation. Many of us have grandparents that fought, and struggled, and died in that conflict. The memory of it is still fresh in our collective consciousness and we dread a repetition of it (at least, we ought to). For some, it is the worst thing we can imagine, and Hitler the worst person, and so he is inevitably employed as a rhetorical weapon.  

I just finished reading Hugh Trevor-Roper’s book The Last Days of Hitler. It’s a fascinating, and chilling, account of Hitler’s death and the end of the Nazi regime. It’s well worth the read for its own sake. But I was struck by elements of Trevor-Roper’s epilogue and how relevant they are to the situation we face today with “echo chambers”, “fake news”, “alternative facts”, etc.. His words read like a warning from a not so distant past and they bear repeating:

The original purpose of the inquiry which caused this book to be written was to establish the facts of Hitler’s end, and thereby to prevent the growth of a myth; and certainly Hitler’s own exploitation of mythology in politics has been sufficiently disastrous for the world to apprehend a repetition. The facts are now clear, and if myths, like the truth, depend on evidence, we are safe. But myths are not like truths; they are the triumph of credulity over evidence. The form of a myth is indeed externally conditioned by facts; there is a minimum of evidence with which it must comply, if it is to live; but once lip-service has been paid to that undeniable minimum, the human mind is free to indulge its infinite capacity for self-deception. When we consider upon what ludicrous evidence the most preposterous beliefs have been easily, and by millions, entertained, we may well hesitate before pronouncing anything incredible.


Gradually success bred confidence; the propaganda of Goebbels, the sycophancy of Keitel, nourished the self-delusions of unchallenged power; no mind, no fact was allowed to contest the dogmas of strategic genius; and at the end, how different had the conference table become! Hitler was still there, still the central figure, still the ultimate authority; but a Chinese wall separated him from the outer world of reality. He listened not to other voices, but to echoes of his own; for none of the surviving courtiers dared speak, or even know the truth.  


Skeptics and republicans, be ever vigilant.


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