You know how Godwin’s law says that every internet argument eventually breaks down into someone calling someone else Hitler or a Nazi? This is one of my greatest pet peeves in life, because it’s not just online arguments that devolve into Holocaust finger-pointing…you can find this stuff all over our culture. Want to paint someone as evil? Just connect them to the Holocaust in some way (see The Kite Runner and Girl With a Dragon Tattoo to name just two) and your work is over.
I’m fine with saying that Hitler and his Nazis were evil (though it seems likely that there was some level of nuance within the huge organization of the SS, and some were probably much worse than others) but it just seems lazy to use them as shorthand for evil when they were neither the first or last to prove that evil does exist in our world.
This Slate.com article answers the fascinating question of who people equated with pure evil before Hitler:
Before World War II, who was the rhetorical worst person in history?
The Pharoah. In the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries, many Americans and Europeans had a firmer grasp of the bible than of the history of genocidal dictators. Orators in search of a universal symbol for evil typically turned to figures like Judas Iscariot, Pontius Pilate, or, most frequently, the Pharaoh of Exodus, who chose to endure 10 plagues rather than let the Hebrew people go. In Common Sense, Thomas Paine wrote: “No man was a warmer wisher for reconciliation than myself, before the fatal nineteenth of April, 1775 [the date of the Lexington massacre], but the moment the event of that day was made known, I rejected the hardened, sullen tempered Pharaoh of England for ever.” In the run-up to the Civil War, abolitionists regularly referred to slaveholders as modern-day Pharaohs. Even after VE Day, Pharaoh continued to pop up in the speeches of social reformers like Martin Luther King Jr.
It’s so interesting to think that when people want to talk about real evil, they go to someone who picked specifically on the Jews. This reminds me of a fascinating book I read called The Dream of Scipio. The book takes place in three different time periods, and at first there doesn’t seem to be any real connection between the three narratives. As the story progresses you see more and more threads between them, but mostly what you see is that the use of Jews as scapegoats is the beginning of the end for any society. (It’s an outstanding book that I highly recommend.)
Part of me wants to recommend that we go back to using Pharaoh as the prototype for evil, but I have to admit, Hitler does sound like he was better at being evil than Pharaoh. Hitler killed more people, and had a very efficient system for getting rid of people. Plus, we know for certain that Hitler did exist. Pharaoh is more of a mythic figure, and thus carries less weight. Perhaps in another thirty years when we’re more removed from WWII we’ll revert to Pharaoh, or rely less heavily on Hitler. In the meantime, it’s still helpful to have some historical perspective.