Godwin’s Law of Nazi Analogies and Corollaries, which has now been around for 20 years, was the invention of a perspicacious American lawyer, Mike Godwin. It goes like this: “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1”. (For maths-phobes, I should explain, that means it becomes a certainty.) His aim in coining the term was to discourage the trivialisation of the Holocaust by bloggers and other commentators online and encourage them instead to reflect on its real meaning. Introducing a reference to Hitler in a thread of comments inevitably undermines the impact of more valid and thoughtful comparisons and tends to signal the end of sensible debate. None of which, of course, stopped the more extreme opponents of healthcare reform in the United States from comparing Barack Obama to Hitler.
The phenomenon is not confined to the internet. The comment by Nick Clegg, now the British Deputy Prime Minister, that British delusions of grandeur at winning World War II were more insidious than German guilt over the Nazis, generated angry flurries in the press and prompted one journalist to remark that the debate had “gone Godwin’s law”.
The French have taken the idea even further: a “point Godwin” is not only the “point of no return” on a particular thread of comments, signalling that the discussion is closed, but it can also be a bad mark against your opponent for using a cheap and excessive debating point – which you can turn to your own advantage, by claiming the moral high ground. Politicians are especially prone to the Godwin syndrome: references to the “Tory Taliban” or their rural variant, the “Turnip Taliban”, cropped up regularly in the recent British election campaign.