A 2006 sketch from the British comedy show That Mitchell and Webb Look features a conversation between two Nazi officers before a battle. One of the men raises the question about why their uniform caps have skulls on them. The pair go back and forth with various speculations for a few minutes before one finally asks the other, “Are we the baddies?”
Since everyone agrees that Nazis were and are bad guys, it is comedy gold to depict arriving at the conclusion as a matter of debate. Likewise, browsing this week through old clips from the recently deceased comedian Norm Macdonald, I found a great routine he did in an interview with David Letterman. Talking about his father’s bravery in helping to liberate the Dutch from the Nazis in World War II, Macdonald says nonchalantly about Hitler, “The more I learn about that guy, the more I don’t care for him.”
In the face of good and evil, identifying and laughing at a common enemy makes us feel good, especially when there is no ambiguity about our enemy’s moral depravity. However, conflating the perceived misdeeds of lesser enemies to those of the deepest and darkest wickedness is a tool employed to discredit people we wish to see fail. The political philosopher Leo Strauss described this scapegoating phenomenon with the term reductio ad Hitlerum. Hitler is Hitler. The person who opposes this or that policy you want, or who has committed some public scandal, probably is not Hitler.