The argumentum ad Hitlerum or reductio ad nazium is a form of argument that was given its dog latin appellation in 1953 by the political philosopher Leo Strauss. It is an informal fallacy, suggesting that X is bad because it has been associated with Y, with Y being something Hitler or the third Reich did or espoused. It is easily shown to be a fallacy because X might be playing competitive sport, something which the Nazis promoted as a way of proving the superiority of the Aryan race. It does not follow that playing competitive sport is bad.
Dr. Peter Saunders, head of the Christian Medical Fellowship, has written a blogpost entitled ‘Twenty facts we did not learn from Terry Pratchett’s BBC ‘documentary’ on assisted suicide in Europe’. His fact number 20:
The Nazi holocaust began in 1939 with the killing of 6,000 disabled children and 70,000 patients in geriatric and psychiatric institutions. Leo Alexander, a psychiatrist who gave evidence at Nuremberg in 1949 said that ‘its beginnings at first were merely a subtle shift in emphasis in the basic attitude of the physicians. It started with the attitude, basic in the euthanasia movement that there is such a thing as a life not worthy to be lived. This attitude in its early stages concerned itself merely with the severely and chronically sick. Gradually the sphere of those to be included in this category was enlarged to encompass the socially unproductive, the ideologically unwanted, the racially unwanted and finally all non-Germans.
Firstly, the killing of disabled children and geriatric/mentally disordered patients is not assisted suicide. It is involuntary euthanasia, more commonly known as murder. Does Leo Alexander’s claim that this extermination was born from the notion that there is such a thing as a life not worthy to be lived make assisted suicide wrong? No, once again, the shift in attitude by physicians that Alexander mentions was not a precursor to assisted suicide. It was a precursor to murder and systematic extermination of classes of persons on an unimaginable scale.
|A Nazi propaganda slide depicting portraits of mentally ill people. From the Holocaust Education and Research Archive Team www.holocaustresearchproject.org|
Dr. Saunders denies having made the argument in the face of replies to his blogpost. For example, in reply to one post: “Wow, I read this assuming credibility until you likened it to Nazi Germany”, Dr. Saunders states “The article simply lists twenty facts the programme did not tell us about assisted suicide and euthanasia in Europe - of which the 20th is undoubtedly one…what you conclude from it is up to you.” This defence is given short shrift by another commenter on the blog: “Dr Saunders - you definitely have undermined the credibility of your argument by bringing up Nazi Germany… and in response to your assertion that you're factually correct, you could write an endless list of irrelevant facts if you wanted, but that wouldn't make your argument more convincing.”
This article on the use of the argumentum ad Hitlerum shows how the Nazi card is easily played by implication:
In a debate about the Republican contract, US congressman John Lewis first read out Martin Niemoller's speech about the Nazi takeover ('They came first for the Communists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist. Then they came for the Jews…'), then said, with gravity: 'Read the Republican contract. They are coming for the children. They are coming for the poor. They are coming for the sick, the elderly, and the disabled.’
It seems to me that there's something more complex and morally pernicious about the reductio ad nazium than it being a simple fallacy. It attempts to recruit a particular tragedy, in this case the systematic murder of thousands of patients, in (spurious) support of a particular viewpoint. The class of persons so recruited has no voice to indicate whether they object or assent to the viewpoint. As an example, I could say “All religion is bad because of the Catholic abuse scandal” (see Sam Harris here on why he’s tried to steer clear of the abuse scandal). But all religion cannot be bad because of the bad acts of some members of one religious group. By saying this, I would exploit the suffering of thousands of victims of abuse as a smokescreen for a viewpoint that I might hold for reasons totally unrelated to the abuse scandal.
In summary, to object to an issue by invoking the suffering of a group of persons (whose suffering is entirely irrelevant to the point being made and being used a smokescreen for deeper beliefs) seems to me to be a more grievous act than the mere commission of a fallacious argument.