Greenwald’s Law and Putin’s Takeover of Crimea

Greenwald’s Law and Putin’s Takeover of Crimea


Howard Adelman

Michael Enright began the second part of Sunday Edition on CBC radio by explicating Godwin’s Law which Mike Godwin, a lawyer, promulgated in 1990, which is now officially listed in the Oxford dictionary. The Law is otherwise known as Godwin’s Rule of Nazi Analogies. In his interpretation, Enright claimed that when Western statesmen compared Russian President Vladimir Putin’s actions in Ukraine and Crimea to Adolph Hitler’s invasion of the Sudetenland in 1938, this was an example of Godwin’s Law. Michael also cited one of its correlates as well as the core law. He argued that the use of a Nazi analogy stops an argument cold for what is the opponent to say once you compare an action to that of Hitler. “One result of this so-called fallacious analogy is to effectively and immediately shut down debate. If you or your argument is compared to Hitler and Nazism, there is very little incentive to continue arguing your point. There is no place to go after dropping the Hitler bomb.”

Godwin’s Law has two principles: first, that the longer an argument continues, the higher the probability that a Nazi analogy will be used, and second, its complement, that sooner or later in an argument someone or something will be compared to a Nazi action. Godwin and others formulated many subsidiary correlates over the years. The one Enright cited is considered a basic canon because Godwin formulated it himself, but Michael did not cite its correlate, that the one who uses the Nazi analogy also loses the argument as well as stopping the argument since in rational discourse it is now considered poor form to use a Hitler or Nazi analogy inappropriately.

Playing the Hitler card is certainly poor form when the analogy is exaggerated and clearly inappropriate.  But what if one is discussing genocide in Rwanda? Is a comparison to inappropriate? Is it inappropriate if one argues that the Rwandan genocide against the Tutus in 1994 was akin to Hitler’s actions towards the Jews and the Roma except that the Rwandan genocide was even more efficient even though machetes were the main instrument of murder rather than industrial processes of gas ovens. Is such an analogy an example of Godwin’s Law? This misuse of Godwin’s Law is often called Greenwald’s Law since it was formulated by the well-known and highly regarded American journalist, Glenn Greenwald, who has become famous in his own right as a spokesperson for Edward Snowden.

What we have now is a situation is which Godwin’s Law is frequently used to claim one has dealt a final blow against an argument when it is Godwin’s Law itself and not the original analogy that is being abused and used in an exaggerated way. Calling Putin’s takeover an anschluss is not an instantiation of Godwin’s Law, but Godwin’s Law is often cited to claim the analogy is inappropriate simply because of the reference to Hitler or Nazis. Anschluss means the occupation and then annexation of a territory that was formerly part or all of an independent state. The original anschluss of Nazi Germany was of Austria, then was extended to Hitler’s actions in the Sudentenland and finally all of Czechoslovakia. It is not hyperbole to use anschluss when applied to Putin’s occupation and planned annexation of the Crimea even though the majority within Crimea likely support such a move, as most Germans were presumed to have supported Hitler’s move into the Sudentenland in 1938.

However, if one calls Obama’s response to Putin’s initiatives in the takeover of Crimea appeasement analogous to that of Chamberlain in response to the takeover in Czechoslovakia in 1938, is that an example of Godwin’s law? I would argue that the argument is wrong because Obama and Kerry are engaged in confronting Putin not in appeasing him. But I would not call it an example of Godwin’s Law for the issue is not hyperbole here but the correct way to characterize an action. There is certainly a fear of appeasement and an argument could be made that Obama and Kerry in keeping the prospect of the use of military force off the table is a form of appeasement. I think such an argument is totally invalid first, because Obama needs NATO to make such a decision; it is not a unilateral action. Further, it is debatable whether an open declaration of the threat of the use of force would escalate the situation unnecessarily and not give diplomacy adequate time to ensure that eastern Ukraine is not invaded. But calling Obama’s behaviour appeasement is still NOT an example of Godwin’s Law.

The use of Godwin’s Law in either direction is inappropriate when the analogy is neither a diversion nor a distraction but a genuine attempt to use a relevant historical analogy and that attempt is not a matter of hyperbole. The use of analogy by both sides is then appropriate. Godwin’s Law, after all, does not refer to a logical fallacy, and Michael was wrong to use “fallacious” in applying it for, as Godwin noted, he aimed to counter the glib use of rhetoric not the misuse of reason.

On the other hand, playing on reductio ad absurdum fallacies, Leo Strauss did consider the use of Hitler or Nazi analogies often to be ad hominem or irrelevant to an argument and called them reductio ad Hitlerum (not Hitlerium) arguments. However, in Strauss, it is not the use of the analogy that is fallacious but the presumption that the citation of the analogy is a valid and conclusive step in a proof when the analogy may be just an example of an association fallacy. In Strauss’ famous 1953 Natural Right and History which was required reading for most students who studied philosophy of history, Strauss did argue that a view was not refuted by the fact that it happened to have been shared by Hitler.

At the same time, though citing such an analogy as part of a propositional proof is always invalid, citing such a comparison is not always inappropriate even when Hitler shared that view or conducted a similar action. The central issue is whether the citation is a gross exaggeration and whether it is used as a key element in advancing a proof of an argument. If neither is the case, then the analogy is appropriate, though oftentimes imperfectly so. Unfortunately, Michael’s use of Godwin’s Law is an example of Greenwald’s Law, the effort to shut down the use of a legitimate analogy by citing Godwin’s Law.


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