Godwin’s Law (also known as Godwin’s Rule of Nazi Analogies) is a humorous observation made by Mike Godwin in 1990 which has become an Internet adage. It states: “As a Usenet discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.”
Godwin’s Law is often cited in online discussions as a deterrent against the use of arguments in the widespread reductio ad Hitlerum form. The rule does not make any statement about whether any particular reference or comparison to Adolf Hitler or the Nazis might be appropriate, but only asserts that the likelihood of such a reference or comparison arising increases as the discussion progresses. It is precisely because such a comparison or reference may sometimes be appropriate, Godwin has argued, that overuse of Nazi and Hitler comparisons should be avoided, because it robs the valid comparisons of their impact.
Although in one of its early forms Godwin’s Law referred specifically to Usenet newsgroup discussions, the law is now applied to any threaded online discussion: electronic mailing lists, message boards, chat rooms, and more recently blog comment threads and wiki talk pages.
Corollaries and usage
There are many corollaries to Godwin’s law, some considered more canonical (by being adopted by Godwin himself) than others. For example, there is a tradition in many newsgroups and other Internet discussion forums that once such a comparison is made, the thread is finished and whoever mentioned the Nazis has automatically “lost” whatever debate was in progress. This principle itself is frequently referred to as Godwin’s Law. It is considered poor form to raise such a comparison arbitrarily with the motive of ending the thread. There is a widely recognized codicil that any such ulterior-motive invocation of Godwin’s law will be unsuccessful (this is sometimes referred to as “Quirk’s Exception”).
Godwin’s Law applies especially to inappropriate, inordinate, or hyperbolic comparisons of other situations (or one’s opponent) with Hitler or Nazis or their actions. The corollaries of the law would presumably not apply to discussions covering genocide, propaganda, or other mainstays of the Nazi Germany, or, more debatably, to discussion of other totalitarian regimes, since a Nazi comparison in those circumstances is understandable. Whether it applies to humorous use or references to oneself is open to interpretation, since this would not be a fallacious attack against a debate opponent.
However, Godwin’s Law itself can be abused, as a distraction, diversion or even censorship, that fallaciously miscasts an opponent’s argument as hyperbole, especially if the comparisons made by the argument are actually appropriate. A 2005 Reason magazine article argued that Godwin’s Law is often misused to ridicule even valid comparisons.
Godwin has stated that he introduced Godwin’s Law in 1990 as an experiment in memetics.
Linking by implication the fallacy of reductio ad Hitlerum to online discussion length had been done before 1990 by a poster named Richard Sexton in 1989: “You can tell when a USENET discussion is getting old when one of the participants drags out Hitler and the Nazis.” Godwin’s Law does not, however, claim to articulate a fallacy; it is instead framed as a memetic tool to reduce the incidence of inappropriate hyperbolic comparisons. “Although deliberately framed as if it were a law of nature or of mathematics, its purpose has always been rhetorical and pedagogical: I wanted folks who glibly compared someone else to Hitler or to Nazis to think a bit harder about the Holocaust,” Godwin has written. It has not been established whether Sexton’s quip had any influence on Godwin’s law, though Sexton continues, citing an apparent joke by Godwin, to claim Godwin borrowed the idea from Sexton and named it.
In Germany, a Nazometer is a mock measurement device suggested by German comedian Harald Schmidt (and causing a minor scandal). The device allegedly screens spoken language and will give alarms even for minor Nazi-specific formulations such as “Autobahn” or “Eva”.
Any similitude between this article and a recent comparison between Obama and Hitler is of course purely coincidental.