Most recently, of course, we've had the Pope, who continued the Vatican's Foot-in-Mouth Tour 2010 by implicitly comparing the secularism of democracies such as Britain with the atheism (in so far as it was atheist) of Nazi Germany. On the justice of that comparison I don't really feel the need to comment. I'll just note in passing that on the same day he was fulminating the secular authorities arrested six North African men on suspicion of plotting against his life. Will these turn out to have been "atheist extremists", I wonder, or merely "aggressive secularists"? I'm going to hazard a guess that they may in fact be religious themselves. [ETA: In the event their main crime turned out to be that of being black people speaking Furrin in a public place. Released without charge.]
Then there's the EU Commissioner Viviane Reding, who compared the French deportation of the Roma to the actions taken by the Nazis in WWII. If she were more net-savvy she would have known that, under Godwin's Law, the first person to make the Nazi comparison is deemed to have lost the argument, no matter how much justice they might have on their side in other respects. Accordingly, President Sarkozy has been getting a lot of mileage out of acting very shocked at her "disgusting" comparison, while his Europe minister Pierre Lellouche has been equally forthright, commenting that "it is not how one addresses a great state". (Reding is from Luxembourg. Know your place, teeny-weeny person!)
It's not quite that simple, however. As David Rennie of The Economist pointed out on Radio 4 today, both Sarkozy and Lellouche have form in the area of gratuitous Nazi comparisons. Sarkozy, when running for President in 2007, declared that France could be proud of its history because "it didn't invent the Final Solution". It's an odd thing to make into a matter of national pride, given that the same could be said of almost every nation on earth, but there you go. Even more bizarrely, during the negotiations about the Euro bailout this May, Lellouche criticized Germany's hardline attitude to monetary policy by invoking Auschwitz. Actually, perhaps we should quote Lellouche's words in full:
"The Franco-German relationship doesn’t work all by itself. Going back to the Schuman declaration, that was an extremely ambitious initiative. That was only five years after the war, after the occupation, after Oradour-sur-Glane [site of a Nazi atrocity in France], after Auschwitz. To hold out our hands and offer a partnership of equals with Germany required a lot of vision. That’s a bit what it is like today." [emphasis mine]
Those who live by Godwin, die by Godwin, I fear.
But there's one more thing to be said. There's long been a rider to Godwin that you are allowed to make comparisons with Nazis if the actions of the Nazis are the subject under discussion. That's relevant here, because in thinking about France's treatment of the Roma we don't need to compare it with what the Nazis did the Jews: we can simply point at what the Nazis did to the Roma themselves. It ended, as we ought to remember more often than we do, with the murder of between 250,000 and 500,000 Roma in the camps. But it began with mass deportations into Eastern Europe. And France expects the rest of Europe to stand whistling with its hands in its pockets, pretending not to notice? Godwin's law was not invented to act as a cover for state-sponsored racism.