You may not have heard of Mike Godwin – the American lawyer who coined the phrase Godwin’s law, in the 1990s – but you see his adage in effect every single day. Godwin’s law (for those of you who prefer to read your newspapers on paper, rather than in the heady star chamber of the internet) states that as an online discussion progresses, it is inevitable that someone or something will be compared to the Nazis.
And like all great invading powers, Godwin’s law is annexing further territory. Living as we do in the age of enormous offence being taken at the most minor provocation, I have long believed it was only a matter of time before everyone had called everyone else a Nazi, and we could all wipe the slate clean and start again, perhaps with Stalinism or the Khmer Rouge as the genocidal insult du jour.
But I hadn’t realised things would reach parodic status quite so neatly as this week, when a board member of a Swiss charity, the Anne Frank Fund, accused a Dutch charity, the Anne Frank Foundation, of behaving like Nazis. The Swiss charity has every right to be annoyed with its Dutch rivals: it loaned the foundation thousands of documents in 2007, which the Dutch haven’t returned. But notice how that behaviour is irritating, and perhaps illegal, but not especially reminiscent of murderous anti-Semitic fascists.
You’re already ahead of Yves Kugelmann, the fund board member who said this: “In the 1940s, the Frank family had its possessions seized by the Germans and their accomplices – now a Dutch institution is trying again to carry out a seizure.” Yes, someone whose very job description guarantees that they know better has compared a charity retaining historical records with the Nazis’ property seizures.
The foundation hasn’t responded by suggesting that anyone in Switzerland is probably sitting at a desk made entirely from 24-carat Nazi gold, but if it does, I won’t be at all surprised. The courts have been pondering for two years already who owns these papers. (So at least they’re not like the Nazis, who were so efficient with paperwork.) Perhaps they’ll find in favour of a sense of proportion.