This was originally written by Tim Skirvin (tskirvin@uiuc.edu). It is reposted here with permission.

Godwin's Law FAQ
or
"How to post about Nazis and get away with it"

One of the most famous pieces of Usenet trivia out there is "if you mention Hitler or Nazis in a post, you've automatically ended whatever discussion you were taking part in". Known as Godwin's Law, this rule of Usenet has a long and sordid history on the network - and is absolutely wrong. This FAQ is an attempt to set straight as much of the history and meaning of Godwin's Law as possible, and hopefully encourage users to invoke it a bit more sparingly. Of course, knowing Usenet, it won't do an ounce of good...

[[Standard Disclaimers:]] this document assumes you have some basic knowledge of Usenet; if you don't, go check out news.announce.newusers for a while to gain said knowledge. Misuse of the information contained within this FAQ is not the responsibility of the author (though he's pretty confused exactly how you could misuse this information). Copyright 1999, Tim Skirvin, all rights reserved, <FISH><, fnord, furrfu.]

I. The Basics

  1. What is Godwin's Law?
    Godwin's Law is a natural law of Usenet named after Mike Godwin (godwin@eff.org) concerning Usenet "discussions". It reads, according to the Jargon File:

    As a Usenet discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.

  2. What does it mean?
    It pretty much means exactly what it says - as a Usenet thread goes on, the chances of somebody or something being compared to a Nazi approach one.
  3. Yes, but what does it *mean*?
    Aah, now *there's* the real question.

    In case your head has been buried in the sand for the last sixty years or so, the Nazis were a German political party lead by Adolf Hitler that slaughtered upwards of ten-million people that didn't meet their standards of "ethnic purity" and set off to conquer Europe and the world in World War II. They are generally considered the most evil group of people to live in modern times, and to compare something or someone to them is usually considered the gravest insult imaginable.

    As a Usenet discussion gets longer it tends to get more heated; as more heat enters the discussion, tensions get higher and people start to insult each other over anything they can think of. Godwin's Law merely notes that, eventually, those tensions eventually cause someone to find the worst insults that come to mind - which will almost always include a Nazi comparison.

  4. That still doesn't answer my question. What does it *MEAN*?
    The Law is generally used on Usenet as an indicator of whether a thread has gone on too long, who's playing fair and who's just slinging mud, and who finally gets to "win" the discussion. It has, over time, become the closest thing to an impartial moderator that Usenet can get.

    So, what this means in practical terms:

  5. So - *WHAT DOES IT MEAN*?
    Fine, fine - it means that somebody's eventually going to say something about the Nazis in any thread that lasts very long. When it happens, the thread is going to start either degenerating into a long flamewar over Nazi Germany or about Godwin's Law. Either way, the thread is effectively over, and you can safely killfile the thread and move on.

II. What does it mean?

  1. Didn't we already spend the last section talking about this?
    Well, yeah, but people don't seem to get the point...
  2. What happens if we're actually talking about Nazis?
    Then you've already invoked Godwin's Law, and the chances are that your thread isn't going to last all that much longer as a sane discussion. Them's the breaks.

    That isn't to say, of course, that you can't talk about Nazis and such on Usenet - this *is* Usenet, after all, where virtually every conversation that goes on is fairly ludicrous in the first place. It's just going to take you a lot more effort to find real information out of there and to avoid getting yourself off on side-threads - which you'll eventually do regardless, but you can try to put it off.

    This also applies if a thread mutates into an actual discussion of Nazis, of course.

  3. What about arguing with Neo-Nazis?
    Arguing with Neo-Nazis is probably the quickest path to getting Nazi invocations, because, well, they're actually accurate. Still, trying to invoke Godwin's Law near a Neo-Nazi isn't really a good idea because it's not terribly original and they'll probably get off on it anyway. Just ignore them and occasionally publish a FAQ detailing what actually happened during the Holocaust and such; arguing probably isn't going to help you.
  4. How can I use Godwin's Law to my advantage?
    In the proper kind of flamewar, Godwin's Law can be used as a gambit - how can you force your opponent to invoke the Law? Actually teaching these skills is tough, of course, and is best done through experience. Experience with chess and alt.flame are recommended.
  5. What should I do if somebody else invokes Godwin's Law?
    The obvious response is to call them on it, say "thread's over", and declare victory. This is also one of the stupidest possible responses, because it involves believing far too much in the power of a few rules that don't say exactly what you wish they said anyway. The proper response to an invocation is probably to simply followup with a message saying "Oh. I'm a Nazi? Sure. Bye" and leave, and in most cases even that much of a post is unnecessary.
  6. "Hitler!" Ha! The thread is over!
    Nope, doesn't work that way. Not only is it wrong to say that a thread is over when Godwin's Law is invoked anyway (Usenet threads virtually always outlive their usefulness), but long ago a corollary to the Law was proposed and accepted by Taki "Quirk" Kogama (quirk@swcp.com):

    Quirk's Exception: Intentional invocation of this so-called "Nazi Clause" is ineffectual.

    Sorry, folks. Nice try, though.

  7. Does Godwin's Law apply in the real world?
    Actually, yeah, but usually discussions in Real Life end by somebody wandering off in disgust before it can be invoked.
  8. Are there any topics that lead directly to Godwin Invocations?
    Well, yeah. Of course. Case's Corollary to the Law states "if the subject is Heinlein or homosexuality, the probability of a Hitler/Nazi comparison being made becomes equal to one" - but that's just an old list. Abortion and gun control debates always lead to Nazi comparisons; talk with a Libertarian for more than a few hours and he'll almost certainly bring up Nazis; book-burning is pretty much considered a sub-topic of Nazism at this point. Hell, talk about anything politically related and you'll eventually get there.

    If you're really bored, a fun game to play is Six Degrees of Godwin. Take a topic - any topic - and see how quickly you can relate it to Nazis using legitimate topic drift methods. For example: a discussion about computers will eventually lead to discussions of keyboards and which are best, followed by a lot of complaining about the Windows key on 104-key keyboards, leading to complaints about Microsoft, forcing the standard MS-vs-government flamewar that I'm sure you're all aware of, leading to attacks on Microsoft's "fascist" tactics by one side or another, which will force the other side to start talking about the differences between fascism, capitalism, and, of course, Nazism! The fun never stops!

Appendix A: The Many Forms of Godwin's Law

"When someboy on UseNet brings up Hitler or the Nazi's the thread has been going on too long."
- Richard Sexton stating what would later be known as Godwin's Law, 1989 (<URL:http://www.vrx.net/richard/>)
Godwin's Law prov.

[Usenet] "As a Usenet discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one." There is a tradition in many groups that, once this occurs, that thread is over, and whoever mentioned the Nazis has automatically lost whatever argument was in progress. Godwin's Law thus practically guarantees the existence of an upper bound on thread length in those groups.

- The Jargon File (<URL:http://www.ccil.org/jargon/>)

Hitler, Nazis, nazis, and net.cops:

Warning: now that this FAQ has mentioned Hitler and Nazis, UseNet Rule #4 (also known as Godwin's Rule, after Mike Godwin of the EFF, sci.crypt, and comp.org.eff.talk, a sometime foe of David Sternlight (q.v.) [even though it was apparently in use, by Richard Sexton {q.v.} among others, before Mike's 1988] (?) net.advent; the "Godwin's" part seems to stem from "Rich Rosen's Rules of Net.Debate", which I don't have a copy of]) says it will be coming to an irrelevant and off-topic end soon. Just as there will always be newbies ("It's *always* September, *somewhere* on the net" - response to a 1993 wave of delphi.com postings on a.f.u), there will always be people who see the net and are repulsed because there's stuff there they don't want to see - so they set out to make sure noone else can, either. They invariably fail, because there are no net.cops to enforce any such rules on UseNet; in the course of the heated flamewar that usually follows, things escalate until either Hitler or Nazis (or both) put in an appearance, at which point the thread has officially lost all relevance. People scream at each other a bit more, then give up and go home. Bleah. "Keep your brains up top; don't be a net.cop." This has mutated, in true UseNet fashion, to encompass *any* continuing thread; if you mention Hitler or Nazis out of the blue, the thread is sure to die irrelevantly soon (and, incidentally, you've lost the argument, whatever it was)... and every continuing thread on UseNet *must* contain such a reference sooner or later. Invoking Rule #4 deliberately in hopes of ending a thread, however, is doomed to failure (Quirk's Exception)...

UseNet Rules #n:

No firm info at the present time is available on just what the other UseNet Rules #n are. However, at a guess, they include: And for completeness' sake:
- net.legends FAQ (<URL:http://www.uiuc.edu/~tskirvin/faqs/legends.html>)

Copyright 1999, Tim Skirvin <URL:http://www.uiuc.edu/~tskirvin/faqs/godwin.faq>

gobble = G = Godzillagram

Godwin's Law prov.

[Usenet] "As a Usenet discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one." There is a tradition in many groups that, once this occurs, that thread is over, and whoever mentioned the Nazis has automatically lost whatever argument was in progress. Godwin's Law thus practically guarantees the existence of an upper bound on thread length in those groups. However there is also a widely- recognized codicil that any intentional triggering of Godwin's Law in order to invoke its thread-ending effects will be unsuccessful.

--The Jargon File version 4.3.1, ed. ESR, autonoded by rescdsk.

Godwin's Law was first identified on the internet (USENET to be specific), but comparisons with nazism comes up in real world conversation and debate as well. The memory of fascism, and what it did to humanity, is constantly references in science fiction, discussions of psychology and theology, and, of course, in our political life.

There is a reason for this. While Godwin's law was formulated as a comment on the knee jerk reaction people had to nazism, and the fact that nazism can be associated with anything; it is not at all silly to have a knee jerk reaction to nazism, or to associate many things with nazism.

What happened in Germany (as well as what happened in Japan, and to a lesser degree in Spain and Italy), was the most significant event to happen to humanity last century, and it impacted every aspect of our world culture. To bring up, say, gun control in reference to nazism is not at all silly or off-topic. The question of whether people need assault rifles to fight off another age of fascism is not an irrelevant question. It is an incredibly relevant question. When people propose an educational movement that encourages orderly behavior among students, the question of what the consequences are of teaching youth to automatically follow authority is not at all alarmist. While writing this, and trying to imagine some hypothetical examples to illustrate my point, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elevated to the position of Pope Benedict XVI. In his early youth, as all Germans were, the new pople was a member of the Hitler Youth. Participation was mandatory, and there is no evidence that he ever agreed with the nazi cause, but we still have a Pope who was a member of the nazi organization. This is not a trivial matter, and mentioning it is not just a smear.

The problem with arguments like these, and why we still need some form of Godwin's rule, is that people often use nazism to stop discussion. As Thedore Adorno pointed out, the enormity of nazism was so great that its mention stops discussion. Given the horror of their crimes, it seems almost disrespectful to defend someone or something once it has been linked to nazism. The problem is, not every feature of nazism was outright evil. The nazis had many negative features: they were racist, militaristic, brutal, autocratic and corrupt, to name just a few. However, there have been many governments and organizations that have been racist and violent, without sharing in the radical evil that nazism represents. I do believe that nazism represents an evil beyond just their common badness. However, the evil stains even the trivial things that characterized the nazis. Liberal critics, for example, may point out that The Boy Scouts are a semi-militaristic organization encouraging group conformity, much like the Hitler Youth. Whatever the minor similiarities are true, the insinuated connection is that the Boy Scouts also share in the evil of the Hitler Youth. Whatever their faults, the Boy Scouts don't indoctrinate blind obedience to a genocidal madman as part of their code of conduct. To give an example on the other side, it could be argued that many pagan and neo-pagan groups share a religion or belief system with the hodgepodge of mystical beliefs that certain parts of the nazi party espoused. Whatever the downsides of paganism, even paganism that is focused on Nordic traditions that may be racist, the mainstream of paganism does not condone genocide. Thus, Godwin's Rule is neccesary because "accidental" features that groups share with nazism are associated with the the essential feature of nazism, which is pure evil.

So then, the mention of nazism is often very appropriate in discussions of many different types, however, Godwin's Rule must still be remembered because of people trying to end discussions by painting people or organizations with the nazi brush.

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