Skip to main content
Nazi soldier figurines set up in a parade with swastika banners and flags

The recent Gary Lineker Twitter issue, where the former England footballer compared government language around migration to that found in 1930s Germany, raised several interesting questions – particularly around BBC impartiality and the legality of proposed legislation.

But few commentators seem to have discussed the rules regulating the use of Nazi analogies – something which is both political and ethical, though without impugning about anyone’s conduct personally. Comparing something to Nazism can be widely censured for being crass, yet such comparisons are a commonplace of British conversations. They are ‘commonplace’ in the sense of being ordinary and frequent. And they are commonplace, too, in the distinctive sense meant in rhetoric. That is, Nazi analogies depend on bits of knowledge and opinion shared across a particular community: one thing the British can be relied upon to know about is the Nazis, together with the detail that, in the war against them, the Brits win – with right on their side.

Nazi analogies depend on bits of knowledge and opinion shared across a particular community: one thing the British can be relied upon to know about is the Nazis, together with the detail that, in the war against them, the Brits win – with right on their side.

Dr Richard Shorten - Senior Lecturer in Political Theory, University of Birmingham

There is a philosophical category at work here: moral analogies. In logic, there are three stages by which moral analogies are pieced together. The Lineker tweet can be broken down in those terms. To do so, it is worth getting the precise wording that caused the controversy upfront:

This is just an immeasurably cruel policy directed at the most vulnerable people in a language that is not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the 30s, and I’m out of order?

The first stage is that an analogy has a ‘source’. This is not the object people are trying to dispute – in this case, British immigration, asylum, and refugee policy – rather it is the object someone has decided to compare that policy to (and which they now place in the foreground). By exact wording, the Lineker tweet picked out a source which was ‘Germany in the 30s’. This is important. It is analogies to the Holocaust that are criticised for being trivialising – understandably.

But this wasn’t a Holocaust analogy, and only indirectly was it even a Nazi analogy. In fact, what might have served the analogy’s moral purposes best is a tweak on the actual wording, perhaps adjusted outside of the heat of the moment; dropping the word ‘Germany’, and simply stating ‘the 30s’. Because the persecution of minorities was most evolved in Germany, but by no means was persecution bounded to it. The historian Dan Stone has lately filled out the cross-European dimension. And beyond Germany, the reluctance of Western states to accept more than a smattering of refugees has been traced, exhaustibly, in the six-hour television documentary series, The US and the Holocaust, which aired in this country in January. Indeed, it was the BBC which broadcast it.

The second stage of an analogy gets audience to the commonplace, which is then given selective interpretation according to presentation. Here, the tweet picks out ‘a language’ in which a policy is couched, not the policy itself – which is another softening of the would-be crassness. Plus there is another softening, by describing the language neither as strictly identical nor equivalent, but as ‘not dissimilar’: a mere resemblance, in other words, or only with projected commonality in a few relevant properties.

The third stage is the inserting of the analogy’s ‘target’. And with it, the encouragement comes for the audience to draw out the inference. Hence the most impactful part.

By wording here, the target is ‘this’ but in the context of the Twitter thread is clear. It is a call back to a mention of the ‘Illegal Migration Bill’, a legislative act requiring the removal of all migrants arriving in the UK by ‘unsafe and illegal routes’ – and with disregard for the legitimacy of their asylum claims in themselves.

The projected inference is that if the target (i.e. the bill) and source (i.e. the 1930s) do have properties of language in common – words, tones, emphases, etc. – then they are likely to have further properties in common. There are parallel images now called up for an audience to consider. And at this point, the analogy does reach a bit more ambitiously than the softening suggests, without the analogy constituting anything as blunt as a Holocaust analogy as such. Projected side-by-side are experiences including flight from conflict and maltreatment, precarious journeys, unwelcoming prospective host societies and racial dehumanisation, confinement to ghettos, deportation to camps.

So, those are three logical steps in the meaning that the tweet sends out. Whether, ultimately, the analogy rings true for a person or not is likely to depend as well on assessment of the speaker’s character – here, near faultless, the emblem of fair play – and emotions stimulated.

Emotion turns on the phrasing ‘cruelty’ towards ‘the most vulnerable’, and ethically this matters the most because it is where the onlooker is asked to go beyond plain consistency with communal knowledge and opinion – that’s to say if you know that you detest the Nazis, then detest the bill – and consider something universal instead. Namely, human vulnerability. A vulnerability which may be common to people, but which is vastly exacerbated for some by the circumstances they, through no fault of their own, happen to find themselves in.

This standard is universal, but it is not impartial. Impartiality rules are not the noblest way to steer public conversations.