Godwin's Law -- the notion that every conversation on the Internet eventually ends up talking about Hitler and the Nazis -- comes at last to the Nobel Prize ceremonies.
You probably know that new Nobel Laureates in Literature are asked to give an acceptance lecture at the awards banquet -- and that some of them having proven quite memorable, such as William Faulkner's famous "I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail" speech in 1950.
You may also have read that this year's laureate, France's Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio, used the occasion to say something that, if not quite as profound and enduring, certainly has provoked a lot of discussion. What Le Clezio said was:
"Who knows, if the Internet had existed at the time, perhaps Hitler's criminal plot would not have succeeded -- ridicule might have prevented it from ever seeing the light of day."
That's an extraordinary comment, suggesting that somehow digital technology, had it been around back then, could have stopped the most evil figure of modern times. And not only that, but would have done so via ridicule.
That last part strikes me as a particularly French point of view, as if social embarrassment might have frozen the Beer Hall Putsch in its tracks, Hitler, Hess, Bormann et al. slumping away to the general laughter of amused Munich burghers. That might work west of the Meuse – but having seen rows of passed-out drunks in silly hats arrayed on the hillside outside the beer tents at the Oktoberfest, somehow I don't think it works the same way in Bavaria.
But let's leave aside that little bit of Gallic reasoning and ask the more interesting question: Could the Internet have stopped the Third Reich and saved more than 30 million lives?
A number of commentators found even that notion risible; they pointed out that the Internet has done little or nothing to alleviate the horrible fate of the victims in Darfur, or even Zimbabwe. If the Web can't stop a bunch of stoned teenagers with AK-47s, much less a petty tyrant starving his country to death, how could it have had the slightest chance of stopping a racist megalomaniac commanding the world's most powerful army and ruling one of the world's wealthiest nations? In making this argument, most writers simply dismissed Le Clezio's notion as absurd on its face.
But I'm not so sure there isn't something to his notion. Not only that, it's an interesting exercise to look at this idea more closely – if nothing else, to perhaps give us some clues on how to fight dangerous totalitarian movements in the future.
Let me explain. I'm not a scholar of the Nazism or of the Third Reich, but I do know enough to appreciate that it had a very distinct trajectory consisting of several eras. The first was young Adolph Hitler, like many other disgruntled WWI veterans, finding himself in a Germany that seemed to be falling apart under the weight of Versailles payments, war loss guilt, an economic depression, Weimer excesses, and a growing internal threat from the Communist Party. He eventually drifted to an extremist group, the National Socialists, where he found not only like-minded individuals, but also a gift for leadership. Eventually, but prematurely, in 1923, these Nazis led by Hitler attempted a bungled coup d'etat, during which Hitler was arrested and imprisoned.