The Enticing Sin of Nazism

Ryan Skinnell
5 min readSep 1, 2021


Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

As a professor of rhetoric writing a book about Adolf Hitler, I’m exceptionally attuned to the “Nazis-in-the-news” genre of public discourse, of which COVID has provided an unending stream of recent examples.

In one of the more preposterous specimens of late, Chicago’s Fraternal Order of Police President, John Catanzara, recently compared vaccine mandates to gas chambers. “This ain’t Nazi fucking Germany, [where they say], ‘Step into the fucking showers. The pills won’t hurt you.’ What the fuck?

Catanzara later walked his comments back, which is more than can be said for the people calling Anthony Fauci the Führer, calling the Governor of Maine Josef Mengele, or classifying vaccine mandates as violations of the Nuremburg Code or akin to the Holocaust.

Associating opponents with one of the most monstrous movements in modern history has persuasive heft because it communicates the magnitude of our feelings about things we oppose.

Magnitude is persuasive. People are impressed by enormity.

But because Nazi comparisons have come to be associated with enormity in the past eight decades — often at the expense of accuracy — it is easy to miss examples of public discourse where subtle Nazi comparisons might shed more light than heat.

The enticing sin of empathy is one such example.

400 miles northwest of Chicago, at the same time Catanzara was comparing police officers to Holocaust victims, a small evangelical church in Minneapolis witnessed the departure of a significant number of leaders and parishioners amid allegations of toxicity, abuse, and cover-up.

Since March, four prominent pastors have resigned from Bethlehem College and Seminary (BCS), and dozens of members have followed them. The pastors reportedly felt pushed out because they “were seen as the ‘empathetic’ ones” for advocating racial justice and justice for domestic abuse victims.

Their “empathy” is noteworthy because BCS’s current president, Joe Rigney, wrote a blog post in 2019 about the “enticing sin of empathy,” which resurfaced on social media in the wake of the exodus.

St. Anthony Tormented by Demons (Martin Schongauer, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Rigney’s post takes the form of a communiqué from Screwtape, a demon and Senior Tempter in C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, to Wormwood, a junior tempter.

In Rigney’s rendering, Screwtape patiently explains to his mentee that the demons have been so successful at converting the godly virtue of compassion into “its counterfeit, empathy” that even junior demons failed to recognize empathy as sinful. But Screwtape knows it is.

In Rigney-as-Screwtape’s words, “Empathy goes beyond union to the more potent and dynamic truth of fusion, the melting together of persons so that one personality is lost in the other. Empathy demands, ‘Feel what I feel. In fact, lose yourself in my feelings.’”

Rigney’s message is clear: “empathy is a power tool in the hands of the weak and suffering,” which can be used corrupt those who would offer unconditional comfort.

Intentionally or not, Rigney sets up a hierarchy in which potential comforters need to protect themselves against those in need of comfort.

It may be clear where I’m going here. Rigney’s formulation of empathy’s enticing sinfulness is breathtakingly close to a key passage in Adolf Hitler’s autobiography, Mein Kampf:

Social activity must never and on no account be directed toward philanthropic flim-flam, but rather toward the elimination of the basic deficiencies in the organization of our economic and cultural life that must — or at all events can — lead to the degeneration of the individual.

For Hitler, “philanthropic flim-flam” is equivalent to empathy. He says at multiple points in Mein Kampf that compassion, equality, and humanitarianism are misguided and detestable. He claimed throughout his reign that they were the corruption of God’s law.

Image by OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay

Hitler contends that people — good, strong, naturally-superior people — feel guilty if they don’t protect “the weak and half-hearted.” But he rejects such guilt, instead advocating “brutally and ruthlessly” removing “such tragedies of degeneration” from the gene pool in order to safeguard the superior races.

In pointing out parallels between Rigney’s “enticing sin of empathy” and Nazi dogma, I don’t mean to suggest that Rigney is a Nazi, that he consciously mimicked Hitler, or that he is advocating anyone’s elimination. Nor is this comparison about the enormity of my resistance to Rigney’s beliefs.

Rather, it is about seeing how common — even common sense — beliefs can unconsciously collapse into values nearly identical to those expressed by one of the most intentionally hateful, brutal despots of the 20th century.

I suspect Rigney doesn’t know much about Hitler. All the more reason his formulation — which I presume is a good-faith effort to communicate sincere beliefs about moral values — is instructive, because it likely traffics in Nazi rhetoric by accident.

Venomous extremism, now as always, relies on well-meaning people adopting, or unwittingly accepting, the attitude that some people are more valuable than others, and that the “more valuable” people cannot allow themselves to be weighed down by the weak.

That attitude, expressed so explicitly by Hitler, is one everyone is susceptible to in varying degrees. It’s the basis of Rigney’s blog post, and equally, if differently, evident in comparing a mild-mannered, long-serving public health official with no coercive power to an authoritarian dictator responsible for the murder of millions.

In the end, enormity will always be a persuasive aim of Nazi comparisons, no matter how rankly absurd they may be. But as neo-Nazism and neofascism continue to re-emerge as political forces in the 21st century, there is an urgent need for subtler comparisons.

Indeed, through subtle Nazi comparisons, we can discover how enticing Nazi rhetoric is, even when we’re advancing what we think is a moral vision for society.

Ryan Skinnell is an associate professor of rhetoric at San José State University, the author “Faking the News: What Can Rhetoric Teach Us about Donald J. Trump,” and a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project. He is writing a book about Hitler’s rhetoric.



Ryan Skinnell

I know stuff about rhetoric and Nazis. Writer, speaker, professor, burrito aficionado. Public Voices Fellow w/TheOpEdProject ~views mine~