The Limits of a Paradigm: Agamben, the Yellow Star, and the Nazi Analogy

The Limits of a Paradigm: Agamben, the Yellow Star, and the Nazi Analogy

by Carlo Salzani (Vienna, Austria)

1. Uses and Abuses of an Analogy

AN unseemly feature of the vocal and widespread (though also heterogeneous and inconsistent) opposition movements to COVID-19 vaccination is their self-association with victimized minorities and the hijacking of their slogans. “Black lives matter,” for example, becomes “unvaccinated lives matter,” and the feminist slogan “my body is mine” is tied to the “violation” of the vaccine. Even more unsavorily, “Arbeit macht frei” (work makes you free), the phrase found at the gates of many Nazi extermination camps, gets distorted into “Impfen macht frei” (vaccination makes you free), and the yellow star that Jews were forced to wear under the Nazis is appropriated, by those without proof of vaccination, as a mark of their own discrimination. The Nazi analogy is indeed omnipresent at anti-vaccine rallies: the authorities allegedly imposing a “sanitary dictatorship” are compared to Hitler and the Nazis–the Italian philosopher Diego Fusaro even coined the neologism “Greenstapo”1–and those unwilling to submit to sanitary regulations equate themselves with the persecuted Jews (and brave freedom fighters).

The yellow star symbology in particular aroused understandably outraged reactions from within and without the Jewish community: in Italy, for example, Auschwitz survivor Sami Modiano called the comparison meaningless and unacceptable, and Senator for life Liliana Segre, also an Auschwitz survivor, described it as sheer folly in which bad taste meets ignorance.2 The Jews, as many critics point out, were discriminated against as a race (for which there exists no “vaccine”) and not for a personal choice; indeed, they had no choice at all but to wear the yellow star, which visibly marked them for discrimination in public space and eventually for deportation and extermination, whereas vaccination and the Green Pass aim at inclusion and the protection of life. This kind of comparison, moreover, trivializes and dishonors the memory of those who suffered true persecution: it amounts to a banalization of both Nazism and its persecution of the Jews, diluting the truth of their horror and obscuring the comprehension of their historical reality and meaning. If any authority imposing whatever limits to individual freedom can be deemed Nazi, and if any group of people feeling discriminated against in any way can claim persecution like the Jews, then the horrors of Nazism and its attempted extermination of the Jews lose their historical meaning and are resized to the much more modest dimensions of a general “offense.”

Outraged reactions notwithstanding, the Nazi analogy is so diffused and pervasive today that it has lost any true shock (or heuristic) effect. The analogy, of course, predates the COVID-19 pandemic and experienced a geometrical expansion with the advent of the Internet, to the point that American attorney Mike Godwin coined the so-called “Godwin’s Law,” stating that as an online discussion grows longer, regardless of topic or scope, the probability of a comparison involving the Nazis or Hitler approaches 1. And even long before Godwin, who first formulated his “law” in 1990, Leo Strauss warned in the 1950s against what he named reductio ad Hitlerum (a variation of the reductio ad absurdum), the (fallacious) attempt to invalidate an argument or a position on the basis that it was shared by Hitler or the Nazis.3 This is indeed a much widespread and abused rhetorical strategy whereby the historical analogy aims not at clarifying a situation but rather at distracting the opponent by vilifying and angering them, and thus at foreclosing rather than making an argument. The “Nazi card” is an argumentative trick the purpose of which is to shut off any debate and end any discussion: if something is like Hitler or the Holocaust, then it is evil incarnate and no further argument is necessary or even allowed.4

This rhetorical exploitation instrumentalizes an event that has come to symbolize, at least since the 1980s, the violence and horrors of the twentieth century, if not of modernity at large.5 The persecution of the Jews and the Nazi extermination camps represent for our societies the absolute horror, pure evil, the worst of the worst, the standard and reference point for inhuman violence. There is even a single word that subsumes and evokes all related connotations: “Auschwitz,” which at least since Adorno stands not only for all Nazi extermination camps but also for the unthinkable violence that was made possible in them, and as such has become the object of intense historical and philosophical analysis. One contemporary philosopher who has put Auschwitz at the center of his reflections is Giorgio Agamben, who calls it the “nomos” (definitive political element) and paradigm of modernity and devotes a substantial part of his work to the analysis and critique of the philosophical, ontological, and juridical features that made it possible and determined it. So, when the philosopher recently also compared the COVID Green Pass to the yellow star,6 he must have been well aware of his words’ significance and import. In Agamben’s work, the “Nazi card” is not merely some sloppy analogizing or emotional exploitation, but rather responds to the specific criteria and demands of his philosophical project. In what follows, I will evaluate his recent remarks in the context of his argument about Auschwitz and the camp, hoping perhaps to clarify the strategy he has adopted in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.

2. What is a Paradigm?

Before looking at Agamben’s analysis of the Nazi extermination camps, a brief clarification of his concept of “paradigm” is in order, since his paradigmatic use of “Auschwitz” is both a peculiar and distinctive trait of his methodology and one of the most criticized features of his philosophical project. The main criticism leveled at Agamben’s paradigmatic methodology is that he takes concrete historical phenomena (such as Auschwitz) and construes with them a historical-problematic context that goes beyond their factual and historical meaning. These criticisms, aroused especially by his 1998 book Remnants of Auschwitz, forced Agamben to state in various interviews that his paradigms are not historical or sociological analyses but rather philosophical archetypes, which, precisely as concrete historical phenomena, allow for the comprehension of a wider historico-political context.7 The question of the paradigm is “structural,” he insists, that is, it concerns the structure revealed by the phenomena he analyses and fixes them in a concrete example.

In 2008, Agamben published his own discours de la méthode, namely The Signature of All Things, to clarify this methodology. The book consists of three essays, but it is especially the first, “What is a Paradigm?,” that interests us here. Agamben starts by acknowledging the criticisms and “misunderstanding” of his method, stating that the paradigmatic role he assigns to some actual historical phenomena (e.g., the homo sacer, the Muselmann, the state of exception, and the concentration camp) serves “to constitute and make intelligible a broader historical-problematic context.”8 But how does this work? A paradigm, Agamben writes, “is a singular object that, standing equally for all others of the same class, defines the intelligibility of the group of which it is a part and which, at the same time, it constitutes.”9 The logic at work here is not the “metaphorical transfer of meaning” but rather the “analogical logic of the example,”10 and in fact Agamben uses paradigm and example almost interchangeably.11 The problem arises from the relationship between the singularity of a concept or phenomenon and its exemplarity—the paradigm should simultaneously reveal and constitute a set, which therefore does not preexist the choice of the paradigm itself:

more akin to allegory than to metaphor, the paradigm is a singular case that is isolated from its context only insofar as, by exhibiting its own singularity, it makes intelligible a new ensemble, whose homogeneity it itself constitutes. That is to say, to give an example is a complex act which supposes that the term functioning as a paradigm is deactivated from its normal use, not in order to be moved into another context but, on the contrary, to present the canon–the rule–of that use, which can not be shown in any other way.12

The paradigm, therefore, is what itself produces the set it exemplifies and makes intelligible; the sensible similarity that constitutes a set is not merely corroborated but rather properly produced by means of the operation. A corollary of this point is that the paradigm neutralizes the dichotomy of universal and particular–there is no universal idea preceding the choice of the paradigm that exemplifies it–and rather moves from singularity to singularity: “The paradigmatic group is never presupposed by the paradigms; rather, it is immanent in them.”13

The conclusion is that the various paradigms Agamben has used and proposed in time are not hypotheses through which he intended to “explain modernity by tracing it back to something like a cause or historical origin”; rather, “each time it was a matter of paradigms whose aim was to make intelligible series of phenomena whose kinship had eluded or could elude the historian’s gaze.”14 His uses of the concentration camp and of Auschwitz, which constitute the hinge around which his whole politico-philosophical project revolves, must be read in this light.

3. The Camp as Paradigm

The third and final part of Agamben’s seminal work Homo Sacer (1995) is entitled “The Camp as Biopolitical Paradigm of the Modern,” with the very last chapter entitled “The Camp as the ‘Nomos’ of the Modern.”15 The “scandalous” thesis that guides Agamben’s politico-philosophical analysis of modernity—and the twenty-year project that takes its name from this first book—is that the paradigm, the hidden matrix, the nomos of modernity is not the polis or other political structures, but rather the concentration camp. Why is that? In a nutshell (since this is a very complex and articulated argument and only the general outline can be sketched out here), on the basis of Carl Schmitt’s definition of sovereignty (“sovereign is he who decides on the exception”), Agamben identifies in the sovereign exception the original political relation whereby power captures life through the suspension of the law. This suspension (the “state of exception,” also provided for in most modern constitutions to deal with exceptional circumstances) creates a zone of undecidability in which fact and law are indiscernible and it is no longer possible to clearly decide about norm and exception, inclusion and exclusion, right and violence, and thus, everything becomes possible. When life is captured by this apparatus–that is, always, since this is the original political relation–it becomes “bare,” unprotected, abandoned, and exposed to the indistinction of law and violence. This is why politics is always bio-politics, a politics that takes the administration of life as its main goal.

What happens in modernity is that the exception becomes the rule–a thesis Agamben borrows from Walter Benjamin’s critique of Schmitt in his On the Concept of History–and thus the state of exception progressively becomes the main tool of government. And when this happens, when the state of exception established to deal with provisional situations of danger expands to finally cover the whole political space, then this space becomes like a concentration camp. Agamben takes the totalitarian experiments of the Nazis as a paradigm because they carry the state of exception (where right and violence are indiscernible and everything becomes possible) to its extreme–and therefore paradigmatic–consequences and display the biopolitical transformation of modernity in its purest form. The essence of the camp consists in the materialization of the state of exception and in the creation of a space where bare life is entirely exposed to the whims of power, and every time that such a space is created, we virtually (that is, from a juridical perspective) have a camp. In Homo Sacer, Agamben names some contemporary examples of this actualization of the camp, such as the centers where illegal immigrants are collected or the zones d’attente in French airports that hold foreigners demanding the status of refugee, and in State of Excerption, originally published in 2003, he brings as a main example the US detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, where prisoners were (and some still are) indefinitely held without trial or any legal protection.16 This structure lurks in the backstage of democratic life and threatens to become actual at any time, and this is why the camp is the political paradigm of our time.

Thanks to this structure, Agamben was able to capture an uncanny and perturbing feature of our epoch—especially the George W. Bush era and its so-called “War on Terror”—when our governments are more and more ready to suspend and violate democracy and the rule of law under the pretext of defending them. His work seemed to have uncovered the hidden matrix of dark and disturbing contradictions characterizing the first two decades of the twenty-first century (though his thesis is that they characterize Western politics as such), and his books—in particular Sate of Exception—became almost required reading for progressive and left-leaning intellectuals who found in them a clue to understand the present.17 Strangely enough for an academic founding his claims in extremely erudite and complex analyses of texts usually familiar only to a handful of “experts” and spanning from Greek and Roman juridical works to medieval theological treatises and to the modern political and literary canon, his work became extremely “actual” and his reputation grew to the status of a kind of “prophet.”

Agamben’s “shocking” thesis did of course also meet with staunch opposition, not least because of its tone that was deemed too dark and apocalyptic, and for his erasure of the “natural” contraposition between totalitarianism and democracy, since the state of exception constitutes the originary political element of every Western type of regime and thus the camp also lurks at the bottom of our democratic institutions. The book that Agamben devoted more specifically to the analysis of the camp, Remnants of Auschwitz, published three years after Homo Sacer as a sort of follow-up to the latter’s main thesis of the “bareness” of life in the state of exception,18 is the Agamben work that has received the most (and harshest) criticism, and not only for fashioning the historical experience of the extermination camps into a “paradigm.” The book was accused, among other things, of opportunism, apocalypticism, and aestheticizing the suffering of the victims.19 Nonetheless, Agamben’s thesis of the camp as paradigm of modernity retains its strong impact because, more than any other concurrent hypothesis, it made intelligible, in ways not easily dismissed, an ensemble of phenomena that undeniably mark our epoch.

4. Biopolitical Tattooing and Yellow Stars

In January 2004, Agamben abruptly cancelled an NYU seminar he was supposed to teach in March. He did so in protest against new security measures adopted by the US government, as he explained in a virulent article appearing in La Repubblica on January 8 and in Le Monde on January 10, entitled (in English translation) “No to Bio-Political Tattooing.”20 The new measures required foreign nationals to submit their fingerprints for entry into the United States, and Agamben refused to submit to what he called “the enrollment and the filing away of the most private and incommunicable aspect of subjectivity: I mean the body’s biological life.” With the electronic filing of finger and retina prints, he argued, the procedures of personal identification, initially conceived to keep files on habitual offenders,21 crossed a new threshold in the control and manipulation of bodies: they transformed every individual into an ideal suspect and humanity itself into a dangerous class.

The article closed by recalling the paradigm of the camp as nomos of modernity and with the shocking comparison between the filing of fingerprints at US borders and the numbers tattooed on the forearms of Auschwitz inmates: just like “tattooing at Auschwitz undoubtedly seemed the most normal and economic way to regulate the enrolment and registration of deported persons into concentration camps,” so “the bio-political tattooing the United States imposes now to enter its territory could well be the precursor to what we will be asked to accept later as the normal identity registration of a good citizen in the state’s gears and mechanisms.” The comparison obviously displeased (to put it mildly) many readers who found it not only unsavory and inappropriate, but also considered it a wrong analogy: from the camp as paradigm one cannot automatically infer that every measure of identification and control equates to the Auschwitz tattooing, which marked the inmates for extermination and not merely for identification and control. Moreover, Agamben here stretches the logic of his paradigm to that of the “slippery slope,” according to which some small first step (fingerprint filing) puts us on a slippery slope inevitably leading to apocalyptic consequences (Auschwitz).22

With the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, Agamben extended his analysis of the “War on Terror” to the new “War on the Virus,” applying the paradigm of the state of exception and the camp to the new exceptional measures adopted by governments worldwide, and also somehow amplifying the tone of his virulent and outraged opposition.23 And in a number of short texts published online, he repeatedly resorted to the Nazi analogy, with the words “dictatorship,” “totalitarianism,” “Fascism,” and “Nazism” recurring in virtually every piece: on 24 May 2020, for example, he compared university and school instructors who agreed to teach their classes online to those university professors who, in 1931, complied with the decree to pledge allegiance to the Fascist regime (only about fifteen refused at the time).24 On 4 August 2021, he compared the political “use” of science in justifying the Green Pass to the justification of Mussolini’s “racial laws” by 10 scientists in 1938.25 And on 16 July 2021, just like the many protesters venting their anger in the streets and online, he compared the Green Pass to the yellow star: “the ‘green card,’” he wrote, “turns those not possessing it into carriers of a virtual yellow star.” This because the green pass allegedly creates a discrimination within the social body and divides it into two classes, those possessing it and the others who are downgraded to second-class citizens.26

Agamben’s crusade against the “War on the Virus” has been much less successful and appreciated than his poignant critique of the “War on Terror,” embarrassing many of his former supporters and provoking an avalanche of criticism (which has been too massive to list here). What I wish to explore in conclusion, however, is whether his playing the Nazi card in this new context corresponds to the methodological criteria of his theory of the paradigm, or whether it constitutes a slippage towards an emotional rather than philosophical reductio ad Hitlerum. It is undeniable that governments around the world are taking advantage of the new crisis (as they do of every crisis) to increase their hold on citizens and society—analysts across the ideological spectrum have pointed this out, and Agamben himself had theorized it well before the War on the Virus or even the War on Terror. Moreover, the medicalization of politics and the politicization of medicine have certainly played and important role in the development of modern institutions,27 and Agamben’s philosophy still has something to offer to the critique of contemporary power, including the management of the COVID-19 crisis. But does the Nazi analogy really help to make the new context more intelligible, or is it rather used to foreclose the argument and end the discussion?

From a “paradigmatic,” juridical vantage point, Green Pass and yellow star seem to be opposite rather than analogous: not only do they mark the opposite type of group–the Green Pass the non-discriminated group, the yellow star the one discriminated against–but the marking itself has opposite goals: inclusion in the first case and exclusion in the second; protection in the first case and annihilation in the second. Moreover, the yellow star discriminated against a group on the basis of a racial, allegedly “biological” feature, whereas the rejection of the COVID-19 vaccination and of the Green Pass, as Agamben himself allows, is based on “personal convictions.” The first group never had a choice and what the yellow star marked was precisely this absence of choice, while the second group is always granted a choice and its composition is therefore open, uncertain, and fluctuating. Agamben insists on the fact that the discrimination of the non-vaccinated is based on personal convictions and not on an “objective scientific certainty,” but he thereby undermines and invalidates his own analogy with the discrimination against the Jews. If the Jews were discriminated against as a group, that does not mean that every discriminated group is like the Jews and that every discrimination is like the one the Jews suffered under the Nazis. The historical analogy here does not render a set of phenomena paradigmatically intelligible but instead paralogistically forecloses their intelligibility.

“Liberal” critics have an easy job showing that many other “cards” divide the social body into groups: the driving license, for example, discriminates between those allowed to drive a motorized vehicle and those who are not, but does this create second-class citizens? And more to the point of vaccination, children in Italy must be vaccinated against no less than ten diseases and disease agents to access public schools: poliomyelitis, hepatitis B, diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, Haemophilus influenzae type b, measles, rubella, parotitis, and chickenpox. Does this measure dictatorially aim at creating second-class children or rather at protecting children and society at large from disease? The bottom line is that not all invocations of the principle of necessity amount to Nazi bullying and not every violation of individual liberties aims at discrimination, control, and subjugation. Though Agamben would dismiss the arguments of liberal critics (ultimately, for him, democracy and totalitarianism are both built on the structure of the exception; if anything, Agamben can be said to embody a very sui generis form of anarchism28), it is not only the liberal democracies but rather all forms of communal life, even anarchist ones, that are construed through and upon the limitation of individual freedoms. Every positive collective project implies the curtailing of individual liberties toward the common good. Total and boundless freedom is a “fetish,”29 and when it becomes a dogma it clouds even the sharpest minds.


1. Diego Fusaro su Green pass e Greenstapo: per la prima volta dopo l’ultima guerra torna la discriminazione delle persone per legge,” I Nuovi Vespri, 19 July 2021 [16 August 2021]. This repertoire of neologisms also includes terms such as “Nazipass” (for the Green Pass) and “covidiots” (for those willing to comply with the sanitary regulations).
2. Sami Modiano, superstite dell’Olocausto: ‘Il paragone Green Pass-Stella Gialla è inaccettabile,’” Today Rassegna, 23 July 2021 [16 August 2021]; “Manifestazioni no vax, Liliana Segre: ‘Follia paragonare vaccini a Shoah,’” Il Corriere della Sera, 26 July 2021 [16 August 2021].
3. Strauss coined the phrase in the second of his 1949 Walgreen Lectures at the University of Chicago, published in 1953 as Natural Right and History (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1953).
4. There exists, of course, a solid literature on the Nazi analogy; for some examples, see James W. Davis, “Abusing the Holocaust Analogy?,” Security Studies, 15.4 (2006), 706-712; Michael C. Desch, “The Myth of Abandonment: The Use and Abuse of the Holocaust Analogy,” Security Studies, 15,1 (2006), 106-145; Benjamin A. Valentino and Ethan M. Weinberg, “More than Words? ‘Genocide,’ Holocaust Analogies, and Public Opinion in the United States,” Journal of Human Rights, 16.3 (2017), 276-292; Mark Webber, “Metaphorizing the Holocaust: The Ethics of Comparison,” Images, 7.15/16 (2011), 5-30.
5. This was not always the case; on the “evolution” of Holocaust memory and its interpretations, see e.g., Enzo Traverso, Auschwitz e gli intellettuali. La Shoah nella cultura del dopoguerra, Bologna: Il Mulino, 2004, especially the introduction and the conclusion.
6. Giorgio Agamben, “Cittadini di seconda classe,” Una voce. Rubrica di Giorgio Agamben, 16 July 2021 [17 August 2021].
7. See e.g., Ulrich Raulf, “An Interview with Giorgio Agamben,” German Law Journal, 5.5 (2004), 610; Roberto Andreotti and Federico De Melis, “I ricordi per favore no,” an interview with Giorgio Agamben, Alias, 9 September 2006, 5; Hanna Leitgeb and Cornelia Vismann, “Das unheilige Leben. Ein Gespräch mit dem italienischen Philosophen Giorgio Agamben,” Literaturen, 2.1 (2001), 19.
8. Giorgio Agamben, The Signature of All Things: On Method, translated by Luca D’isanto with Kevin Attell, New York: Zone Books, 2009, 9.
9. Agamben, The Signature of All Things, 17.
10. Agamben, The Signature of All Things, 18.
11. In the preface to The Signature of All Things (7), Agamben states that the reflection on method usually follows practical application rather than preceding it, but his definition of paradigm, which he explicitly claims to derive from Foucault, almost coincides with that of the “example” that constitutes the central axis of his 1990 book The Coming Community, and thus precedes his “Foucauldian period.” Cf. Giorgio Agamben, The Coming Community, translated by Michael Hardt, Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press, 1993, in particular 9-11.
12. Agamben, The Signature of All Things, 18.
13. Agamben, The Signature of All Things, 31. This also confers a specific temporality to the paradigm, whose historicity “lies neither in diachrony nor in synchrony but in a crossing of the two” (The Signature of All Things, 31). For Kristof K.P. Vanhoutte, this means “the paradigm is not what we already are, but it is a herald of what is to come. The paradigm […] is that which we are tending to: what we are (dangerously) close to becoming.” Vanhoutte, “(All) politics (Are) from the Devil: Taking Agamben to Hell (and Back?),” in The Concept of Hell, edited by Benjamin McCraw and Robert Arp, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015, 220.
14. Agamben, The Signature of All Things, 31.
15. Cf. Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, translated by Daniel Heller-Roazen, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998.
16. Giorgio Agamben, State of Exception, translated by Kevin Attell, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005, 3-4.
17. Adam Kotsko, Agamben’s Philosophical Trajectory, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2020, 112.
18. Cf. Giorgio Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive, translated by Daniel Heller-Roazen, New York: Zone Books, 1999.
19. It would take too long to list even a selection of authors criticizing Remnants of Auschwitz. Philippe Mesnard and Claudine Kahn devoted a whole book to demolishing Agamben’s book (and his philosophy in general), Giorgio Agamben à l’épreuve d’Auschwitz, Paris: Kimé, 2001, which can be taken as a sort of summa (or paradigm?) of these criticisms.
20. The original Italian article is entitled “Se lo stato sequestra il tuo corpo” [21 August 2021] and the French translation “Non au tatouage biopolitique” [21 August 2021]. The text was then amply disseminated in other media; I will base my quotes on the unauthorized English translation at The Anarchist Library [21 August 2021].
21. Agamben will briefly trace the history of modern identity papers in the 2009 essay “Identity without the Person,” included in Nudities, translated by David Kishik and Stefan Pedatella, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011, 46-54.
22. A critical appraisal of this text can be found in Arne De Boever, Plastic Sovereignties: Agamben and the Politics of Aesthetics, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016, 43-49.
23. I have briefly analyzed Agamben’s applying the paradigm of the state of exception to the new situation in “COVID-19 and State of Exception: Medicine, Politics and the Epidemic State,” dePICTions 1, 2021 [19 August 2021].
24. This text, entitled “Requiem for the Students,” is now included in a collection of Agamben’s texts on the COVID-19 emergency, translated into English as Where Are We Now? The Epidemic as Politics, translated by Valeria Dani, London: ERIS, 2021, 58-59.
25. Agamben, “Se la scienza non è diritto,” La Stampa, 4 August 2021, 1, 24-25.
26. Agamben, “Cittadini di seconda classe.”
27. See Salzani, “COVID-19 and State of Exception.”
28. This point, though fundamental for the assessment of Agamben’s reaction to the current situation, cannot be taken up here. For an overview, see Simone Bignal, “On Property and the Philosophy of Poverty: Agamben and Anarchism,” in Agamben and Radical Politics, edited by Daniel McLoughlin, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016, 49-70.
29. Teresa Simeone, “Il paravento delle libertà,” MicroMega, 20 July 2021 [19 August 2021].