By sensitive questions, I refer specifically to questions about Adolf Hitler, or topics (e.g. Nazism) derived from him. (One might plausibly substitute Josef Stalin, and his dealing with the Ukrainians, or Mao Zedong and his cultural revolution in this context.)

I was put off by an answer to this question.

Can we classify holocaust as Hitler's war time strategic mistake?

I seldom down vote, but this was one of the (few) times I felt the need to. While I did not consider the answer totally indefensible, I felt that its tone would be offensive to a number of people on the site. (Yours truly for one.)

When the shoe was on the other foot, and I answered a question about "Mein Kampf," I was careful to refer to Hitler as a "jailbird," and a "derelict," thereby distancing myself from his actions. I had also asked the same question, describing Hitler as "excruciating" and a "convicted felon."

Has any other book in history been as "prescriptive" as Mein Kampf?

Did I display an appropriate level of sensitivity in my own question about Hitler and his book?

Is it appropriate to down vote for "insensitivity" the following passage from someone else's answer": "The elimination of Jews was popular at home, made for good propaganda. The resource drain on German manpower and industry was relatively light in comparison. The system also provided for a nice base of cheap (slave) labour..."

  • I'd place a bounty on this if I could; I think the question is excellent. I think the answers focus too much on the examples, and not enough on the core question. How should we respond to controversial, sensitive questions that are difficult to treat with the desired distance and objectivity?
    – MCW Mod
    Commented Apr 24, 2013 at 11:40
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    @MarkC.Wallace: I got a loud and clear answer. The site (and certain of its members, including Jewsish members) wants "just the facts, ma'am," and "sensitivity" is not an important consideration for them. For my part, I downvoted the answer because IMHO it inverted the actual "spared to killed" relationship, and because the use of the word "nice," without a disclaimer or even scare quotes struck me the wrong way. I've downvoted only four posts, and I asked myself, is this one of the four things that bothered me most on the site. For this New Yorker, the answer was "yes."
    – Tom Au
    Commented Apr 24, 2013 at 13:11
  • I might have downvoted too, depending also on other factors such as whether or not I perceive a pattern in Answers from that person. The word "nice" is jarring in this context. Colloquial -- some might even say, folksy -- language has no place in such a somber topic. Probably, though, I would first write a comment alerting the Answerer to the surely unintended bad impression he is causing and wait for them to come up with an alternative phrasing. Commented May 28, 2013 at 11:40
  • @EugeneSeidel: I think you hit upon a key point. What I actually did was to examine the person's other posts, and rightly or wrongly "discovered" a pattern. This "pattern" deterred me from leaving a post. I would have acted differently under different circumstances, (and possibly should have acted differently under actual one).
    – Tom Au
    Commented May 28, 2013 at 12:30
  • I find the first question completely opinion-based and voted to close. Commented Aug 24, 2013 at 8:02

3 Answers 3


The elimination of Jews was popular at home, made for good propaganda. The resource drain on German manpower and industry was relatively light in comparison. The system also provided for a nice base of cheap (slave) labour.

To me, this seems like a factual statement and nothing more. I do find it annoying that none of the answerers (including yourself) bothered to reference any sources, but labeling that quote as offensive or insensitive is more than a stretch (imho).

Furthermore, referring to Hitler as a "jailbird", "excruciating" and a "derelict" is unnecessary emotive, and frankly a bit annoying. "convicted felon", on the other hand, I don't have a problem with, it's factually correct. We are here to study history, our answers should be as academic as they can be. We are answering questions, we are not writing blog posts.

To be perfectly honest, I find it a bit hypocritical that you are annoyed by someone's factual statements, that are phrased in a mostly neutral way, when you have employed copious amounts of emotive language in the past. Yes, Hitler was as close to true evil as it gets, but the facts are more than enough to convey that message, no need for the rhetoric.

Sensitive questions should be approached academically, with factual statements, ideally backed up by solid references. Everything else will only serve to derail the discussion.

  • I have changed "derelict" to "foot soldier" and "jailbird" to prisoner. I asked this question to find out what, if anything, I might be doing wrong with regard to Hitler. Regarding the other question, I was put of by "nice" base of cheap labor, and the statment that "elimination...made for good propaganda." I did reference a source. The fact that a former Luftwaffe pilot thought that "we should have treated the Jews better and perhaps won the war" was interesting. Thanks for your answer.
    – Tom Au
    Commented Apr 20, 2013 at 23:29

I was careful to refer to Hitler as a "jailbird," and a "derelict," thereby distancing myself from his actions.

I'm not sure that distances you from anything; both of those terms are judgmental - you're not referring to him as a prisoner or convict; "jailbird" carries with it the connotation of "habitual offender", while "poor, badly educated derelict" certainly goes beyond just describing him as a man of limited means. Without context, I would assume you were trying to trash the guy...

...But if I were inclined to read your answer with a jaundiced eye, I might assume you were trying to caste him in the roll of a Horatio Alger rags-to-riches hero! I doubt that was your intention, but such is the danger of trying to interpret intentions when reading, as well as the value of "neutral" language when describing actions and events.

I don't think the author of the answer you linked intended his choice of words as a defense of Hitler's actions or motivations; rather, he's attempting to place them in the context where they occurred. Hard to read? Yes! These are not pretty things. Insensitive? In the context of the question, no.

Consider your own answer, which focuses more on the invasion of the USSR: this also involved casualties in the millions, and unimaginable brutality. Are you being "insensitive" by treating this as a strategic decision? No; again, this was the entire purpose of the question.

Yannis notes some other problems with the answers there, problems that are less sensitive to interpretation. I encourage you to focus on such factors when critiquing posts - the facts may be harsh, but if they are indeed facts then they should be known - therefore, separating fact from opinion is a far more important goal.

  • I stand by "poor" (penniless), and "badly educated" (high school dropout), but perhaps "derelict" was going too far.
    – Tom Au
    Commented Apr 20, 2013 at 23:18
  • 2
    @TomAu "badly educated" is factually incorrect. Yes, Hitler did drop out of high school in Linz, but re-enrolled in Steyr after his father died. As for his overall performance in school, well... Einstein didn't do particularly good in school either, would you call him "badly educated"? He was also not a "former foot soldier", but a decorated officer (Iron Cross, Second Class). This is the problem with opinion heavy answers, more often than not they are just plain wrong.
    – yannis
    Commented Apr 20, 2013 at 23:34
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    @TomAu Some context on why I'm being so tough on you. I'm Greek, and for the first time I'm experiencing an evident rise in nationalism in my country, that has gone as far as a neonazi party entering the parliament (background). These kind of editorializing and opinion heavy posts is exactly what these people exploited to get a significant part of the population to support them. Every time you post factually incorrect information you give a neonazi the opportunity to cry "Lies!" (and be technically correct). Stick to the facts, please.
    – yannis
    Commented Apr 20, 2013 at 23:44
  • You were actually "halfway there." I consider "rags to riches" an accurate characterization both regarding Hitler's rise to power, and my description of it. My fear was that people would associate this with "Horatio Alger," and my use of "derelict" was meant to disclaims this, and emphasize that Hitler was an ANTI hero. I later felt I went too far the "other" way, and asked this meta question. I hope you'll understand why I did all this, even if you disagree with some of what I did. I also asked this question stats.stackexchange.com/questions/52474/….
    – Tom Au
    Commented Apr 21, 2013 at 13:19
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    @YannisRizos: Thanks for working with me on my issues. As of today, I believe that the terms "jailbird" and "derelict" were too "New York City" for the site (although they seemed "natural" at the time). I now realize that my downvote was also very "New York City." I actually thought "twice" (over two days) before casting it, and probably would not do it today. Just to give you a bit of my (relevant) background.
    – Tom Au
    Commented Apr 21, 2013 at 16:54

I think we need to be entirely "clinical" about such things. That is the only way to arrive at Truth: When seeking Truth, nothing is "sensitive".

Everything must be evaluated only in terms of its historical and logical accuracy. If you have "thin skin" you will never arrive at Truth, which often is not particularly palatable or appealing to our more delicate sensibilities.

If someone still feels the need to down-vote for such reasons, they must be very careful to explain exactly why they are down-voting, and perhaps provide a hint as to how to improve the question or answer and make it less 'offensive', to those who might be offended.

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