May 17th, 2022


Curb your Holocaust analogies, already!

Jeff Jacoby

By Jeff Jacoby

Published July 15, 2021

Curb your Holocaust analogies, already!
I have always cringed at gratuitous Nazi analogies, and at the use of Holocaust comparisons to score political points. To my mind, rhetoric that evokes one of the ghastliest genocides in human history should be used only in reference to monstrous crimes committed on a shattering scale.

So I agree entirely with the criticism of Marjorie Taylor Greene, the Republican congresswoman from Georgia, who has more than once reached for Nazi terminology to argue against COVID mask mandates or vaccination policies. A few weeks ago, Taylor Greene lashed out at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for requiring masks to be worn on the House floor. She likened it to "a time in history where people were told to wear a gold star [sic], and . . . they were put in trains and taken to gas chambers in Nazi Germany." In a speech around the same time, Taylor Greene broadened her attack to Pelosi's entire party: "Nazis were the National Socialist Party," she said, "Just like the Democrats are now a national socialist party."

Last month, after visiting the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, Greene apologized for linking protective masks to the Nazis' yellow Star of David decree. She may have been persuaded to walk back her ugly words by the fact that a fellow House member, Illinois Democrat Bradley Schneider, was planning to introduce a resolution to censure her. By comparing "the US Covid response to Hitler and the Holocaust," Schneider said, Greene had "dishonored the millions of lives lost in WWII and the Shoah."

Greene's change of heart didn't last long. When President Biden on July 6 spoke of sending medical personnel "door-to-door, literally knocking on doors" to get more Americans vaccinated, Greene again lashed out . "People . . . don't need your medical brown shirts showing up at their door," she tweeted. The Brownshirts were the Nazi Party's original paramilitary terror squad, instrumental in Adolf Hitler's rise to power.

Such reckless language is despicable and offensive, and it is atrocious that Greene and other Republicans can be so historically tone-deaf — or so steeped in partisan bile — that they see nothing wrong with those remarks.

But why is it only outrageous Nazi analogies made by Republicans that generate media dudgeon and censure resolutions? After all, Democrats too like to play the Nazi card, and have done so for years.

"Don't compare Donald Trump to Adolf Hitler. It belittles Hitler," was the headline on one op-ed column in the Washington Post. Another was titled: "It's not wrong to compare Trump's America to the Holocaust. Here's why."

A few days after the 2020 election, a senior House Democrat, Jim Clymer of South Carolina, went on CNN to discuss Donald Trump's refusal to concede defeat. "I'm beginning to see what happened in Germany back in the 1930s," he told Chris Cuomo. That wasn't a first for Clymer. Months earlier, CNN had quoted him and another powerful House Democrat, House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler, in an article reporting that "Top House Democrats Compare Trump's Rise to Hitler's." There was nothing wrong with that news account, but it contained no hint of a suggestion that likening the US president to the murderous dictator of the Third Reich might be inappropriate.

A pro-Biden 2020 campaign video produced by a progressive Democratic advocacy group was replete with images linking Trump and his supporters to Hitler and the Nazis. The Anti-Defamation League condemned the ad — to its credit, since the ADL's leadership is left-leaning and had often criticized Trump. "This has no place in the presidential race and is deeply offensive to the memories of 6M+ Jews systematically exterminated during the Shoah," tweeted Jonathan Greenblatt, the ADL's CEO. But his rebuke drew no support from leading Democrats or the media.

It became almost routine in progressive circles to describe the immigration crisis on the southern border in Nazi-reminiscent terms: Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez referred to US holding facilities for undocumented migrants as "concentration camps," and when challenged on it, doubled down: "I don't use those words lightly. I don't use those words to just throw bombs. . . . ?A presidency that creates concentration camps is fascist," she said.

But she was using those words lightly. So were Taylor Greene and Clymer and those op-ed writers. So, for that matter, were all the Democratic partisans who used to liken George W. Bush to Hitler. And the GOP partisans who used to compare Barack Obama to Hitler.

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There is an infinity of ways to appropriately express strong political disapproval. The reductio ad Hitlerum is not among them.

"This trend is far from new, but it is escalating at a disturbing rate in increasingly polarized times," historian Edna Friedberg wrote for the US Holocaust Museum in 2018.

The Holocaust has become shorthand for good vs. evil; it is the epithet to end all epithets. And the current environment of rapid fire online communication and viral memes lends itself particularly well to this sort of sloppy analogizing. . . .

It is all too easy to forget that there are many people still alive for whom the Holocaust is not "history," but their life story and that of their families. These are not abstract tragedies on call to win an argument or an election. They carry the painful memories of the brutal murder of a cherished baby boy, the rape of a beloved sister, the parents arrested and never seen again.

As the Holocaust recedes in time, some Americans (and Europeans) are becoming increasingly casual and disrespectful to the mass murder of millions. More dangerous, today the internet disseminates insensitive or hateful remarks with unprecedented ease and influence. . . .

Careless Holocaust analogies may demonize, demean, and intimidate their targets. But there is a cost for all of us because they distract from the real issues challenging our society, because they shut down productive, thoughtful discourse. At a time when our country needs dialogue more than ever, it is especially dangerous to exploit the memory of the Holocaust as a rhetorical cudgel. We owe the survivors more than that. And we owe ourselves more than that.

I know only too well that politics ain't beanbag. I get that journalists and activists with passionate views are often driven to find the most ruthless and most poisonous appellations for those they wish to defeat or demonize. But even in the heat of rhetorical battle, some labels go too far. Casual Holocaust and Hitler analogies are at least as odious as casual rape analogies and casual slavery analogies .

They are disrespectful and hurtful and indecent. Whatever point you're trying to make, there are less grotesque ways to make it.