The Holocaust has endured more than enough abusive and absurd comparisons in American political life. Both ends of the spectrum too often seek to draw on its emotional and historical power to advance their completely unrelated agendas. Pat Robertson bizarrely invoked it, saying, “Just what Nazi Germany did to the Jews, so liberal America is now doing to evangelical Christians … It’s no different.” On the other side, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has consistently and shamelessly abused the memory of the Holocaust for its animal rights agenda. A video on its website includes what sounds like Holocaust survivor testimony and is introduced with the words, “From the factory farm to your plate, animals go through the same process that the Nazis put Jews and others through during the Holocaust.”
With such ignorant, irrational and offensive appropriations out there, it is not surprising that many are pushing back against current comparisons with the Trump administration. These rebuttals of the use of Holocaust comparisons in reference to the administration have come stridently from various quarters. The columnist Daniella Greenbaum would prohibit us from “comparing all wrongs, even the ones that Trump carries out, to the evils of Nazi Germany.” She claims such comparisons are “dressing up” current events in “another (significantly crueler) disaster.” A writer for the conservative American Spectator called comparisons “despicable” and “cheap.” American Jews are themselves divided. Some have seen “parallels” between the administration and Nazi policy while others, such as Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, called such comparisons “morally bankrupt” and then doubled down, suggesting that they even “border[ed] on denying the Holocaust.” Nobel Laureate and Auschwitz survivor Elie Wiesel, who died in 2016, once said, categorically, “I don’t compare anything to the Holocaust.” Indeed, some scholars have suggested that the Holocaust as a historical event is unique and therefore incomparable to any other events, past or present.
Is it, though? Can we truly never compare the Holocaust to events in modern politics? The scholarly community has a duty to engage the question. If we truly adhere to the oft-intoned “Never Again,” then we also bear the responsibility of helping others recognize when “again” is now. Shunning comparisons misses an opportunity to mobilize important history for the public good.
Paradoxically, noted historian Richard Evans recently made the somewhat astounding comment (for a historian) in Slate that “it’s very dangerous simply to think in historical parallels.” But parallels are precisely what we should be looking for; parallels do not intersect, meaning that current events do not have to mirror historical ones precisely or in severity to benefit from historical reflection.
Perhaps the most compelling (and useful) rejection comes from Deborah Lipstadt. Lipstadt is a renowned Holocaust scholar and knows precisely what is at stake regarding the uses of the Holocaust as she herself fought and won her battle against Holocaust denier David Irving. She argues in the Atlantic, rightly, that Holocaust comparisons give officials a chance to escape responsibility by shifting the “conversation to the appropriateness of the comparison and the precision of the parallel.” Lipstadt further emphasizes that “it is important … to distinguish between methods and objectives.” She is correct on both counts, and we should take her counsel. However, this does not mean that comparisons between the Holocaust and contemporary situations should be rejected out of hand. Similar arguments were marshaled against comparing the Holocaust to any other genocide, yet there is a growing, rigorous field of comparative genocide studies that does just that. It recognizes that all genocides are unique in their own historical contexts but that all often have elements in common that are instructive for both understanding the past and interpreting the future. Perhaps what we need is not fewer Holocaust comparisons but more comparisons with other genocides.
First, one cannot emphasize enough that, of course, we are not dealing with a genocidal regime in the United States. On this count, Lipstadt, Evans and many other opponents of comparison are unequivocally correct. Many of the elements of the Nazi remaking of Germany into a fascist state are missing or unlikely to arise in the United States. Anyone claiming that genocide is on the horizon should be working for PETA and not analyzing current events. Conversely, no genocide begins with mass killing. There is no reason that historical comparisons must immediately center on the Final Solution, the murder of Jews. After all, the Nazis themselves did not begin with this solution in mind to their imagined problem. They pursued other options, none of which were benign but none of which demanded the physical extermination of Jews. Genocides — and dictatorships, for that matter — do not spring into existence. Rather, they begin incrementally, with authoritarianism, racism, ethnic myths and dehumanizing language, among other things. This is where Holocaust comparisons can and should be made. Lipstadt is absolutely correct that care and accuracy are paramount. It is precisely this care and accuracy that more scholars should bring to the public square.
Those responsible for genocide and persecution do not govern in a historical vacuum. They are aware of the ideologies and methods of genocidal systems that preceded them. Yale historian Ben Kiernan has documented this genealogy of knowledge. The colonial Virginia Company, for example, looked to the Spanish as a guide for its Native American slave labor policy. The Nazis were also acutely aware of past genocides and racial policies. The Nuremberg race laws were based on an earlier version employed in the colony of German Southwest Africa (Namibia), site of the first genocide of the 20th century. Hitler himself called upon the memory of past persecutions and genocides to inform his own policy during the Holocaust. He looked to Roman antiquity as a partial inspiration for planned intentional starvation policies in Eastern Europe. He called the Spanish conquistador Cortes a “moderate man.” Referring to Thomas Jefferson’s Indian removal policies, Hitler called the Volga river “our Mississippi,” where inferior races were to be driven. He further stated that “natives” of Eastern Europe should be “looked upon as Redskins.” Finally, perhaps most relevant to current debates, Hitler admiringly commented that America, using racist guidelines, had “established specific criteria for immigration” in an attempt to maintain racial purity.
In the modern context, first, let’s recognize that there are valid comparisons. Lipstadt states, for example, that “the Nazis aimed not at separation, but extermination.” This is true, but only beginning in 1941. Before that, they used emigration as their method of removing Jews, and camps to encourage this emigration; child detention centers, correctly likened to concentration camps, have already been termed an attempt to discourage immigration, and certainly harsher American immigration policy is designed to keep out a certain group of people, much as the Nazis sought to remove a group already there. Abraham Miller, a political scientist, argues that Jews “were not a potential economic burden on the countries that could have taken them.” Again, this is only partly correct. Jews were fleeing ethnic persecution in Germany. But because the Nazis sought to extract as much wealth as possible before letting them leave, they did represent a potential economic burden and this was one of the barriers preventing successful immigration to places of safety. Evans rightly suggests there may be different warning signs. It is unclear why he writes off the “brutalization and militarization of politics” as singular to the Nazi state, however. He seems to argue that because the levels of violence are not the same that such a transition is not taking place. Yet Trump as a presidential candidate explicitly made appeals to violence during his campaign. Again reiterating that we are not facing gas chambers, it is useful to focus on the early periods of the Nazi movement and the rise to prominence.
Trump’s well-documented use of dehumanizing language is another clear similarity to the early stages of Nazi rule. He caters to a particular demographic of unhappy voters, as did the Nazis. After all, his “America First” rallying cry was “the motto of Nazi-friendly Americans in the 1930s.” Moreover, his support or, at best, toleration of modern Nazi groups in the United States, epitomized by his relativist “blame on both sides” comment after the demonstrations in my hometown of Charlottesville last August, indicates that the history of the Holocaust and the Nazis must continue to be part of our critique. The Nazis who descended on Charlottesville screamed “Blood and soil!” — the same racist slogan as their counterparts in Germany. Certainly, the Nazis and white supremacists are not statistically anywhere near the bulk of Trump’s supporters, but his apparent refusal to renounce their admiration for him must be troubling.
Politically, the president has certainly taken actions which are in many ways parallel to those of the early Nazi movement. As Evans rightly notes, his propaganda machine would be immediately familiar to Joseph Goebbels’s Nazi office. The recent executive order making administrative law judges political appointees subject to executive power cannot be seen as anything less than an attempt to bring the courts in line with the administration’s political ideology. The Nazis called this “Gleichschaltung,” or coordination, as they sought to co-opt government and private organizations. Even his management style has similarities to Hitler. Like Trump, Hitler was reluctant to surrender too much authority to one subordinate, and so his Cabinet (which he never called) was a den of backbiting and maneuvering underlings seeking the support of Hitler, who was the only one who decided policy. There are similarities with Trump, even if he has not achieved this level of dominance. Let’s again be clear: Trump is not Hitler; Hitler was arguably a far more astute politician with deeply held convictions and the means to turn a fledgling democracy into a totalitarian state, something that should be much more difficult here. Nonetheless, these historical comparisons are not hyperbolic and should at least give us pause.
There is this, for example: John Fitzgerald, a GOP congressional candidate in California, stated live on the radio that “everything we’ve been told about the Holocaust is a lie.” He went on to receive 23 percent of the primary votes cast, making him the official Republican candidate for the House of Representatives. The GOP endorsed him, then retracted that endorsement. This is not an isolated event. In Illinois, Holocaust denier Arthur Jones won the Republican primary for the state house. The “most prominent conservative challenger” for Republican Paul D. Ryan’s House seat from Wisconsin is a white nationalist and anti-Semite. When actual Nazis are running for office, “never again” seems to take on a new urgency. After all, the historical Nazis did not seize power illegally at first; they were elected.
If there is a silver lining to careful, nuanced and appropriate comparisons of modern politics to the Holocaust, it may be the education of our electorate. A recent poll showed Americans to be woefully ignorant of the historical event. Judicious, reasoned and thoughtful comparisons and analogies to the Nazi period, particularly its early years before gas chambers and Auschwitz, could not only encourage the public to take a closer look at current events but also inform them more about the Holocaust that some politicians are now denying ever happened. We should take Lipstadt’s warning seriously, but additionally, rather than withdraw the Holocaust from our analysis, we should employ its lessons carefully but powerfully where appropriate to highlight troubling developments in our own country.