Nazis seem to be everywhere these days. I don’t mean self-proclaimed neo-Nazis. I’m talking about folks being labeled as Nazis, Hitler, Gestapo, Goering — take your pick — by their political opponents. American politicians from across the ideological spectrum, influential media figures, and ordinary people on social media casually use Holocaust terminology to bash anyone or any policy with which they disagree. The takedown is so common that it’s even earned its own term, reductio ad Hitlerum.
This trend is far from new, but it is escalating at a disturbing rate in increasingly polarized times. 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. Worse, it allows it to spread more widely and quickly.
This oversimplified approach to complex history is dangerous. When conducted with integrity and rigor, the study of history raises more questions than answers. And as the most extensively documented crime the world has ever seen, the Holocaust offers an unmatched case study in how societies fall apart, in the immutability of human nature, in the dangers of unchecked state power. It is more than European or Jewish history. It is human history. Almost 40 years ago, the United States Congress chartered a Holocaust memorial on the National Mall for precisely this reason: The questions raised by the Holocaust transcend all divides.
Neither the political right nor left has a monopoly on exploiting the six million Jews murdered in a state-sponsored, systematic campaign of genocide to demonize or intimidate their political opponents. Recently, some conservative media figures explicitly likened Parkland, Florida, students advocating for tightened gun control to Hitler Youth, operating in the service of a shadowy authoritarian conspiracy. This allegation included splicing images of these students onto historical film footage of Nazi rallies, reflecting the ease with which many Americans associate the sound of German shouting with a threat to personal liberties. A state representative in Minnesota joined the online bandwagon in these accusations.
Perhaps most popular this year have been accusations of “Nazism” and “fascism” against federal authorities for their treatment of children separated from their parents at the US border with Mexico. “Remember, other governments put kids in camps,” is a typical rallying cry from some immigration advocates. Even a person as well versed in the tenuous balance between national security and compassion as the former head of the CIA took to Twitter to criticize federal policies toward illegal migrants using a black and white photo of the iconic train tracks leading to the Auschwitz-Birkenau killing center. Nazi comparisons have also been leveled against the federal government in connection with a travel ban on individuals from predominantly Muslim countries. Animal rights proponents have consistently decried what they call “the Holocaust on your plate” in critiquing today’s meat industry. The list goes on.
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. Online discussions tend to encourage extreme opinions; they allow people to live in echo chambers of their own ideologies and peers. Weimar Germany — the period between the First World War and the Nazi rise to power — is an exemplar of the threats that emerge when the political center fails to hold, when social trust is allowed to erode and the fissures exploited.
Quality Holocaust education may have the potential to bridge some of the divides our nation is experiencing. It enables people to pause. To step away from the problems and debates of the present. To be challenged by this catastrophic event of the past. That is what good history education does. It doesn’t preach. It teaches. It engages at a personal level. It promotes self-reflection and critical thinking about the world and one’s own roles and responsibilities. That engagement is lost when we resort to grossly simplified Holocaust analogies. And it demeans the memory of the dead.
Writing in 1953, the British novelist L. P. Hartley said “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” Comparing and categorizing are natural human impulses. We all use categories and analogies to navigate through life. But the nature of Nazi crimes demands that we study the evidence, alert ourselves to warning signs, wrestle with the world’s moral failure. When we reduce it to a flattened morality tale, we forfeit the chance to learn from its horrific specificity. We lose sight of the ordinary human choices that made genocide possible.
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.
Edna Friedberg, PhD, is a historian in the Museum’s William Levine Family Institute for Holocaust Education.