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The rampant use and abuse of the Holocaust analogy

From Donald Trump to Sergei Lavrov to Ken Burns, everyone is comparing everyone else to the Nazis.

Filmmaker Ken Burns speaks at the gala ceremony for the inaugural Library of Congress Lavine/Ken Burns Prize for Film, Oct. 17, 2019. Photo by Shawn Miller/Library of Congress.
Filmmaker Ken Burns speaks at the gala ceremony for the inaugural Library of Congress Lavine/Ken Burns Prize for Film, Oct. 17, 2019. Photo by Shawn Miller/Library of Congress.
Rafael Medoff

A new record may have just been set for the most Hitler analogies in a 24-hour period.

From Moscow to Mar-a-Lago, public figures this week were inappropriately invoking Nazi-related terms to denounce developments that did not at all resemble those of the Nazi era.

Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov declared that the United States and its European allies are attempting to solve “the Russian question” in the same way that “Hitler wanted a ‘final solution’ to the Jewish question.”

Meanwhile, more than five thousand miles away, former President Donald Trump tweeted that the FBI agents who recently removed classified government documents from his Mar-a-Lago residence were “the Gestopo” (as he spelled it).

Before the news cycle was done, a former Israeli attorney general called proposed judicial reforms in that country “a pogrom” and New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman described them as a “putsch,” the term commonly associated with Adolf Hitler’s failed coup attempt in 1923, known as the Beer Hall Putsch.

If such outbursts were an aberration, they would be bad enough. But there have been numerous such remarks flung about in public discourse in recent months.

Filmmaker Ken Burns, speaking on CNN about Holocaust-era immigration policies, said the decision by Florida’s governor to fly 50 migrants to Martha’s Vineyard was “straight out of the authoritarian playbook.”

Not to be outdone, the Republican nominee for governor of Illinois, Darren Bailey, declared that “the attempted extermination of the Jews of World War II doesn’t even compare on a shadow of the life that has been lost with abortion.”

And Robert F. Kennedy Jr. said last year that America’s Covid vaccination policies are even more dangerous than Hitler’s policies, since in Nazi Germany there was (he claimed) the option of “hiding in an attic, like Anne Frank did.”

At least Kennedy retracted and apologized for his comment. That’s rare among those who use Nazi analogies as political weapons.

Five years ago, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum announced that it “unequivocally rejects efforts to create analogies between the Holocaust and other events, whether historical or contemporary.”

It issued that statement after one of its staff historians, Rebecca Erbelding, expressed support for the claim by Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) that U.S. immigration facilities resemble “concentration camps.” Erbelding’s statement was made “in a personal capacity” and “does not reflect the position of the Museum,” the museum emphasized.

Given the sudden proliferation of comparable statements by public figures at home and abroad, this might be a good time for the Holocaust Museum to publicly reiterate its opposition to Nazi analogies.

Such analogies both exaggerate contemporary controversies and minimize what the Nazis did. Policies concerning issues such as immigration, abortion or Covid restrictions naturally generate intense debate. But it should be possible to discuss even the most sensitive issues without resorting to absurd and insulting historical comparisons. Abortion is not another Holocaust. America’s immigration facilities do not resemble Dachau. And Mar-a-Lago is not on the way to Auschwitz.

Dr. Rafael Medoff is founding director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies and author of more than 20 books about Jewish history and the Holocaust. His latest is America and the Holocaust: A Documentary History, published by the Jewish Publication Society & University of Nebraska Press.

Originally published by Jewish Journal.

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