It’s been a big few weeks for Holocaust analogies, with pundits, politicians and ordinary folk drawing parallels between Nazism and the events of the day.
Jewish groups and Holocaust museums despise such comparisons, saying they either diminish the horror and distinctiveness of the Holocaust itself or unfairly target those on the receiving end. They point out that reckless analogies can be hurtful to survivors, or quickly close down civil discourse.
But not all Holocaust analogies are the same, and some can even be justified. Here’s a consumer’s guide to the kinds of analogies currently in play, and how they differ.
The Direct Comparison
Nazism isn’t just a symbol of evil, but a political program that seduced a democratic society. Holocaust comparisons are helpful to the degree that they deploy the lessons of the Shoah to warn about rising extremism in our own day.
In a JTA essay this week, Julian Voloz, a Jewish immigrant from Germany, wrote that the Capitol Hill riots and the four-year assault on democratic norms by President Trump and his followers “seemed to echo the past.” Voloj catalogues the very specific ways the far-right has borrowed from the Nazi playbook, from undermining the free press to scapegoating minorities to, like Trump, “declaring victory after a defeat.” Many might disagree with his analysis, but it seemed a fair use of historic precedent — especially considering that some in the Capitol mob were seen in Nazi regalia.
Arnold Schwarzenegger earned praise — and took some heat — for a video saying the Capitol assault recalled Kristallnacht, the Nazi attack on Jews that is considered the beginning of the Holocaust. He also noted how the Nazis’ rise to power “started with lies, and lies and lies, and intolerance,” adding, as a native of Austria whose father was a member of the Nazi Party, “I know where such lies lead.”
The destruction at the Capitol in no way reached the widespread horrors of Kristallnacht, when hundreds of synagogues burned and some 30,000 Jewish men and boys were rounded up and taken to concentration camps. But Schwarzenegger — writing not just as an actor but the former Republican governor of California — was being cautionary, not descriptive.
Lesson: Holocaust comparisons are fair game if you are warning about behavior actually associated with the Nazis.
The Wild Pitch
One criticism of Holocaust comparisons, even well-intentioned ones like Schwarzenegger’s, is that they normalize hyperbolic rhetoric. Fox commentator Jeanine Pirro and the former Iowa congressman Steve King both compared Big Tech’s crackdown on far-right social media in the wake of the Capitol riot to Kristallnacht. “What we’re seeing,” Pirro said, “is a kind of censorship that is akin to a Kristallnacht, where they decide what we can communicate about.” Glenn Beck said the social media bans were “like the Germans with the Jews behind the wall…. This is the digital ghetto.”
Of course, the Holocaust did not begin with a crackdown on hate speech, nor is having fewer followers on social akin to being murdered in a genocide
Another wildly inapt comparison led to an apology by a Staten Island politician. Leticia Remauro, a Republican candidate for borough president, admitted her use of “Heil Hitler” to ridicule Andrew Cuomo and Bill de Blasio’s coronavirus closures was a “VERY BAD ANALOGY.” But then she appeared to double-down on the comparison. “[W]hen you think about in Nazi Germany, in Cuba, with Mussolini it starts the same way,” she told the Daily News. “They come for your business, your religion, your property and then for you.”
She wasn’t the first critic of the lockdowns to use a Holocaust analogy: In October, Trump shared a tweet comparing Mayor de Blasio to Hitler after the NYPD broke up an Orthodox Jewish gathering in Brooklyn.
Lesson: There are many, many ways to complain about limits on civil liberties and government overreach. Calling your opponent a Nazi is the one you’ll end up regretting.
The Non-Analogy Analogy
Here’s a rule of thumb: If you ever find yourself saying, “You gotta hand it to the Nazis…,” whatever follows will go terribly wrong.
At the pro-Trump rally that preceded last week’s riot, U.S. Rep. Mary Miller, an Illinois Republican, told the crowd, “Hitler was right on one thing”: that is, she explained, on the importance of reaching out to youth. She later apologized. Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, was moved to point out, “Hitler wasn’t right on anything — and invoking his name in this or any other context is wildly offensive & disrespects the millions who perished due to the Nazis’ hateful, genocidal regime.”
There are many, many ways to complain about limits on civil liberties and government overreach. Calling your opponent a Nazi is the one you’ll end up regretting.
However, sometimes you can quote Nazis, as long as they don’t come out looking good. Last Friday, President-elect Joe Biden was asked to comment on attempts by Republican Sens. Cruz and Hawley to challenge the election results. “They’re part of the big lie,” Biden said. “Goebbels and the great lie. You keep repeating the lie, repeating the lie.”
Cruz shot back on Twitter, playing the Holocaust analogy card: “At a time of deep national division, President-elect Biden’s choice to call his political opponents literal Nazis does nothing to bring us together or promote healing,” said the man who just voted to invalidate Biden’s election.
Except Biden wasn’t calling Cruz or Hawley literal Nazis; he was saying that the false assertion that the 2020 election was stolen is an example of a viciously effective propaganda tactic. Yes, Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels popularized the expression — and the technique. But like “realpolitik” (coincidentally coined by another German) or “political correctness” (popularized by Marxists), the “big lie” is a term that’s been absorbed into political science.
Lesson: The “big lie” is a bad thing popularized by a bad man, but saying your opponents are using it doesn’t mean you are calling them Nazis; recruiting youth to your political camp can be a good thing, so long as Hitler isn’t your role model.
Andrew Silow-Carroll (@SilowCarroll) is the editor in chief of The Jewish Week.