Americans, it seems, cannot help drawing analogies between current politics and Nazi Germany. The potential for similarities is on everyone’s mind, from the left to the right. We all grew up with the Allied defeat of the Nazis and the liberation of inmates from concentration camps as the keystone to America’s claim to hold a unique, higher moral position in world politics. If pundits, politicians, and voters feel compelled to draw divergent analogies between current policies and German history, then we should all maybe take a class on the subject, read some books along the way. While we are studying German history, we should review our own. Given our current free-for-all with Holocaust comparisons, the need for basic humanities education in history and culture is more urgent than ever.
Nazi comparisons circulate as memes, without much historical analysis to back them up. For decades, Godwin’s Law was used by internet discussion groups whenever anyone hauled out the Nazis. The Law both predicted and regulated online discussions by stating that the longer any social media conversation lasted over time, the probability that someone would draw a comparison to Hitler became virtually assured, at which the point the conversation should be ended. This rule kept dialogues within bounds and pulled the plug of crazy accusations. But recently, Mike Godwin has allowed for his Law to be suspended, with the important proviso that anyone making the Nazi comparison really needs to have the historical proof to back it up.
Earlier this week in response to the US policy of separating children from the parents who were attempting to cross the border, Holocaust survivors drew the analogy to their own treatment under the Nazis
By no means were only left-wing critics invoking the analogy. On Twitter, Michael Hayden, the former director of the CIA, also compared the Trump administration’s border policy with concentration camps.If his goal was to shock the public, then Hayden succeeded. The Nazi comparison became so convincing to many that Attorney General Sessions felt the need to respond on Monday by claiming that the difference between US immigrant camps and Nazi concentration camps came down to the notion that the US was trying to keep inmates from entering the country, while the Nazis were trying to prevent Jews from leaving, he made three mistakes.
A closer look at this argument raises a number of problems. First, in the context of the immigration debate, Session’s distinction between using concentration camps to either expel or contain a population was trivial and missed the entire moral issue. Second, he essentially conceded the validity of the comparison by getting caught up in technicalities. By making minor policy distinctions, Session implied that the two policies really were somewhat similar; they just differed in terms of why people are being herded and separated into camps. Unspoken but plainly visible was the implication that both the Nazis and the Trump administration were acting out a racial policy; Third, even in conceding the comparison, Sessions demonstrated a fuzzy understanding of the Nazi past. In the 1930s, before the escalation of racial genocide, the Nazis were also expelling Jews from the German Reich, so long as they were stripped of any valuables or financial assets they might have possessed. The threat of incarceration in a concentration camp drove many to leave. Only during the Second World War as the Nazis began their industrial extermination of Jews, were camps used as a means of holding and killing. For Session’s distinction to make any sense, he would have had to be made some very detail arguments about Nazi concentration camp policy. The one positive side to Sessions’ confused rebuttal: at least we all have returned to the belief that the Nazis were a horror, beyond acceptable. Not too long ago, even that universally agreed-upon principle seemed under fire.
Well into the 1980s, the Holocaust was considered such a unique calamity that no other event could possibly be compared to it, in part because it should never happen again. For the last thirty years, as the Holocaust has become the standard by which all other genocides are evaluated, its singularity gave way to a cautious examination of resemblances between atrocities. But now we have moved into an entirely new kind of rhetoric, one that encourages analogies to how Nazi Germany as an unreflective short-hand for evil. Now Holocaust comparisons do the work for Americans unwilling or unable to apply their own democratic principles to public policy decisions. The automatic response seems to be: “Let’s turn to German history, because we can all agree on how awful the Nazis were,” rather than “Let’s make our own moral decisions, because we are a long-standing republic with an immense legacy of immigration.”
Unified Germany has since at least the second Iraq war, made a point of rejected US policies that contradict what its citizens believe to be their nation’s obligations after overcoming Communism and Fascism. After Trump’s election these differences have become even more obvious. If the Nazis are not scary enough, the current administration has added Angela Merkel’s decision to allow over a million refugees to enter Germany to the list of German policies to avoid. Current US border policy is explained as another attempt to avoid becoming Germany, except this time it is the democratically elected Christian Democratic coalition that is the scary foreign actor. To reinforce this hyped scenario, the President trumpeted scurrilous fabrications about German crime rates and the supposed collapse of public order. Our European ally has been forced to deny these charges by explaining that their society is quite peaceful.
Germans of course have responded to the Trump administration with their own analogies, which do not get much press here, based on their terrible history with a militarized border wall that tore families apart for decades. If Ronald Reagan urged Mikhail Gorbachev to “Tear down this wall,” the mayor of Berlin was urging Donald Trump not to build one.
Quick comparisons with the Nazis all too often serve as a screen onto which we can project our fears while blocking us from examining historical connections much closer to home. Drawing half-baked analogies to Germany prevents Americans from making their own moral judgments. If Americans really want to learn something from the way that Germans dealt with the violent past, then we should also devote real effort and education to examining our own violent, racist history. Instead of worrying about how close we come to Nazis, instead of always basing our policies on which foreigner we happen to fear the most, could we not simply judge our own policies from our own history? For example, how does the administration’s current policy compare to the treatment the Irish, southern Italians, Chinese, Japanese, and Russian Jews received at the border and in society when they emigrated to the United States in the nineteenth century? How does it compare to the incarceration and separation of Native Americans and African slaves? Forget the Nazis for a moment, talk about ourselves. In the current debate, they are just a distraction from our own incapacity for historical reflection. Why not base policy on our centuries long experience with immigration? Drawing analogies to other countries’ history means we pass over our own.