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Huckabee, the Holocaust and the degradation of political discourse

Huckabee, the Holocaust and the degradation of political discourse
John Dickerson of CBS (left) tried to elicit a smidgen of shame from former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee on Sunday. He failed. (CBS)

Like a child caught in a misdeed, hoping that repeating a transparent denial will make the accusation go away, presidential aspirant Mike Huckabee has gone on TV to double- and triple-down on his charge that President Obama's Iran deal will "take the Israelis and march them to the door of the oven."

On Sunday, Huckabee defended his disgusting allusion to the Holocaust on CBS' "Face the Nation." He's also done so on CNN and even apparently issued a fundraising appeal based on it. Perhaps Huckabee, the Republican former governor of Arkansas, thinks that standing firm in the face of widespread condemnation will establish him as a man who meant what he said and said what he meant, one hundred percent.

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It won't. It will establish Huckabee as a man who will say anything to get attention, and as a man who has no conception of what the Holocaust means.

There's nothing new about this, unfortunately. Politicians, mostly Republicans, have been evoking Nazi Germany to attack Obama's policies, chiefly the Affordable Care Act, for years. (cf. Ted Cruz.)

Not only politicians: Last year, the billionaire venture capitalist Tom Perkins invoked the Nazi regime to illustrate the harshness of the social difficulties faced by his friends among the 1%. He wrote in the Wall Street Journal, "I would call attention to the parallels of fascist Nazi Germany to its war on its 'one percent,' namely its Jews, to the progressive war on the American one percent, namely the 'rich.'"

A couple of things are happening here. One is what we might call the "Trump effect" on the race for the GOP nomination. Donald Trump's act of performance art known as his presidential run has sucked up so much media attention that the only chance for down-ticket candidates like Huckabee to get noticed is to say something really provocative. Like talking about Jews being marched to the oven. Expect more of this, as America's political discourse becomes more degraded.

The other phenomenon is the disappearance of public knowledge and understanding about the Holocaust. In part this is a function of time, but it's also the product of repeated, cheap usages by opportunistic politicians like Mike Huckabee. The more politicians talk in these terms, the more the truth loses its capacity to shock.

So it's essential to remind people what the Holocaust was. My examples here come from a stirring and harrowing 2011 book by historian Deborah Lipstadt, "The Eichmann Trial," about that world-shattering 1961 event. Many people may have forgotten about the case--the kidnapping of Adolf Eichmann, an architect of the Final Solution, by the Israelis and his public trial in Jerusalem--but Lipstadt makes the deserving point that the trial was what cemented the Holocaust in public memory worldwide as a unique marker of human evil.

Lipstadt is unsparing in her reconstruction of some of the testimony. Here are some excerpts from her text, so that they cannot be forgotten.

"Witness Max Burger told the court what (Eichmann) had said: 'The Führer has promised the Jews a new homeland. There are no flats and no houses; if you carry out the construction you will have a roof over your head. There is no water. Wells in the whole area are infested; cholera, dysentery, and typhoid are rampant. If you start digging and find water, then you will have water.' After walking a number of kilometers, they were told to leave their luggage and climb up to the site of the proposed settlement. Horse-drawn carts brought the luggage to the foot of the site. The horses were then released. The men were harnessed to the carts and instructed to pull them up the hill. Eventually, those who could not work were considered too old— over forty— were driven off in the direction of Soviet territory.

...

"Rivka Yoselewska...told the court how a German shooter debated whom to shoot first, her or the child she was holding. After the child was shot, she fell into the pit that already held the bodies of most of her family. Miraculously, she was later able to crawl out. When she did, she saw a fountain of blood spurting from the ground.

...

"Professor Georges Wellers (described) the Jewish children in France who were rounded up in July 1942 and brought to Drancy, the camp outside of Paris, without their parents. They slept over a hundred to a room on 'straw mattresses on the ground—mattresses which were filthy, disgusting, and full of vermin,' many with no adult allowed nearby. It was not uncommon for them to awake during the night screaming for their parents. Some were too young to know their own names. Since they had already been interned in other camps, their state of cleanliness was 'frightful.' This was compounded by the waves of diarrhea that affected many of them....The four thousand children, rounded up by the French police, were all deported to Auschwitz a few weeks later on Eichmann's orders. When the time came for that deportation, many of the children fought and had to be brought to the roundup place 'struggling and screaming.'

...

"At one point, fifteen thousand prisoners were ordered by SS men armed with machine guns and bayonets to watch as a young boy was brought to be hanged. The child was lifted up to the gallows, but the rope broke. Beisky recalled, 'He was again lifted on to a high chair which was placed under the rope.' The child then "began to beg for mercy. An order was then given to hang him a second time.

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...

"He told of his student Tsherna Morgenstern, a 'tall upstanding girl' with 'wonderful eyes,' who was taken with her classmates to Ponary. An SS officer ordered her to step forward: 'Don't you want to live— you are so beautiful.… It would be a pity to bury such beauty in the ground. Walk, but don't look backwards.' As she walked away, her classmates watched with envy until the officer shot her in the back.

...

"The Hungarian Arrow Cross, the National Socialist group that had assumed control of the government in October, barbarically murdered thousands of Jews who had survived the Nazis. Some were tied together and pushed into the Danube. ... Eichmann had gone to Hungary intent on organizing 'a deportation, surpassing every preceding operation in magnitude.' He succeeded. Over a half-million Hungarian Jews had died from poor conditions or had been murdered. In the space of less than eight weeks, approximately 145 trains had left for Auschwitz carrying about 440,000 Jews. Tens of thousands of others died during the marches to the Reich or from barbaric treatment while still in Hungary."

This--THIS--is the depravity that Huckabee chooses to exploit to score a cheap political point. His interviewers at CNN and CBS struggled to figure out how to call him to account for it. ("Has there ever been a modern debate where an argument was won by using a Nazi analogy?" "Face the Nation" host John Dickerson asked him, wanly.) Instead, they allowed him to prattle on about how he knows whereof he speaks because he's visited Israel "dozens of times" and "stood in Auschwitz for three different occasions" and seen the ovens with his own eyes.

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If he really gained any understanding at all from his acts of tourism, he would have known that his exploitation of the Holocaust stands as a profound affront to the victims and survivors of Nazi atrocity, and to history. No one as deaf and blind to the shameful inappropriateness of his own words deserves to be taken seriously as a participant in public discourse, much less hold even a speck of credibility as a political candidate.

Lipstadt quotes the opening trial statement of Eichmann's chief prosecutor, Gideon Hausner: "With me in this place and at this hour, stand six million accusers. But they cannot rise to their feet and point an accusing finger towards the man who sits in the glass dock.... Their blood cries out, but their voices are not heard. Therefore it falls to me to be their spokesman."

Hausner was pilloried at the time for presuming to pose as the spokesman for the Six Million. Yet his words even today carry an awesome weight. For Mike Huckabee, or any of his fellow politicos, to dare to speak for them in the same vein is to reach a level of vanity and ignorance that is literally inexcusable.

Keep up to date with the Economy Hub. Follow @hiltzikm on Twitter, see our Facebook page, or email michael.hiltzik@latimes.com.

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