The leaders of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington presumably thought they were standing up for truth and fairness when they issued a statement condemning attempts to draw analogies between the Holocaust and contemporary American politics — notably the Trump administration’s immigration policies.
The museum “unequivocally rejects efforts to create analogies between the Holocaust and other events, whether historical or contemporary,” the statement read. It referred readers to a 2018 position paper lamenting that “the Holocaust has become shorthand for good vs. evil,” which it called “sloppy analogizing.” That statement specifically decried “accusations of ‘Nazism’ and ‘fascism’ against federal authorities for their treatment of children separated from their parents at the US border with Mexico.”
Instead of putting the matter to rest, however, the museum’s statements have only intensified the debate over Trump policies and the lessons of the Holocaust. An open letter calling on the museum to retract its most recent statement and currently bearing the signatures of more than 560 Holocaust scholars and historians was delivered on July 1 to the New York Review of Books, which promptly published it online.
That the next atrocity will be different than the last one is not a reason to let it happen. It will be ours, and we have been warned.
One of the signatories, Yale Holocaust historian Timothy Snyder, published an essay on the debate at Slate.com on July 12. “A monopoly on historical interpretation, claimed by a single institution, is a mark of authoritarianism,” Snyder wrote, adding that “one of the dangers of placing a taboo on analogies … ensures that we never learn what we need to know.”
Snyder and his fellow signers are right, and the museum is wrong. Its aim is to defend the notion of the Holocaust — the systematic murder of 6 million European Jews and the destruction of their culture — as a unique event in human history and to warn that “sloppy analogizing” risks diluting the power of the Holocaust as a lesson in human behavior and distracting us “from the real issues challenging our society.”
It may have been fair enough to deride this habit of casual analogizing in 1990, when the lawyer Mike Godwin formulated his rule. But is it still so, in the era of Trump? The administration’s treatment of immigrants may not resemble the systematic slaughter of millions practiced by the Nazis, but other elements of Trump’s policies and rhetoric bear striking resemblance to those of German in the 1930s and 1940s.
The mechanized murder of the death camps was only the ultimate expression of Nazi policy, as the term “Final Solution” indicates. Yet years of increasingly vitriolic and violent propaganda and practice preceded that cataclysmic phase.
In the 1990s, it was unimaginable that a U.S. President would issue openly racist statements as Trump did over the weekend, when he called on four women of color who are members of the U.S. House of Representatives to “go back” where they came from — notwithstanding that three of them are American-born and all are U.S. citizens. The utter silence from Trump’s Republican colleagues also parallels the complicity of German leaders and citizens in the rise of Nazism. Trump’s targets were Democratic Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota. All are U.S.-born except Omar, who was born in Somalia and is a naturalized U.S. citizen.
The national Republican establishment appears to embrace this complicity. As of this writing, only a tiny handful of GOP politicians at the federal level have condemned Trump’s weekend tweets for their racism. Vice President Mike Pence, fresh from a tour of border facilities, denied the evidence of his own eyes and others’. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who joined Pence on the tour, said he had no objection to keeping the incarcerated migrants in the foul, overcrowded facility. “I don’t care if they have to stay in these facilities for 400 days, we’re not going to let those men go that I saw,” he said on Fox News.
So interesting to see “Progressive” Democrat Congresswomen, who originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe, the worst, most corrupt and inept anywhere in the world (if they even have a functioning government at all), now loudly......— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 14, 2019
....it is done. These places need your help badly, you can’t leave fast enough. I’m sure that Nancy Pelosi would be very happy to quickly work out free travel arrangements!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 14, 2019
In that light, the Holocaust Museum’s view of its mission as communicating the “history” of the Holocaust seems crabbed and narrow. Its real mission is to communicate the lesson that, unique as the Holocaust was in scale, the evil that brought it about lurks in the psyche of humans in groups, and may not be visible from the outset.
Let’s take a closer look.
Concerns about the inhumanity of Trump’s immigration policies have been building virtually since he announced his candidacy for president in 2015, when he derided Mexican immigrants for bringing drugs to the U.S. and adding, “They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists….They’re sending us not the right people.”
Along the same lines, Graham described the men in the facilities he viewed as criminals. “What I saw is a bunch of people who have been here before, broke the law before, and we’re not going to let them go,” he said.
So, yes, Ocasio-Cortez’s formulation became a distraction. But was it untrue or unfair? Not according to Andrea Pitzer, who placed the current system of immigrant detention camps in historical context for the New York Review. “Simply look at what we’re doing right now, shoving bodies into “dog pound”-style detention pens, “iceboxes,” and standing room-only spaces,” she wrote. “We can look at young children in custody who have become suicidal. How much more historical awareness do we really need?”
Indeed, the Holocaust Museum itself defines “concentration camp” as “a camp in which people are detained or confined, usually under harsh conditions and without regard to legal norms of arrest and imprisonment that are acceptable in a constitutional democracy.”
The museum further distinguishes a concentration camps from a prison in that the former “functions outside of a judicial system. The prisoners are not indicted or convicted of any crime by judicial process.” These words from the museum are as precise a definition as you might wish of the camps maintained by the administration on the southern border.
What’s most striking about current administration practice is how it resembles the pre-Final Solution treatment of Jews in Germany and Nazi-controlled portions of Europe. As the late Lucy S. Dawidowicz documented in her 1975 book “The War Against the Jews, 1933-1945,” the process was evolutionary.
It began with the exclusion of Jews from jobs and positions of civic responsibility and was followed by their mass relocation from their homes and communities. This took place against the backdrop of an official statement demeaning Jews as aliens, immigrants and strangers. Dawidowicz reported a standard lecture for SS units: “The Jew is a parasite. Wherever he flourishes, the people die,” and calling for expulsion of Jews from the community as “an emergency defense measure.”
Compare that to Trump’s depiction of Mexican immigrants as bringers of drugs, criminals and rapists, and his efforts to place his campaign against immigration in the context of “national security.”
Dawidowicz further documents the deliberate disintegration of Jews’ physical surroundings and personal conditions. “Most refugees were housed in unused school buildings or other facilities never intended to be dormitories,” she wrote. “The sheer numbers in these placements broke down the plumbing systems and, consequently, the possibilities of personal hygiene and public sanitation.”
Compare that to the statement by government lawyer Sarah Fabian in a federal courtroom last month, defending conditions at a children’s detention center, that the government was not required to provide soap, toothbrushes, or beds to children detained at the Mexican border. Conditions described by an incredulous federal judge as “cold all night long, lights on all night long, sleeping on concrete and you’ve got an aluminum foil blanket.”
As Snyder observes, the process applied to refugees at the border starts with depriving them of the shelter of legal due process and proceeds to depriving them of physical shelter. Trump threats to stage raids of immigrant communities aim to inject fear and terror into those communities, discouraging their residents from seeking legal and medical assistance. Make no mistake: This is the Nazi trendline, pure and simple.
“Unlike the ghettos of Nazi Europe,” Snyder wrote in Slate, the detention camps “do not serve the horrifying vision of the physical elimination of an entire society. They do, however, serve a politics of us and them in which we are the good and lawful ones and they are the evil and lawless ones.”
To many Holocaust scholars, parallels between Nazi-era policies and America’s treatment of migrants are inescapable. UCLA sociologist Aliza Luft points to “the use of dehumanizing language to describe the immigrant community and ... the silence of important political and moral authorities (i.e., congressmen and women, religious leaders) in response.”
Dehumanizing language, Luft told me by email, “does not cause violence, but it helps pave the way when others are silent by normalizing extreme perspectives, raising the costs of protest, and granting legitimacy to those who believe entire social groups are threats to the national community.”
In this atmosphere, it’s not proper for the Holocaust Museum to fence off the Holocaust from its analogies to the present day. Edna Friedberg the Holocaust Museum historian who wrote its 2018 statement, argued there that “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.”
That’s correct. But what that doesn’t excuse from seeing and exposing the parallels between the methods, policies and rhetoric of the Trump administration and Nazi practices. Luft properly observes that no scholar is arguing that “genocide is next.” But the behavior of the Trump administration is “absolutely a parallel. And it is a parallel we should all fight to change. Mass murder need not be the only form of state violence deserving of protest.”
The museum’s objection to historical analogy is “preparing the way for tomorrow’s horror” Snyder wrote. “That the next atrocity will be different than the last one is not a reason to let it happen. It will be ours, and we have been warned.”