Using Holocaust and Nazi Analogies in American Politics: An Interview with Professor Gavriel Rosenfeld

On the 29th of November 2016, State representative Frank Hornstein (DFL) organized a public lecture through the Sabo Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg College entitled The Use of Holocaust and Nazi Analogies in American Politics. The speaker for the event, Professor Gavriel Rosenfeld (Fairfield University), was interviewed for this month’s scholar spotlight.


Dr. Gavriel Rosenfeld

In your presentation, you mention that Holocaust and the Nazi card is employed by liberals against the right wing, and conservatives against the liberals (on abortion, for instance). Where do we draw a line of appropriate comparison? Can it be done?

It is easy to spot polemical comparisons when they grossly exaggerate or distort the facts about a contemporary issue in order to force it to “resemble” something from the Third Reich. There were no “death panels” in the Affordable Care Act, though Tea Party activists tried to imply as much in order to discredit the legislation. Much less were those “panels” in any way comparable to the Nazi euthanasia campaign known as T4. Let me be clear: the act of comparison is perfectly fine. But there are good and bad comparisons. A good one stresses differences as much as similarities. Most partisan comparisons only do the latter.


What does the constant comparison to the Holocaust say about the Holocaust as a historical event in public awareness? 

It’s a paradox. Comparisons keep the Holocaust in the public eye, which is good. But exaggerated comparisons (especially ones that don’t hold up to scrutiny) end up desensitizing people to the magnitude of the Holocaust in reality. And it may lead them to tune out when the event is evoked in the future.


Can the Holocaust be used as a bridging metaphor, which helps raising awareness on other –past and present—Human Rights violations?

Yes, absolutely. During the Yugoslav civil war and the Kosovo crisis in the mid and late 1990s, world awareness of the atrocities going on in Europe was boosted by comparisons to the Holocaust. Again, many of those comparisons stressed differences as well as pointed to similarities. Of course, there are other instances where Holocaust memory could not mobilize public intervention in an atrocity (witness Rwanda). But that should not be blamed on the legacy of the Holocaust, but on political indifference.


Doesn’t Holocaust and Genocide education hinge on learning from history and establishing comparisons with other events?

Definitely. All historical research and teaching involves either implicit or explicit comparisons. We can only learn by recognizing what events and phenomena are singular or are part of a larger pattern or trend. Genocide is an unfortunately common occurrence. The Holocaust is an instance of genocide. That does not mean the Holocaust did not have singular features that were absent from other genocides. But all genocides have their distinct features. Comparisons should not put us in a position of “ranking” genocides in terms of “severity” in a perverse hierarchy. But we should also not lose sight of the ways in which they differ. (This is partly the difference between analyzing a phenomenon from a social science vs. a historical perspective.)


In the article With gratitude toward Donald Trump, Michael Berenbaum wrote that, as an educator, he was grateful to Trump for making it easier for him to explain to his students, how it was possible for the Nazis and Hitler to come to power. Is this a proper use of historical knowledge of Nazism and the Third Reich?

As long as differences are stressed as well as similarities, I have no problem using any comparison as worthy of consideration. The trick is to make students understand that any comparison has the risk of eliding differences. And also of tempting people to make cheap partisan political points. That said, historical analogies are great teaching devices, when used properly.


You discussed normalization of historical memory as an erasure of uniqueness of an event. Is this always a bad thing?

A good question. Normalization is often viewed with concern, as it erodes the moral perspective that people apply to the past (i.e. the desire that certain historical legacies require extra attention because they have special moral lessons). In this view, normalization is equated with forgetting the past, and potentially setting the stage for repeating it. On the other hand, normalization does not have to be bad. It can be welcome, in fact, if a certain historical legacy has too much of a moralistic framework around it. In other words, excessive moralism can lead the past to become distorted. If we view Hitler, for instance, as the incarnation of evil (i.e. a moralistic perspective), we can end up losing sight of his “human” dimensions – i.e. the dimensions that made him popular – and we can fail to understand him. This is the tension between having historians both explain and judge. Too much moralism impedes explanation. Not enough leads them to fall short in their ethical duties. It’s a balancing act.


The concept of aesthetization of the Holocaust seems to work to commodify the suffering so as to enable a more palatable consumption of others’ pain. With the age of twitter memes and the lasting effects of Hollywood movies, is there a way to remedy or prevent aesthetization?

In the free marketplace of ideas, aestheticized representations of any historical event will be common. I tend to recommend counteracting offensive speech with opposing speech. If one sees representations one finds objectionable, one should offer an informed and serious rebuttal. There is no banning any offensive representations of the Holocaust. We know this as Holocaust denial continues to flourish. But I believe we have to marshal facts and build social consensus around their true existence in order to win the debate. It’s not enough just to have the facts on your side, you have to “market” them effectively too.


Lastly, I know you mentioned this in the presentation, but would please expand on why Holocaust analogies are so popular in the U.S. despite the U.S. having a repository of atrocity that Americans can draw from?

It’s not just in the U.S. that Holocaust analogies are common. It’s been common throughout western culture since the 1960s. Non-western cultures are less invested in the analogy, as the Nazis were a deformation of western civilization, not Asian or Latin American or African civilization. That’s why you see Indian and South Korean businesses using Nazi iconography to sell commodities. It’s not seen as offensive. Still today, though, throughout the west, the Third Reich represents the apex of evil for most people. So, it’s become a benchmark for measuring contemporary problems. Let’s hope it stays this way and that no future criminal exceeds Hitler’s crimes, thereby displacing him from the top spot in the hierarchy of villains.


Wahutu Siguru is a PhD candidate in the Sociology department at the University of Minnesota. Siguru’s research interests are in the Sociology of Media, Genocide, Mass Violence and Atrocities (specifically on issues of representation of conflicts in Africa such as Darfur and Rwanda), Collective Memory, and perhaps somewhat tangentially Democracy and Development in Africa.

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