In a press conference on Tuesday, the US President’s Press Secretary Sean Spicer made eye-brow raising comments comparing Hitler and Syria’s President Bashar Assad. “Someone who is despicable as Hitler who didn’t even sink to the, to the, to using chemical weapons.”
Spicer was given a chance to clarify his remarks, and plowed ahead: “He [Hitler] was not using the gas on his own people the same way Assad is doing.” Then he noted that Hitler “brought them [Jews] into the Holocaust centers, I understand that. But I‘m saying in the way that Assad used them where he went into towns, dropped them down to innocent [people].”
After an avalanche of criticism and calls for him to resign, Spicer apologized. “I mistakenly made an inappropriate and insensitive reference to the Holocaust, for which there is no comparison.”
Spicer’s failure to understand the Holocaust and his attempt to make an inept comparison doesn’t come in a vacuum. Twenty-seven years ago when the US was on the verge of going to war to remove Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, George H.W Bush made a similarly bad remark. After Saddam had used human shields, Bush said in a speech that “I don’t believe Adolf Hitler ever participated in anything of that nature.” Like Spicer, he was asked to clarify. “I was told that Hitler did not stake people out against potential military targets.” Bush even appeared to defend Hitler, claiming that unlike Saddam, Hitler respected “the legitimacy of the embassies.” Like Spicer, Bush was excoriated by Jewish groups for his strange comparison. Hitler was “much worse,” noted Rabbi Abraham Cooper, then associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
Bush and Spicer both know about the Holocaust. Bush Sr. flew as a naval aviator in the Second World War. However, their comments stem from a classic misreading of the Shoah, one that is not entirely their fault, but the fault of how Western society has come to understand the Holocaust. Like most Americans I was raised in a public education system that spent a great deal of time on the Holocaust. However, the Holocaust was always taught as separate from the Second World War, a uniquely evil event, almost incomprehensible in its machinery of mass extermination. A quiet bifurcation between “Germans” and “Nazis” is advanced in this telling of history, such that the Nazis are uniquely evil, but the Germans, and the rest of the countries filled with collaborationists such as Italy, Austria, Croatia and beyond, are turned into “victims” of Nazism.
Ronald Reagan visited a German military cemetery in Bitburg in May 1985, where around 1,800 German soldiers who died in the Second World War were buried, and clearly articulated this Janus-faced view of the Holocaust. “Visiting that cemetery where those young men are victims of Nazism also, even though they were fighting in German uniform, drafted into service to carry out the hateful wishes of the Nazis,” he said. Reagan claimed they were “victims of Nazism as surely as the victims of concentration camps.”
Compare that statement in 1985, 40 years after the liberation of Auschwitz, to Spicer’s statement that Hitler didn’t gas his own citizens the way Assad does, and you can begin to understand how Holocaust education has led generations to believe that the Holocaust is some sort of otherworldly event, unconnected with Hitler’s Wehrmacht legions. There is Holocaust Hitler, and then German army commander Hitler. In some revisionist history, Hitler is presented as not even intending for a Holocaust to happen.
We have often been taught to believe that the war effort by Germany is somehow separate from the persecution of Jews and others. Germany didn’t use poison gas in its war effort. It didn’t use human shields. Its regular soldiers, in contrast to the SS, were “victims” of Nazism, innocent young men sent to die on the Eastern front. Gone is the reality, wherein Germans voted for Hitler, wherein Germans mostly did not resist Nazism, wherein most Germans thought Hitler’s victories were quite good until the war turned against them. It is convenient to imagine “only the SS” were guilty of the Holocaust, not the innocent German army, despite books by Daniel Goldhagen and David Cesarani that clearly show the opposite.
Let’s recalls what happened on the island of Cephalonia, Greece, in September 1943. Italian troops, whose government had surrendered to the Allies, refused to surrender to their former German colleagues on the island. The German High Command told its soldiers that “no prisoners are to be taken” and the local commanders of German units, the 1st Mountain Division and 104th Jager Division, executed 5,155 Italian soldiers. In another incident, German General Hubert Lanz ordered the execution of 280 Italian officers in Corfu. These weren’t SS officers, but regular German army officers. The same thing happened on Crete when German paratroops participated in the mass murder of Greeks at Kondomari and at Kandanos and the razing of the village of Anogeia. Regular German infantry units under General Friedrich-Wilhelm Muller participated, not hard-core Nazis.
When Spicer said he was wrong to make a comparison and that there “is no comparison,” he reinforced our detachment of the Holocaust from the historical reality. There are things that are comparable to the Holocaust. ISIS crimes against Yazidis were a systematic human and cultural genocide similar in kind to Nazi atrocities, albeit on a much smaller scale. Saddam’s gassing of the Kurds had commonalities with the Nazi crimes, and with the crimes that regular German soldiers carried out in Italy, Ukraine, Serbia, Greece and elsewhere. Assad’s crimes against the Syrian people can be compared to the crimes of Germans and collaborators in Austria, France and elsewhere during the war. One Syrian described the actions of Assad’s air force as similar to the Luftwaffe’s bombing of Guernica in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War.
Assad’s crimes don’t look like concentration camps; they look more like what the Germans did to Soviet citizens during the war, where some 20 million people were killed, some 10 million or more of whom were civilians. One researcher estimated that 2,164,313 Soviet citizens died in forced labor camps in Germany. Who killed all these people? Who depopulated Ukraine and Belorussia and saw the Slavic people as subhumans? Assad has depopulated Syria of some 5 million people, and turned 6 million into internally displaced persons. It is appropriate to compare some of the crimes of Hitler and his German soldiers to Assad’s, at least in reference to the war crimes, not even mentioning the systematic murder of Jews. Why flee from comparisons?
The Spicer Holocaust affair, unfortunately, provided yet another chance to place the Holocaust in a room by itself, partially because we want it to be a uniquely evil event, but also because we don’t want to discuss how it interacts with the overall policy of the German government during the war. MSNBC’s Chris Matthews also said, in 2013, that “Hitler didn’t use them [chemical weapons].” On Tuesday he said, “I remember all the horrible pictures coming out of World War I from battlefield use of gas and the gas masks and what it did to people. And even when Hitler, the worst person ever perhaps, was surrounded, they didn’t resort to that in the battlefield.” The key here is “battlefield,” as if somehow use of chemical weapons against soldiers is worse than gassing civilians.
Other voices have not helped in this matter. The philosopher Hannah Arendt infamously described the German architect of mass murder, Adolf Eichmann, as “banal,” a member of a totalitarian bureaucracy, not an active agent of murder. We’ve been led to believe the Holocaust was carried out by faceless bureaucrats “following orders,” rather than admit the zealousness with which the murderers sought out Jews to kill. We don’t want to admit that they enjoyed killing, that they raped Jewish women, and took part in 6 million individual murders.
Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London, made controversial comments last year in which he claimed that Hitler was “supporting Zionism, this before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.” Hitler didn’t “go mad” and “kill” Jews. He and his followers set out to murder Jews. Remember Kristallnacht in 1938 when 1,000 synagogues were burned, an extension of the Nuremberg laws of 1935 which stripped Jews of citizenship, tarring them as pariahs, barring them from sexual relations with those of “German or related blood.”
Our modern education wants a simpler reading of history, where Hitler went “crazy” and 6 million ended up dead at the hands of Nazis, not at the hands of Germans or Croat Ustache. Marine Le Pen similarly said last week that France is not responsible for the rounding up of 13,000 Jews in 1942. “If someone was responsible, it was those who were in power at the time, which is not France.” Notice the word “if,” as if there is some question as to whether anyone is responsible. Who rounded the Jews up? Who collected their names? Not “France.” Some unworldly government of Vichy, not composed of French collaborators.
It seems every day there is some abuse of Holocaust memory. We are coming to the point in history where any responsibility for the Holocaust will be whitewashed away. The mass murder will be made banal, will be made so far removed from its reality, so universal and at the same time particular, that we will lose all understanding of it. What Spicer he should have said is: “Assad committed 0.01% of the Holocaust in this specific gas attack, but the Assad regime’s overall crimes remind us of the evils of the Second World War and Nazi atrocities.” Then we would have put things in context.