Nazi ‘shadows’ are not lurking in Europe’s embrace of migrants

Sadly, several modern journalists appear incapable of discussing current events without references to the Holocaust “shaped by contemporaneous values and ideological pressures.”

Syrian migrants queue with others to buy a ticket for a ferry trip to Athens from the Greek island of Lesbos  (photo credit: REUTERS)
Syrian migrants queue with others to buy a ticket for a ferry trip to Athens from the Greek island of Lesbos
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The Holocaust references abound, with no fidelity to historical truth and evidently no reverence for those who suffered and died at the hands of the National Socialists and their collaborators. Europe’s migrant crisis has become the subject of absurd false equivalences, manipulative innuendo, and ahistoric comparisons.
Consider the reaction when Czech police marked identification numbers on migrant’s hands in ink.
“It was horrifying when I saw those images of police putting numbers on people’s arms,” said Hungary’s chief rabbi, Robert Frolich. “It reminded me of Auschwitz.”
It should not remind him of Auschwitz. There is no ethical or factual similarity, not even in the remotest degree, between the horrors of Auschwitz and Europe’s current migrant policy.
Drawing connections this absurd is usually a parlor trick of lazy intellects. However, Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann and mainstream liberal news outlets have joined in the melee of unreason.
Not everyone who comments on current events can be expected to have viewed Shoah, or read Karl Dietrich Bracher’s The German Dictatorship. But we can expect educated people to appreciate the extraordinary gulf between a migrant crisis and the Holocaust.
Today, peaceful European authorities are lawfully facilitating the purposeful entry of non-citizen migrants who desire to enter Europe, and whose lives will be saved or at least improved due to their migration. Under the National Socialists, belligerent Nazis dissolved the Reichstag and suspended civil liberties, then implemented the forced removal of specified German citizens, who were rounded up at gunpoint and sent into forced labor or death camps.
Lebensraum, in the Nazi worldview, required the state to violently press outward, to invade. When a nation enforces immigration law, it seeks only to preserve sovereignty.
The absurd Holocaust comparisons are unfair to both points of comparison. Casual Nazi references diminish the magnitude of the suffering and death caused by the National Socialists. Flippant Holocaust references are a slander upon legitimate parliamentary officials, like Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who does not wish his nation to be treated as a rest stop for migrants.
On the one hand, we have “refugee” camps for migrants who chose to travel to Europe, lured by the inept compassion of European democracies. On the other hand, we have victims of state terrorism – citizens within their own nation – selected on the basis of their ethnicity and targeted for mass murder by a dictatorship.
One would think that there are more apt points of comparison with today’s migrants. Why not compare the current migrant crisis with more modern European refugee polices? Why not compare Europe’s treatment of Middle Eastern migrants to Middle Eastern countries’ treatment of migrants? There might not be a very large sample size, but at least we’d have a comparison with some intelligible rationale behind it.
Instead, some liberal news outlets reach to make the Holocaust comparisons based on particular shards of imagery: “[P]erhaps not since the Jews were rounded up by Nazi Germany have there been as many images coming out of Europe of people locked into trains, babies handed over barbed wire, men in military gear herding large crowds of bedraggled men, women and children,” according to The New York Times.
THE “IMAGES coming out Europe” go through a process of interpretation when the media – or we, the public – view those images. When we see images of people “locked into trains,” a thought process occurs, whereby we decide whether the images of people locked into trains are similar to Jews going to their murder, or similar to tourists going on holiday, or to some other possibility in between. It is manifestly obvious that the people locked in trains today are not on their way to death camps, that they have chosen to enter Europe, and that their lives are saved (or at least improved) by doing so.
Why, then, are some people comparing the migrant crisis with an event sharing no meaningful similarities? Indeed, why is it that people are comparing voluntary migrants to their polar opposite? If the facts do not substantiate the comparisons, then we must look for other explanations.
Perhaps it is a narrow attention span, or a limited imagination, that left The New York Times unable to think of anything other than the Holocaust once people “locked into trains” appeared in the news. Or perhaps the proponent of unlimited migration is seeking to tap into the wellsprings of guilt via Holocaust comparisons.
We can only speculate about motives. What is certain is that there are broadly agreed upon historical facts about the German dictatorship, and there is an identifiable trend in the current migration, bearing no genuine comparison between the two.
Eva Hoffman condemns the “politicization” of the Holocaust, which occurs where portrayals of the Holocaust are “shaped by contemporaneous values and ideological pressures.”
Sadly, several modern journalists appear incapable of discussing current events without references to the Holocaust “shaped by contemporaneous values and ideological pressures.”
For instance, Henry Chu of the Los Angeles Times was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard. In a report headlined “Europe’s refugee crisis is darkened by the shadows of WWII,” Chu writes: “On a continent still haunted by World War II, ghostly – and ghastly – shadows of that convulsive conflict have been impossible to avoid as Europe grapples with its biggest refugee crisis since the war ended 70 years ago.”
What were the ghastly shadows Chu conjured up? It was when Czech authorities wrote numbers, like tattoos, on the hands of Syrian refugees arriving by railway in the city of Breclav; when desperate people aboard other trains, believing themselves bound for their hoped-for destinations, were instead taken to camps they did not want to go to; when an authoritarian leader declared that adherents of a particular religion were not wanted in Europe because they threaten its Christian identity.
Chu sees “shadows” of Nazis because Czech police wrote numbers in pen on migrants’ hands. He sees more “shadows” when supposed refugees are picky about which European destination they’ll go to. Chu sees even more “shadows” when Orban made clear that he has no moral obligation to destabilize his nation in order to accommodate illegal immigrants. Orban only advocated a border policy akin to that of Israel.
Not exactly worshiping the “blood and soil.” Not exactly inviting Kristallnacht.
Similarly, in speaking of the Nazi regime, Rick Lyman of The New York Times intones, “The historical parallels are sometimes inescapable.” Inescapable only if you are determined to politicize the Holocaust.
JOURNALISTS ARE not the only ones perpetuating the charade. Hungary’s chief rabbi says, “And then putting people on a train with armed guards to take them to a camp where they are closed in? Of course there are echoes of the Holocaust.” Note the blatant evasion involved in the use of the word “echoes”; there is no genuine comparison, only one man’s uncanny tendency to hear “echoes” of the past in completely dissimilar current affairs.
Likewise, Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, says, “It’s amazing, really. Certainly those images of the trains can’t help but conjure up nightmares of the Holocaust.”
But of course you can help what you “conjure up” – that’s what thinking is for. And what a revealing way of referring to his own thought process: to “conjure up” is often a way of saying that something is called into being by magic. In that sense, it is quite correct for the director of Human Rights Watch to concede that he “conjured up” the Holocaust in describing the European migrant crisis.
Sometimes a train is just a train. The people locked in trains in Europe today are not on their way to death camps. No amount of guilt or angst or unctuous fondness for Middle Eastern migrants will change that fact.
Debates like the current one remind us that the legacy of our past can be abused. When the past is distorted, we lose the lessons of that history just as we lose sight of the full moral force of the tragedies that occurred.
We should have a vocabulary for talking about migrants that doesn’t reflexively gravitate toward ahistoric Holocaust comparisons. The victims of National Socialism deserve better.
The legacy of the Holocaust should have a sanctity – not immunity from reconsideration or critique, but the sanctity warranted by the victims of National Socialism.
Ideologues will always reach for the most severe and inflammatory comparisons. It is up to those of us who are not ideologues to resist these comparisons. We must criticize those Holocaust comparisons that are slanderous or sacrilegious, which is to say most.
And we should find a way for free nations to have self-determination in selecting who enters their borders, without invoking Hitler – who was himself an Austrian immigrant with a strong sense of entitlement to German citizenship.
■ The author holds his JD from Emory University School of Law and has an MA in social science research from the University of Chicago.