Trump administration seems to be willing to resist seeking any guidance from history
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There are comparisons and there are comparisons. It's good and common practice to compare the horrors of the Holocaust with other genocides in order to find out what makes the mass murder of the European Jews by the Nazis unique, and what features it has in common with other cases of man-made slaughter.
Then there are comparisons such as the one used by White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer at a White House press conference this week. In reference to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons Mr. Spicer said: “You know, you had someone as despicable as Hitler who didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons.”
Ignoring the fact that the German state and the SS murdered several million European Jews by poison gas in gas chambers, Mr. Spicer displayed a nonchalant ignorance towards the plight of the European Jews in general. Holocaust museums and research centres, such as Leicester’s Stanley Burton Centre for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, reacted in disbelief and protest.
The day before, French presidential candidate, Marine Le Pen had suggested that France was not responsible for the wartime round up of Jews and for sending them to Nazi death camps, whilst the role played by French police in the rounding up of 13,000 Jews in Paris is beyond dispute. Earlier this year, German far-right politician Björn Höcke told supporters that Germans –in reference to Berlin’s Holocaust memorial- were the "only people in the world who planted a memorial of disgrace in the heart of their capital". Le Pen’s and Höcke’s make it plain clear that right-wing politicians have issues with the universal lessons of the Holocaust, and that they—whether subconsciously or because of their agendas—aim to reverse the clock and to downplay the Holocaust (or the role of the own country in this crime).
To be fair, that is not what Sean Spicer said, and despite worrying signs of anti-Semitism and admiration for the Nazis in parts of the alt-right movement, the Trump administration has so far not minimised the Holocaust (even though President Trump has managed to publish a statement for Holocaust Remembrance Day without any reference to Jews).
What worries me here is that the Trump administration seems to be willing to resist seeking any guidance from history. Whether it comes to the history of migration, the transatlantic relationship, or the Arab–Israeli conflict, the new administration is blunt and careless when it comes to historic sensibilities. This is little surprising for a movement that portrays itself as anti-establishment and that promised to break new paths. History, however, teaches us that populist slogans like “make America great again” are dangerous and false.
Not only across Europe had populist leaders come to power across Europe in the 1920s and 30s. They promised to restore glory and honour, and they blamed ethnic or political groups for the alleged problems of their countries. It was the United States, in the 1930s that largely resisted the populist temptation, by slowly overcoming isolationism and by opening itself to the world and global problems. Many survivors of the Holocaust owe their lives to the liberation of the Nazi camps by US troops.
Hitler- and Holocaust-comparisons are very popular, but they hardly ever work. They distract from the actual problems, and they do not help to clarify complicated problems. Comparison is a complicated method, which I use with my students in the classroom to discuss structural similarities, and differences, say, between the crises of the 1930s and the 2010s, between populist movements, or between types of leadership or warfare. In that respect, comparing Assad to Hitler does not work, especially with the often-used line: “Even worse than Hitler…”. It aims to serve as an eye-opener, but in the end it does not explain anything and serves to minimise the Holocaust. However, the same applies for comparisons the other way around. It would be equally stupid to compare Trump to Hitler in a press release.
Dr Alexander Korb is Director of the Stanley Burton Centre for Holocaust and Genocide Studies and Senior Lecturer in Modern European History, at the School of History, Politics and International Relations, University of Leicester