The Irish Times, April 18, 2023
The liberal sprinkling of the word ‘Nazi’ in everyday use perhaps signals that modern society accepts nazism as the nadir of human behaviour
A few years ago, urban myth in Los Angeles had the Disney Corporation described by employees as “Mauschwitz”. So regularly was this moniker heard, the legend goes, that senior management circulated a memo stating that any employee found using the term would face instant dismissal. This being a creative business, in short order Disney was allegedly being referred to as “Duckau”.
The liberal sprinkling of the word “Nazi” in everyday use is not to my taste, but perhaps it signals that modern society accepts nazism as the nadir of human behaviour, a period so unimaginably evil that for atheists it represents hell. If the word “Nazi” is replaced with “devil”, then we may understand how, for most people, the horrors of the Nazis are beyond comprehension, taking on almost mythical status.
And here lies the danger. The history of the Holocaust is extremely well documented, one that remains in living memory. In a contemporary world of active revisionism and denial spanning all political and social strata, infecting every continent, is it possible to refer to – or compare the Holocaust to – the actions of individuals or states without diluting its history and dishonouring the victims, for whom any trivialisation is especially painful? Is it possible to invoke the Holocaust without instantly losing the argument?
In 2018, the Trump administration enacted a policy of separating refugee parents from their children at the border with Mexico. An outcry in sections of the press equated this policy with the Holocaust. Deborah Lipstadt, the famous Holocaust historian, stated that this comparison was historically inaccurate because the Nazis’ policy was mass extermination, not the separation of families it considered illegal refugees. Beyond the false equivalence, Lipstadt was also concerned such lazy comparisons would allow the Trump administration to dismiss such criticisms as disproportionate hyperbole.
But the Nazis did have a separation policy; those considered to have learning or physical difficulties were separated from their families. They became the first victims of Nazi euthanasia. Seventy thousand were killed in the notorious T4 programme beginning in 1939. Separation first, extermination later.
Recently, Gary Lineker, presenter of BBC’s Match of the Day, caused a crisis with his employerwhen he tweeted that the UK government’s new policy on immigration “used language not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the 1930s”. I discussed this with David Baddiel, comedian, author and Jewish activist during his recent visit to Dublin when Holocaust Awareness Ireland held an event with him at Trinity College. Baddiel’s view is that Lineker’s tweet was wrong for two principal reasons.
The Holocaust needs to be understood within the parameters of its own historical context. The unique campaign to eradicate one ethnicity, the Jews, must never be diluted, distorted or denied.
As with the US treatment of refugees five years ago, the UK is not singling out its own citizens and deporting them, as Nazi Germany had with its Jewish citizens in the 1930s. A better comparison might be China’s treatment of their own Uighur citizens or indeed the UK’s treatment of German residents in 1940, most of whom were interned on the Isle of Man (99 per cent were Jewish, including Baddiel’s own grandfather).
Alas, the Nazis also had a xenophobic attitude towards “non-Aryan” immigrants, a policy influenced by American white supremacy of the 1920s who lent the Nazis much of the racist lexicon that would become the foundation stone of their political convictions.
His second concern was that such comparisons dilute the significance of the Holocaust, especially in terms of taking ownership of the tragedy away from Jews. The Holocaust is, indubitably, a Jewish experience.
While I broadly agree with both Baddiel and Lipstadt – and generally denounce comparisons to the Holocaust for all the reasons already stated – I find an increasing affinity to Lineker’s statement, not because of his activism (he spends money and time working to help refugees) but because of the role of language in the creeping assault on democracy.
The Holocaust happened incrementally. Hitler spewed out his hateful manifesto in Mein Kampf in 1924, blaming the Jews for Germany’s defeat in the first World War, simultaneously controlling the global economy and Bolshevism, and weakening the Aryan bloodline. Accordingly, Germany could only be saved by the elimination of European Jewry: the blueprint for the policies that would follow. However, the mass murder of the Jews did not begin until the autumn of 1939. Auschwitz only implemented the Final Solution in February 1942.
Nazi language became more extreme with the passing of the Nuremberg laws in 1935 forbidding Jews, among many other prohibitions, access to public places, bank accounts and sexual relations with “Aryans”. In August 1938, male Jews were forced to adopt the name “Israel” and females “Sarah”; their individuality was stripped of all identity and basic rights.
The demonisation of Germany’s Jewish citizens in language most considered as fringe lunacy, only a few years earlier, was normalised by the early 1930s. In the general election of 1928 Hitler’s vote share was only 2 per cent. The mobilisation of language, through relentless propaganda, allowed the Nazis to dismantle democracy. We are witnessing the dangerous manipulation of language today.
Trump referred to Mexicans as rapists and the refugees coming to the southern border as invaders. “Stop the boats,” the UK government’s anti-refugee slogan, creates the same fear of invasion. (It does not say “Save their souls”.) Similar language is deployed by populists across Europe. The Great Replacement theory which also has its origins in 1920s America, claims that Jewish elites intend to dilute the white nation with brown-skinned people to maintain global domination. This conspiracy theory has now crept into the mainstream.
The Holocaust needs to be understood within the parameters of its own historical context. The unique campaign to eradicate one ethnicity, the Jews, must never be diluted, distorted or denied. However, it is no consolation to those refugees risking their lives in the hope of leading a just life, with the protections we take for granted, that their circumstances do not compare to the Holocaust, a time in history when demonisation led to extermination.
The Holocaust is strewn with bewildering statistics. One point five million children alone were murdered by bullets, by cyanide gas and deliberate starvation. Hitler’s language of blood and soil had allowed ordinary citizens to believe that these murders were justified to save their own existence. Learning about the Holocaust can temper our worst instincts, once we understand how language permitted it to happen.
Oliver Sears is a London-born, Dublin-based art dealer and gallery owner. He is the son of a Holocaust survivor and founder of Holocaust Awareness Ireland.