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Referencing the Holocaust

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Please read this great essay by Holocaust historian Timothy Snyder.

A few excerpts:

Analogizing is not some mysterious operation: It is how we think. Every time someone asks you for advice about a situation beyond your personal experience, or every time you are faced with an unfamiliar choice, your mind makes analogies with what you do know. Then you ask questions that allow you to clarify similarities and differences. At some point, you have understood and can act. “Never again” is nothing other than an invocation of that process. We start from what we know about the present and make our way back to the 1930s and 1940s. Once we understand something about the history of the Holocaust, we make our way forward again, seeing patterns we would have missed. If we notice a dangerous one, we should act. Without this effort, though, “never again” becomes its own opposite: “It can’t happen here.”

Any time someone criticizes an analogy for not being exact, you know that person is either an idiot or arguing in bad faith, or both. Analogies are always inexact, by definition. To point out that analogy isn’t perfect is to say nothing of substance, since all analogies are imperfect. The real question is whether it’s useful to point out the similarities between A and B despite the differences between them.

The point here is not that we all have to agree with Ocasio-Cortez’s declaration that “the U.S. is running concentration camps on our southern border.” The point of historical comparisons is not to seek a perfect match—which can never be found—but to learn how to look out for warning signs.

How many people, after all, know that a major act of violence carried out by the Nazi SS was the deportation of Jews deemed to be illegal immigrants? To note this fact at the present moment is to suggest an analogy. Or, rather, the analogy suggests itself, once you know the fact. That is one of the dangers of placing a taboo on analogies: It ensures that we never learn what we need to know.

American policy now is to apply violence to people who lack American citizenship. We subject undocumented migrants to procedures forbidden by international law, such as detention itself, and deny them rights guaranteed by our own Constitution, such as due process of law. These abuses command attention in and of themselves. In historical terms, the worrying thing is that separation from state protection can be the first step toward something much worse. We rightly think of the Holocaust as the attempt to remove Jews from the planet by murdering them all. In its unfolding, however, an important early step was the stigmatization and deportation of Jews who were not German citizens.

On the night of Oct. 28, 1938, the SS rounded up about 17,000 Jews who had Polish citizenship and forced them across the Polish border. Often these were people whose whole lives were in Germany, including children who saw themselves as Germans. Consider the Grynszpan family. Their teenage son, Herschel, was in Paris when his parents and sister were deported. On Nov. 3, he received a postcard from his sister: “Everything is finished for us.” Soon after, Herschel shot and killed a German diplomat. In Berlin, Goebbels used this as a pretext to organize Kristallnacht. It does seem worth asking just how far away we are from a scenario where stigmatization, family separation, and deportation lead to some similar escalation.


The Holocaust could only proceed when state protection was stripped from Jews. The experience of murdered Jews has more to do with statelessness than it does with concentration camps. Roughly half of the Jews murdered in the Holocaust were shot over pits close to their homes. These people had almost never seen a concentration camp. But some of their murderers had, as guards. A concentration camp is a lawless zone, and the SS was an institution that existed beyond the law, in a murkier world defined by Nazi racial ideology. Mass murder was possible when a lawless institution operated in the vast, lawless colony the Germans created in Eastern Europe. The extreme case suggests a general lesson: The rule of law should prevail everywhere, and states of exception should be kept to an absolute minimum.

Here’s a little vignette that ought to be told by a presidential candidate in a nationally televised debate:

At Bełżec, Sobibór, and Treblinka, the stateless Jews of Poland, enclosed in ghettos for a deportation that never happened, were instead dispatched to killing centers. In the summer of 1942, the SS leadership concluded that the food consumed by the Jews working in the Warsaw ghetto was more valuable than the forced labor they were performing. Famished Jews were lured to the transport site by the promise of bread and marmalade.

Yes, the Holocaust had marmalade—in the exhausted minds of tormented Jews. Working bit by bit, you can perhaps understand this history from the perspective of the victims, because you too can imagine the marmalade. You know something about work and something about hunger. You can ask what it would be like to be very hungry after more than a year of forced labor. You can empathize with Bluma Bergman as she recalls that starving Jews in the Warsaw ghetto in 1942 would do anything for a bit of food, “even if you know that you’re going to be killed.” Knowing what it is like to fancy a roll with jam, you can try to conjure at least one of the horrible details of this most horrible history. But you can only do so with analogy, factuality, and empathy.


If you do not think, you will not see where you might go wrong. Last year in my home state of Ohio, ICE used doughnuts to lure hungry migrants to a place where they could be arrested, seizing mothers and leaving children behind. While that is not exactly like using marmalade to lure Jews to the Umschlagplatz, it is not a gambit of which we can be proud. The same kind of mind drew suffering people with sugar in 2018 as in 1942. We can insist on the differences all day, but at the end of the day, we should be ashamed.

But of course to say that an American governmental policy can be analogized usefully to the acts of the SS is to imply that America isn’t really exceptional, and that we might not even be Jesus Christ’s extra special favorite country after all.

Shame on the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum for its intellectually absurd and politically toxic demand that the public not consider the relationship between its subject and any other historical or current events, including those happening in this country at this very moment.

Snyder’s essay is an important rebuke of this Orwellian act by a federally-funded organization. Everyone should read it.

(See also this letter signed by hundreds of historians, condemning the museum’s stance, and calling for its official retraction).

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