I’m extremely cautious about invoking comparisons among the Holocaust, genocides, and current-day events. Too often comparisons display a lack of knowledge about the depth and breadth of the Holocaust, elements crucial to an accurate account of historic events.
As a docent at the Holocaust Center for Humanity, I hear visitors making statements such as “never again is now” or “this feels like 1933 Germany,” with respect to current events. To my ear, these references are inaccurate. Although there is racism and prejudice in our country, this is not like Germany in 1933. The United States has a history of and commitment to democracy. Our government system is structured with checks and balances so that the president does not have the power to institute racist laws as Hitler did by enacting the Nuremberg Laws. The extent of our checks was evident when the district court overturned President Trump’s initial executive order on immigration.
Hitler’s Nazi government endorsed and authorized discrimination and violence against Jews. Nazi propaganda demonized Jews. In Nazi-run concentration camps, Jewish victims were subjected to forced labor under brutal conditions and unthinkable medical experiments. Jews were deported from all over Europe to death camps.
Every single Jew was targeted for annihilation. The industry of death took time, planning, support, and collaboration with many people and corporations, such as Ford and IBM. Every Nazi party official, bureaucrat, receptionist, and secretary profited. The totality and global nature of the Holocaust and its industrial and institutional elements distinguish it as unparalleled with other genocides and current events.
The Holocaust is not totally removed from other genocides, and I believe there is no hierarchy of suffering. It serves as a benchmark rather than a comparison. Its geographic scope, killing process, ideology, supporters, and bystanders turned the Holocaust into an event that changed the way people think about the twentieth century.
Devin E. Naar
While we should compare historical events, comparisons to the Holocaust are often so simplified and decontextualized that the Holocaust ceases to be connected to the realities of human experience and becomes an abstraction —a metaphor for evil — that trivializes actual human suffering. It’s nearly cliché to compare today’s Syrian refugees to Jews fleeing the Nazis in the 1930s. The rejoinder should not be that the Holocaust was the worst genocide in history whereas the Syrian civil war is merely a humanitarian crisis. Instead of engaging in victimhood Olympics, we should ask whether there are similarities between the plight of actual people fleeing Europe then and Syria today. If so, should we act now in a way we would have wanted our society to have acted when confronted with Jewish refugees?
Jews then, like Muslims today, were unfairly denounced as security threats. Jews from the Ottoman Empire were decried as “Terrible Turks”; those from Europe as communists and German spies. Muslims are now reviled as potential terrorists and ISIS infiltrators. Immigration restrictions were implemented in 1924 to keep Jews (and others) out. Today’s migrant bans seek to exclude Muslims. Underlying “security” issues were and remain a desire to preserve the country’s imagined white, Christian identity.
The issue is personal. My great uncle, born in the Muslim milieu of the Ottoman Empire, was denied admission into the US throughout the 1930s due to immigration quotas. In 1938, he frantically wrote in Ladino to American relatives: “Truly, we have done everything we can, and we don’t know what to do; our [fate] is out of our hands, and it is in yours.” Unsuccessful, my great uncle and his family, and nearly all of Salonica’s 50,000 Jews, perished in Auschwitz.
We need not establish an equivalency between the Holocaust and the Syrian civil war as acts of ultimate evil. Both constitute tragedies. If we can do anything to help suffering people, we must do so. That’s the message of “never again.”