MISAPPROPRIATING the history of the Third Reich to advance political agendas has a very long history in America, but rose to epidemic levels during the last days of the presidency of Donald J Trump.
Hardly a day went by without some prominent and supposedly historically literate individual comparing Trump or the actions of his followers to events that took place during those terrible 12 years in which Hitler and his Nazi henchmen ruled Germany.
For example, within days of the riot by Trump supporters at the US Capitol on January 6, the former governor of California, Austro-American bodybuilder and film star Arnold Alois Schwarzenegger, compared it to Kristallnacht, aka the Night of Broken Glass.
This was one of the ugliest and most destructive anti-semitic pogroms in modern history, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of German and Austrian Jews and the wholesale destruction of Jewish property.
It is no wonder that historians tend to view the terrible events of the night of November 9-10, 1938, which also saw numerous suicides and the incarceration of around 3,000 Jews in concentration camps, as the beginning of the Holocaust.
Yet none of this stopped Schwarzenegger from comparing this unspeakably dark episode in Austro-German history to the chaotic melee that took place at the US Capitol, likening the Proud Boys – some of whom, it is alleged, participated in the violence in Washington DC –to the paramilitary thugs who murdered Jews and burned and desecrated synagogues during Kristallnacht.
Nor did it stop CNN’s Christiane Amanpour from equating Donald Trump’s entire presidency to Kristallnacht, which she described as an attack on ‘fact, knowledge, history and truth’, curiously leaving out any mention of the Jews who were the actual targets and victims of that atrocity, an omission the American Jewish Committee’s CEO, David Harris, accurately called a ‘misuse of history’.
Israel’s Diaspora Affairs minister, Omer Yankelevitch, expressed what many Jews and non-Jews were thinking. ‘Using the memory of the Holocaust for cheap headlines or a political agenda,’ she said, ‘is concerning and distorts the historical and moral truth.’ But such rebukes are noticeable by their absence.
The distortions and misuses of history of which both Schwarzenegger and Amanpour are guilty are all too common these days.
While Amanpour issued an apology of sorts, conceding that ‘Hitler and his evils stand alone, of course, in history’, Schwarzenegger will not apologise and no one is demanding he should do so.
To my knowledge, no historian or scholar of the Holocaust has called him out for relativising an event that anticipated the near annihilation of Europe’s Jews. Indeed, he has been lauded for his passionate defence of American democracy and for issuing a ‘stinging rebuke of Donald Trump’.
Having been born and raised in post-war Austria, Schwarzenegger weaponised his Austrian heritage to give his historiographical musings an air of subjective authenticity: ‘I grew up in Austria, I’m very aware of Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass. It was a night of rampage against the Jews carried out in 1938 by the Nazi equivalent of the Proud Boys. Wednesday was the day of broken glass right here in the United States. The broken glass was in the windows of the United States Capitol.’
Broken windows at the US Capitol, however, do not make the clumsy violence that took place there on January 6 analogous to Kristallnacht, and to suggest otherwise is an obscene misuse of history and an insult to those who died or suffered unimaginable horrors in the death camps and those who mourned them and continue to mourn them.
But who cares about distorting history or insulting those poor souls who experienced its horrors? As long as Trump is the target, say what you will, make the most ridiculous or inappropriate comparison to Hitler or the Nazis, and people will say what a perceptive fellow you are and praise you for your historical literacy.
When I taught history to teenage boys, I was forever warning them about the dangers of making the sort of ridiculous historical comparisons that are all the rage these days, especially comparisons to the history of the Third Reich.
I taught them that when Joe Scarborough of MSNBC compared Immigrant and Customs Enforcement agents to Nazis guards telling children on the border they were going ‘to the showers’ and ‘never coming back’; and that when former CIA director Michael Hayden tweeted a photo of the railroad leading to the gates of Birkenau death camp with the caption, ‘Other governments have separated mothers and children’, both men were guilty of devaluing the sufferings of millions of Jews and trivialising one of the ugliest crimes in human history.
Relativising what the French intellectual Bernard-Henri Lévy rightly calls a ‘crime without parallel’, resides disconcertingly close to the historical revisionism that feeds denialism.
And while it would be inaccurate and grossly unfair to accuse the likes of Schwarzenegger or Amanpour of being complicit in denying or minimising the Holocaust, their casual references to Kristallnacht suggest a moral equivalence between what took place at the US Capitol or during the presidency of Donald Trump and the singular crimes of National Socialism.
At a time when recent polling suggests that nearly a quarter of American adults under 40 believe the Holocaust is a myth or has been exaggerated, and around half those polled admitted to having ‘seen Holocaust denial or distortion posts on social media or elsewhere online’, it would seem to be incumbent on those with cultural or political power to get things right and resist the temptation to distort and exploit the tragic history of the Jews during the Third Reich to score political points against Trump and his deplorable and unclubbable followers.
What happened on January 6 at the US Capitol was messy and ugly and obviously tragic for the five men and women who died as a result, but it was neither Kristallnacht nor a ‘putsch’, as suggested by Paul Krugman of the New York Times in an obvious allusion to the Munich Beer Hall Putsch, Hitler’s failed attempt to take power in November 1923.
If it can be compared to anything – and here I must go against my own advice by comparing the history of the Third Reich with current events – then surely, that event is the Reichstag Fire, started by a lone Dutch communist but inflated by the Nazis into the first act of a nationwide Bolshevik revolution and as an excuse to turn Germany into a one-party state and dismantle parliamentary democracy.
It is not an exact comparison, to say the least: The adminstration of Joseph Robinette Biden is not about to ban opposing parties or jail political opponents.
But consider the torrent of cancellations and the criminalisation of certain opinions and those who hold them, not to mention the razor wire and armoured vehicles in downtown Washington DC, and I am reminded of one of my favorite quotes about history by America’s greatest author, Mark Twain: ‘History never repeats itself, but it does often rhyme.’