Historian: Holocaust Comparisons Are Frequent In US Politics – Texas A&M University Today

Posted By on October 8, 2022

The gates of the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz, Poland, circa 1965.

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Robert Keith Packer, a 57-year-old Virginian, achieved a measure of infamy at the Jan. 6 Capitol riot whenhe was photographedwearing a sweatshirt emblazoned with a skull and crossbones along with the words Camp Auschwitz. Work Brings Freedom, the front said, a translation of the notorious motto Arbeit macht frei thatappeared on the gates of Auschwitzand several other Nazi concentration camps. On the back was the word Staff.

Packer was sentencedto 75 days in prisonon Sept. 16, 2022, for his role in the riot he was tried for his actions, not his clothing. But his sweatshirt was far from the onlyHolocaust referenceon Jan. 6 or in its aftermath.

Rioters havecompared their arreststothe persecution of Jews, and commentator Candace Owenscompared Jan. 6 to the Reichstag fire, which Adolf Hitler used as pretext to consolidate power in 1933.

It is a reminder of something that is all too apparent to scholars of the Holocaust, likemyself: Americans are willing totrivialize the genocideby turning it into a tool for their own political goals.

As a historian who has written about the American role inliberating concentration campsat the end of World War II, I have spent a great deal of time thinking about how Americans have and have not talked about the Holocaust in the decades since. There is little evidence that outright denial of the Holocaust is widespread. Instead, the problem is apoor understanding of the tragedy, including this countrys response the focus of a remarkable documentary series, The U.S. and the Holocaust, which recently premiered on PBS.

The contemporary American story of the Holocaust focuses on the U.S. role in helping to bring the Nazi regime of terror to an end. A more nuanced understanding of Americas reaction is less comforting.

The PBS series, produced by acclaimed filmmakers Ken Burns, Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein, traces what Americans knew about the vast and murderous campaign against civilians in Nazi-occupied Europe in the 1930s, as a flood of Jewish refugees attempted to flee Hitlers Germany.

The U.S. did not enter the war to stop Nazi persecution of Europes Jews. In fact,a majority of Americansopposed entering the war at all until 1940, a year before the Pearl Harbor attack brought the U.S. into the conflict.

Many Americans had no interest in protecting the rights of religious or ethnic minorities at home or abroad.Antisemitism and anti-foreign prejudicewas a core element of American society in the early 20th century, just as white supremacy was. These forms of hatred and exclusion drew from the same well of supposedly scientific beliefsabout racial hierarchy.

While the U.S. allowed almost125,000 Jewish refugeesto enter the country during the years between Hitlers rise to power and the start of the war, many more weredenied entryorleft in limbo.

This part of the countrys response has been largely forgotten, in favor of a story where the U.S. plays a more heroic part.

The liberation of the concentration camps in the spring of 1945 plays a central role in public memories of the war today, along withthe Allied landings in Normandyon D-Day in 1944. The hall through which millions of visitors have entered the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washingtonis lined with flags of the liberator divisions of the U.S. Army.

There is no question that the arrival of American forces at Buchenwald, Dachau and other camps across western and southern Germany saved thousands of prisoners facing murder or death by starvation and sickness. In reality, however, the systematic murder of Europes Jews had largely concluded, and primarily took placehundreds of miles to the eastin what is today Poland, Ukraine, Russia and the Baltic states. By the time American forces landed in western Europe, Europes Jewish population had already been reduced to a few small pockets.

Within weeks of the arrival of American troops at Buchenwald, Americans saw images andnewsreel filmof the horrors of the camps. However, it took decades for the story of camp liberation to become the most important act of the war in Europe in Americans minds. It would not be until the 1980s, when the liberators and survivors were entering old age, that the Holocaust was firmly entrenched in American school curricula and popular culture.

One important consequence of this long wait was that the stories told by and about liberators changed in the intervening decades. As Americans became more familiar with the events of the Holocaust throughtelevisionandfilms, liberator stories began to grow more similar to each other and merged into a general story of the Holocaust, which increasingly focused on the horrors of the death camps in German-occupied Poland.Liberators of Buchenwalddescribing the event decades afterward, for example, thought they remembered gas chambers at the camp, when in fact there were none at that location.

Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland the most infamous camp facility, with its gates saying Arbeit macht frei came to represent all concentration camps in American memory, and even in family stories. In 2008, for example, then-presidential candidate Barack Obama told a crowd about hisgreat-uncles participation in the liberation of Auschwitz. Auschwitz was actually liberated by the Soviet army in January 1945. Obamas campaign later clarified that his great-uncle, Charles Payne, participated in the liberation of Ohrdruf, a subcamp of Buchenwald.

The centrality of camp liberation to the American story of the Holocaust has real consequences. It turns the Holocaust into a story of American triumph over evil and overlooks the countrys refusal to do more to save the victims.

This simplistic version of a complex history has allowed many Americans to use the Holocaust and Nazism asshallow symbolsfor any kind of government action they oppose and deem oppressive, particularly public health measures during the COVID-19 pandemic. Opponentshave comparedinfectious disease specialist Dr. Anthony Fauci to SS physician and torturer Dr. Josef Mengele. Representative Marjorie Greene hascompared face mask rulesto forcing Jews to wear Star of David badges, and Capitol police agenciesto the Nazi-era Gestapo.

As Burns documentary emphasizes, the U.S. is once again in a time of national reckoning about race, discrimination and histories of oppression. In the final minutes of The U.S. and the Holocaust, viewers see marchers in Charlottsville, Virginia, chanting Jews will not replace us, television pundits opining about the threat of cultural decline through immigration, the 2018attack on the Tree of Life congregationin Pittsburgh, and the Jan. 6 riot. There in the crowd, wearing his sweatshirt, is Robert Keith Packer.

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Historian: Holocaust Comparisons Are Frequent In US Politics - Texas A&M University Today

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