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Uses and Abuses of the Holocaust

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At my advanced age, I can perhaps be forgiven for getting irritated by many things in life.  But few exasperate me more than an argument or claim that draws a risible parallel to the Nazi era and/or the Holocaust.     

Among asinine Shoah references, I’ve identified four main categories.  I’d appreciate any help from readers who believe I’ve missed one or more out.

  • The Nazis did it.  False.  This is a claim that the Nazis introduced a measure the speaker/writer objects to, as evidence that the measure is objectionable, where the claim is either outright false, or, more commonly, misses a crucial distinction.  For example, those who object to euthanasia point out that the Nazis practiced euthanasia – while failing to notice the microscopic difference that in Nazi Germany euthanasia was not voluntary.
  • The Nazis did it. True But Irrelevant.  A claim that the Nazis introduced a measure the speaker/writer objects to as evidence that the measure is objectionable, where the claim is true but immaterial.   Most vegetarians will be familiar with a ludicrous point often made by hostile carnivores that ‘Hitler was a vegetarian’.  Actually, historians disagree about whether he was or not.  But granted he was – so what?
  • The Slippery Slope.  The suggestion that a measure puts us on a slippery slope to Naziism, when it blatantly doesn’t.  The claim is usually made when one or other illiberal measure is implemented – a restriction on free speech, an increase in police powers etc.  .
  • Hyperbole.  This is the most common way the Holocaust and/or the Nazis are invoked.  The claim here is not that an action or policy will lead to a slippery slope towards Naziism, but that the action or policy is actually Nazi-esque.  It is not uncommon to read Israeli actions described in this way.  The accuser believes he or she is making a particularly ironic or poignant point, whereas in fact they are merely making an especially offensive one.  There is plenty to criticize Israel about and plenty of ways of doing so, without debasing the debate with crude comparisons.

Does that mean the Nazi era should never be cited in argument? I think there are (at least) two legitimate uses:  

  1. There are some real historical parallels.  Every episode in history has, of course, elements which are unique and elements which are the same or similar to other episodes.  The Holocaust involved the mass, orchestrated attempt to wipe out an ethnic group, executed with an astounding sadistic ferocity.  It is not ridiculous to see, for example, the genocide against the Rwandan Tutsis as having these same structural components.
  2. To test an absolutist principle.  For example, somebody might insist that one should never lie, or never torture, or that the freedom of the press is inviolable.  To assess such a claim it makes sense to see how it would hold up in the most unusual of circumstances.  Could controls on the media never be justified – what about in an extreme situation when it seemed likely that a free press would allow Nazis to gain power?

Perhaps readers may be able to identify other legitimate uses of the Nazis/Holocaust in argument. I can’t think of any.  All other uses strike me as cheap, unimaginative and tasteless.

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3 Comment on this post

  1. Agreed, although I’m not sure comparisons between historical massacres are needed, per se – I see this as related to 2 – things are not more or less bad or good because the Nazis did them.

    I do agree it’s definetely legitimate in that it is a valid and reasonable comparison / reference /parallel, though.

    Point 2 is also pretty strong – ‘would you lie to save Jews hiding from Nazis’ seems like a somewhat popular ethical test, reminescent of Kant and the killer-looking-for-afriend.

    Sadly, I doubt this is something that is going away – there is a reason there is such a thing as Godwin’s law / Reductio ad Hitlerum (which I assume you were thinking about even in passing when posting about this?).

  2. I’d actually forgotten about the excellent Godwin’s Law. Since writing this I see a Russian historian is in trouble for comparing Crimea with the Nazi occupation of the Sudetenland.

  3. My personal impression is that the euthanasia comparison you cite is disturbingly common, at least here in Germany.

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