Modern invocations of the atrocity strip it of its historical context
It’s like clockwork. Every few months the government announces a new plan to tighten immigration policy and then, within seconds, you find ‘1930s Germany’ trending on Twitter. From the moment a picture of the Prime Minister’s flashy ‘Stop the Boats’ podium emerged, it became obvious what the next few days of online discourse would consist of.
It is Match of the Day host Gary Lineker’s belief that the Home Secretary’s language, when setting out her plans for the Government’s asylum policy, was ‘not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the 30s’. Those who make such claims ought to be mocked, aside from anything else, for the apparent shallowness of their arsenal of cultural references.
But why are critics of the government so quick to reach for the rise of Nazism? Such analogies tend to be rooted in what could be described as ‘Holocaust-as-civics-lesson’, as distinct from ‘Holocaust-as-history’. The latter seeks to understand the catastrophes of the twentieth century in their own terms, as complex and contingent historical events, whose underlying causes were specific to their time. ‘Holocaust-as-civics-lesson’, however, reduces the entire point of learning about the Holocaust to ‘Never again’.
According to that view, the story of Hitler is a kind of cautionary tale: one learns about it simply so that one can ‘recognise’ the hallmarks of fascism in one’s everyday life and ‘call them out’. This explains not only why people like Lineker make the analogies they do, but also why they feel so self-satisfied as they do it. In short, there can be no surprise that people use the Holocaust as a blunt rhetorical tool, because they believe that the purpose of learning about the Holocaust is to use it as a blunt rhetorical tool.
To contort the history of 1930s Germany into an analogy for 2020s Britain, one has to do and say some very strange things. It is untrue, for example, that Nazi rhetoric was ‘insidious’ or ‘subtle’, as though they ever bothered to hide their violent hatred of Jews. Likewise, the British press is in no way reminiscent — no matter what Alastair Campbell tells you — of the Nazi press: turn to any page of Der Stürmer and you would have found things much nastier than you’ll ever get in the Daily Mail.
The problem with ‘Holocaust-as-civics-lesson’, like the problem of treating the collapse of Weimar Germany as a parable, is that it means that the Holocaust has to be ‘updated’ to reflect present political concerns.
There are many things that the Holocaust wasn’t. It wasn’t about immigration, for one thing: most of the massacred Jews had lived where they lived for decades, if not centuries, and even the most impeccable assimilation didn’t spare them from the camps. Nor was it about citizenship. Jews weren’t persecuted because they weren’t citizens: they were stripped of their citizenship because they were Jews. Most importantly, it wasn’t really about ‘language’ at all (unless we’re talking about the language of blood purity). Insofar as ‘dehumanising language’ played a role, it was much less significant than legal persecution and street violence, both of which were already under way from the moment Hitler assumed power.
To make the ‘moral lesson’ of the Holocaust work for the modern day, its causes have to be abstracted. The Holocaust itself must somehow be made universal and timeless, a generic ‘persecution of outsiders’. But ‘Holocaust-as-history’ also matters. As memories of the atrocity fade away, we cannot allow such abstractions to obscure the historical reality of what the Holocaust was.