On Wednesday, a mob supporting President Donald Trump stormed the United States Capitol Building.
Two images from that dark day stand out in my mind. The first is a bearded, middle-aged man wearing a black, hooded sweatshirt decorated with a skull-and-crossbones and reading “Camp Auschwitz. Work Brings Freedom.” The second is U.S. Rep. Mary Miller, R-Illinois, telling a group called “Moms for America” that “If we win a few elections, we’re still going to be losing unless we win the hearts and minds of our children. This is the battle. Hitler was right on one thing. He said, ‘Whoever has the youth has the future.’”
As a historian who teaches classes on Nazism and the Holocaust, I urge my fellow citizens to recognize and reject this sort of nonsense whenever and wherever they see it. These words and images are a grave insult to the victims of Nazism and corrode our democracy by rejecting the spirit of compromise and negotiation that lies at the heart of our shared community.
The COVID-19 pandemic has inspired a rash of comparisons with Nazism, too often by people who should know better. At a November rally against lockdown restrictions in the German city of Hannover, a young woman compared herself to Sophie Scholl, a heroic university student executed by the German regime for distributing anti-Nazi literature in 1943. The anti-lockdown “Contrarian,” or Querdenker, movement in Germany draws inspiration from sources that include the QAnon conspiracy theory espoused by some of the Washington rioters.
The Auschwitz camp network in German-occupied Poland was a massive facility that included forced labor, incarceration for the Nazi regime’s enemies, and an extermination complex. During its years of operation, about 1.1 million people perished there, almost 1 million of whom were Jews. Today, many Americans — and people around the world — are frustrated by government-mandated restrictions on business, social and professional life during the pandemic.
However, any comparisons between temporary public health-related lockdowns and the heart of the Nazi machinery of destruction are intellectually and morally baseless.
Rep. Miller conveniently left out the fact that Hitler’s regime was very interested in the future of German children, but was prepared to condemn the children of those who had no place in his racist empire to slavery and death. Her statement swiftly met with condemnation. The governor of Illinois bluntly asserted, “This reprehensible rhetoric has no place in our politics.”
Why Miller chose to praise the wisdom of a failed dictator who led his country into a ruinous war and murderous violence in the name of racial purity is a question that she — and the voters of Illinois — should be asking today.
The current moment in America feels profoundly unstable.
Troubled times tend to inspire heated rhetoric and a search for historical precedent.
When we casually and thoughtlessly invoke the memory of Nazism and the horrors that the Nazi regime unleashed on the world, we cheapen the lives of everyone, including Americans, who were victims of that regime or who died in the war that brought it to an end.
Adam R. Seipp is a professor of history at Texas A&M University.