The Trump administration’s policy of separating children from their parents brought a flood of comparisons to the Holocaust. Some described the facilities used to hold the children as “concentration camps.” ICE officials have been called Nazis. President Trump and those around him have been described as Hitler and kapos. Former CIA Director Michael Hayden posted a picture of the entrance to Birkenau with the message, “Other governments have separated mothers and children.”
I understand Hayden’s outrage. I share it. But something can be horrific without being a genocide or a Holocaust. Defenders of the Trump policy self-righteously pounced on the comparison, denouncing it as hyperbolic. Although there is nothing good that can be said about Trump’s family-separation policy, it is not a genocide. Equating the two is not only historically wrong, it is also strategically wrong. Glib comparisons to the Nazis provide the administration and its supporters with a chance to defend their position, something they do not deserve.
This is an instance of a broader problem. Since the 1990s, as interest in the Holocaust has grown, Holocaust analogies have proliferated. Some have been patently absurd. The televangelist Pat Robertson insisted, “Just what Nazi Germany did to the Jews, so liberal America is now doing to evangelical Christians … It’s no different … Homosexuals who want to destroy all Christians.” (As he denounced liberal America, images of Nazi horrors appeared on the screen.) President Ronald Reagan’s surgeon general, Everett Koop, warned about the progression from “liberalized abortion … to active euthanasia … to the very beginnings of the political climate that led to Auschwitz, Dachau, and Belsen.” People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, PETA, organized an exhibition entitled “Holocaust on Your Plate.” Pictures of emaciated farm animals hung next to images of concentration camp victims. A PETA organizer declared “six million people died in concentration camps, but six billion broiler chickens will die this year in slaughterhouses.”