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.”
Others are more thoughtful, and well-intentioned, though they might obscure more than they reveal. While in Cape Town, South Africa, years ago, I visited a small Holocaust exhibit. Two pictures hung side by side. The first showed a German doctor measuring a little girl’s nose with a special caliper in order to determine if she was Jewish. National Socialists contended that Jews and other “races” could be identified by their noses and other physical attributes. I had seen that photo before. The other showed a white man in a doctor’s coat and a little girl standing stiffly next to him. She had a pencil stuck through her curly hair. This was the infamous South African “pencil test,” used to determine if a person was to be classified as white or colored. If the pencil fell out, the person was white. If it remained in the hair, the person was classified as colored. The curator who had juxtaposed these two pictures was suggesting that there were many parallels between apartheid and the Holocaust, particularly in its early years.
It is important, though, to distinguish between methods and objectives. Apartheid aimed to economically, socially, and legally humiliate and degrade black people, keeping them in a subservient position. If some were lynched, shot, or killed in some manner that was entirely acceptable, but the objective was not mass murder. The Holocaust, by contrast, was designed to murder an entire group on an entire continent. It did not matter if the Jews designated for death were providing a useful service to Nazi Germany. When it came time to kill them, they were murdered. It is not a question of competitive suffering, but of historical accuracy. Conflating the two periods diminishes the specific, unique horror of each particular crime, and impedes our ability to understand them on their own terms.
The same applies to conflating the Holocaust with the family-separation policy enacted by the Trump administration along the southern border of the United States. People are being concentrated in camps, but the contemporary camps bear little resemblance to the camps in Nazi Germany in which people were beaten, tortured, starved, and often killed. However well-intentioned its use, the comparison is misleading.
Moreover, even taken on its own, narrow terms, the analogy is mistaken. The Nazis aimed not at separation, but extermination. When there were mass shootings, children were not typically separated from parents; they generally kept them together so as not to alarm them. In the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum there hangs a picture, taken by an SS officer, of the arrival of Hungarian Jews at Birkenau. In the front row, a woman is holding a small child. Behind her stands a younger woman. A few years after the opening of the museum, a woman identified herself as the younger person. She explained that the baby was hers, and the woman standing next to her was her mother, the baby’s grandmother. A Jewish prisoner who worked at the trains told her to give the baby to the older woman. He knew that the Germans did not want to separate parents from the children because the parents might then resist. The prisoner who warned her knew that, had she been holding the baby, she would have been sent directly to the gas chambers.
The architects of the Trump administration’s family-separation policy are not emulating the Nazis, whose objective was murder. They are not engaged in genocide. They are, however, doing something indefensible and horrible in its own right. They are using children as bargaining chips and as commodities. We must keep our eyes on those horrors.
Using historically invalid analogies gives those responsible for these outrages a chance to wriggle out from the avalanche of justified attacks on their policies. It gives them the opportunity to shift the conversation to the appropriateness of the comparison, and the precision of the parallel.
They don’t deserve it.