As memorial events develop around International Holocaust Remembrance Day on 27 January, the intersection between debates over tackling Covid-19 and forms of Holocaust trivialisation become ever more concerning. While robust debate over how to tackle issues posed by Covid-19 is essential, doing so by making reference to the Nazi past and genocide is truly unhelpful. Sadly, crass, emotive evocations of the Nazi past have become a growing phenomenon in Britain, Europe and around the world in recent months.
For those wanting to make political points, reaching for the Nazi past as a reference to how bad things are has often been an appealing trope. Doing so is immediately emotive, and points to a sense of the worst situation imaginable. Provocatively and presciently, the US attorney Mike Godwin coined the term ‘Godwin’s law’ to identify the ways in which online discussion would inevitably turn towards comparing anything to the Nazi era. Godwin developed his ‘law’ not to restrict debate, but certainly to make people think again before developing comparisons with Nazi atrocities.
The Study of History & the Importance of Remembrance
Events around January 27 certainly gives us opportunities to pause for thought. Holocaust remembrance activities are crucial as they help remind us of the scale and extremism of the Nazi era. Six million Jewish people were killed on an industrial scale, some in places such as Auschwitz while others were shot, their bodies consigned mass graves. As well as Jewish people, many more were also targeted as part of the Nazi project to create a ‘purified’ Germany. Telling of the ways the regime used the powers of a modern state to target the most vulnerable, among he first to be systematically killed were children with mental health conditions.
Following Germany’s lead, many other European countries collaborated as well, and genocides unfolded across the continent in the 1940s. People who participated included politicians, fanatical fascists, religious figures, soldiers and policemen, doctors and others within the medical profession, and the general public too. Conveying the suffering of this era, as people turned on neighbours, is a constant challenge for historians, as well as for those who survived such atrocities.
Any serious study of this horrific past cannot convey its full scale, nor the extent of suffering involved. The historian Saul Friedlander wrote of how survivor accounts alone offer “lightning flashes that illuminate part of the landscape. They confirm intuitions; they warn us against vague generalisations”. He added how historians and others need to be humble in their engagement with this profound event. Such calls for respect are important for anyone wanting to talk seriously about the Nazi past.
Trivialisation of the Holocaust during Covid-19
In marked contrast, in the past year especially, the trivialisation of aspects of the Holocaust has grown as people have wanted to protest against state-implemented measures to control the Covid-19 pandemic. Debating robustly the many and various approaches to handle the pandemic is crucial, and to be clear calling for care when evoking memories of genocide is not the same thing as calling for an end to debate and discussion.
Nevertheless, since the outbreak of the pandemic we have seen, repeatedly, things such as: protestors wearing clothing evocative of the Holocaust, such as striped pyjamas and Star of David badges, to liken our time to the Nazi era; activists arguing medical professionals trying to save lives are akin those who collaborated with Holocaust perpetrators to kill people; the gates of Auschwitz and its famous slogan ‘Arbeit macht frei’ repeatedly repurposed to develop slogans such as ‘Vaccines make you free’; politicians and others making refences to state-implemented Covid restrictions being akin to the paperwork developed by the Nazi regime to control populations they subjected to genocide; the word ‘Holocaust’ itself used with little care for what it refences; and many images and logos linked to the Nazi era, such as the swastika, used to make a range of provocative points. Many such examples of this trivialisation have been collated by the group, Combat Antisemitism.
Such developments collectively work to erode the important work of Holocaust remembrance events. While antisemitic conspiracy theories have certainly grown around opposing state directed Covid measures, often what we see is not Holocaust denial per se, but Holocaust trivialisation. This does not necessarily refute the Holocaust, indeed it relies on its emotive resonances to make political points in crass ways. Yet it also belittles and manipulates a history that demands to be treated with care and respect, and often repeats antisemitic tropes.
The contrasts between the genocidal past and today ought to be apparent. In the Nazi era, Germany and other European states controlled their populations to manage them and select those they wanted to kill. Today governments develop restrictions to protect people from a potentially deadly virus. In the Nazi era, doctors worked alongside a murderous regime to actively and knowingly kill people. Today medics around the world work to save lives.
The memory of the Nazi era, and the genocide across Europe targeting Jewish people and many others, including Roma people, black people, LGBTQI people, and people deemed simply politically ‘other’ needs to be remembered with care and respect. It should not be simplified to make crass, political points.
Professor Paul Jackson is a Senior Fellow at CARR, and a Professor of History and looks after the renowned Searchlight Archive at the University of Northampton. See his profile here.
© Paul Jackson. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors’ and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).