The Insidious Nature of Holocaust Analogies, From Senator Niceley to Gina Carano

Last week Republican Tennessee State Senator Frank Niceley argued that Adolf Hitler’s story of overcoming homelessness could be an inspiration to poor people today. Hitler, Niceley enthused, didn’t waste his time on the streets; instead he “practiced his oratory and his body language and how to connect with citizens…and then went on to lead a life that got him in the history books.”

Niceley didn’t go into detail about what exactly Hitler got into the history books for, perhaps because he dimly realized that it would detract from his point.  Hitler was not in fact a Horatio Alger model of virtuous striving. Portraying him as one is grotesque.

Niceley used Hitler as a positive example. But even using the Holocaust as a negative comparison can get ugly very quickly. For nerd culture fans, the immediate point of reference here is Mandalorian star Gina Carano.

In early 2021, Carano said that being a conservative on social media was like being Jewish in Nazi Germany. It’s true that people of every political persuasion can face harsh and even cruel criticism on social media, up to and including credible death threats. Bad as that can be, though, it’s not really analogous to the state-organized genocide of entire communities comprising more than six million people. Carano’s comments weren’t quite as callous as Niceley’s. But they were callous enough.

Disney condemned Carano’s words. But she’s hardly the only one associated with the Star Wars franchise who has crassly leveraged Holocaust analogies for their own purposes. George Lucas lifted imagery from the infamous Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will for the Rebel medal ceremony at the end of A New Hope. This didn’t generate any particular outrage, perhaps because the public at large didn’t recognize the visual cues. Still, in retrospect, you have to wonder what Lucas thought he was doing. Is the message that the rebels are awesome like Nazis? Or what?

Reflecting on Niceley, Carano, and Lucas, it’s tempting to conclude that no one should compare anything to Hitler or the Holocaust ever. The Jewish genocide was an event of unspeakable, unimaginable horror. Glib comparisons to contemporary problems insult the victims and trivialize the tragedy. The safest path is for Nicely and his ilk to keep Hitler’s name out of their mouths.

The problem is that if no one is allowed to talk about the Holocaust, it becomes very difficult to talk, or think, about the Holocaust. Analogy is an important way in which we connect past to present. If the Holocaust has no comparison, it also loses relevance.

You can find one painful illustration of this problem in the debates about recognition of the Armenian genocide of 1915, discussed by Peter Novick in his book The Holocaust in American Life.

Armenians have been demanding for over a century that the Turkish government recognize the systematic slaughter of Armenians during World War I; between 600,000 and 1.2 million people were killed.

Obviously, at this point, none of the perpetrators of this crime will be brought to justice. But Armenians in Turkey are still targeted for discrimination and hate crimes. Turkey’s democracy still defines itself via hatred of, and targeting of, outsiders. Without confronting and acknowledging the past, it’s impossible to create a better future.

You’d think that the memory of the Holocaust would lead to an understanding of this dynamic. And certainly, it has for some. But other Jewish people and advocates have instead worried that comparisons between the Armenian genocide and the Holocaust would dilute the uniqueness and primacy of the latter.

A coalition of American Jewish activists and Israeli diplomats concerned about offending Turkey blocked Congressional recognition of the Armenian genocide in 1989, according to Novick. It would take another 30 years before Congress would pass such a resolution.

There’s been a similar struggle around what to call Donald Trump’s border camps for immigrants. Jewish conservative commentator Ben Shapiro was outraged when Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez referred to them as concentration camps. For Shapiro, “concentration camp” is a term that should only be used to refer to Auschwitz and Dachau.

But According to Andrea Pitzer, author of One Long Night: A Global History of Concentration Camps, a concentration camp is simply a place for “mass detention of civilians without trial.” The Holocaust shows what can ultimately happen when you start criminalizing and targeting marginalized people and stripping them of legal rights. But the worst doesn’t happen all at once. Trump’s camps—and now Biden’s—aren’t Nazi death camps. But they do share some characteristics.

If we refuse to acknowledge the way the Holocaust was built on particular, not necessarily unique tactics of oppression, we lose the Holocaust as a warning. We may even make it impossible to talk about widespread tactics of oppression at all.

Easy Holocaust analogies are offensive, trivializing, and can even be antisemitic. But denying all Holocaust analogies can also end up downplaying atrocities. The fact that this is a hard conversation shouldn’t be surprising. The Holocaust was a monumental, unimaginable atrocity, and discussing it thoughtfully, respectfully, and productively is difficult. It’s worth trying to get it right, though, both out of respect for past victims, and to try to prevent similar, and dissimilar, horrors in the future.

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Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer based in Chicago. His book, Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics was published by Rutgers University Press. He thinks the Adam West Batman is the best Batman, darn it.