A rhetorical disease stalks the land. It seems to strike at random and leaves its victims hapless and foolish. It’s called Holocaust Analogy Syndrome. And presidential candidates seem particularly susceptible.
An early sufferer was Hillary Clinton, who last year compared Russian President Vladimir Putin’s actions in Ukraine to Adolf Hitler’s actions during World War II. Mike Huckabee caught it this summer when he said that the Iran deal was like marching Israelis to the “door of the oven.” The latest victim, afflicted again, is Ben Carson, who used an Nazi analogy to compare the U.S. to the Third Reich last year. The neurosurgeon said Thursday that if Germany’s Jews had only been armed, the Holocaust might have been lessened.
Carson’s argument combines all the worst features of blaming the victims and demonstrates a lamentable lack of historical knowledge.
As a practical matter, the argument has no merit. As the Anti-Defamation League’s Jonathan Greenblatt points out, the few Jews that might have been armed and resisted would easily have been overwhelmed and killed. Indeed, they would likely have fallen victim even sooner had all their neighbors—so many of them collaborators—also been armed.
More than a third of all Jews murdered were killed by bullets outside the camps, and those who were deported had some slight chance of survival. Those who were shot and left in ditches in villages all across Eastern Europe had virtually none. Just imagine if all the villagers had guns when the Jews were targeted. (It’s also an interesting fact that the Weimer regime that preceded the Nazis had tougher gun control laws than the Nazi regime.)
Increasingly prevalent in our politics is the inclination to reach for the most egregious, awful events in history as analogies. (Remember: Carson also opined that Obamacare was “the worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery.”) This overreach is a malady of spiritual and intellectual sloppiness.
I can oppose gun control without thinking that my position would have saved the doomed Jews of Europe, and I can oppose Obamacare without reaching back to the systematic enslavement of millions upon millions of people. To use these events is unseemly. It is insulting to those who suffered and to the intelligence of the body politic.
Part of this is our own fault. In a country where all of history is reduced to a few notable events, a candidate who draws analogies about military mistakes to the Crimean war or compares a dangerous local uprising to the Sicilian Vespers is more likely to be met with puzzlement than cheers. So we reach repeatedly for historical analogies—Holocaust, slavery, the Civil War—that constitute the shared stock of knowledge.
But very few things are applicable to the greatest historical cataclysms, and they shed limited light on contemporary issues. In the legal field they say hard cases make bad law. In the historical field, catastrophic events make bad analogies.
So once again I will plead for a caution that no doubt will go unheeded. Suit the reference to the issue. Remember that there are still people who walk this earth with numbers on their arms who are enraged and hurt by the cavalier use of their suffering to score points. Drop discussion of the Holocaust when you are talking politics. It is inept. It is inaccurate. It is indecent.