We hoped that in 2020, it would be self-evident that people should avoid rhetoric about Nazis or the Holocaust unless they were actually discussing the Holocaust or other genocides. We thought people — particularly elected officials, political parties, or those running to represent us — understood that using such language is offensive and counterproductive. Holocaust references trivialize the suffering of millions who died at the hands of the Nazis. They are almost always inappropriate and specious, and they invariably derail the user’s intended point. We thought this was common knowledge. We thought people knew better.
Apparently, we were very wrong.
In the last two weeks, we have had to condemn two elected officials in Pennsylvania and a county-level political committee for essentially calling Gov. Tom Wolf a Nazi during discussions of the stay-at-home order. The first incident, which occurred in a House of Representatives State Government Committee meeting, received national and international attention and condemnation. We thought that might be informative to other elected officials. Again, we were wrong. The following week, a county political party called Gov. Wolf a Nazi on Facebook, and just days after that, a local school board member called Gov. Wolf “Herr Wolf” in a Facebook discussion.
Regardless of whether you agree with Pennsylvania’s stay-at-home order or not, it should go without saying that there is absolutely no factual or moral comparison between the coronavirus response and the policies and practices of the murderous Nazi regime.
Sadly, the inappropriate use of Holocaust references is not a new phenomenon, and while these recent examples have featured officials on the political right, the political left has not been blameless. Last year, for example, we condemned a Democratic state representative for using an offensive Nazi reference towards pipeline construction workers, and we criticized a Democratic district attorney for an inappropriate joke that invoked Nazis.
Unfortunately, few of the speakers in these cases seemed to understand why their comments were inappropriate. In almost every case, they tried to defend their language, claiming their comments were accurate comparisons, or meant in jest, or protected speech or misunderstood. Some of these defenses are disingenuous, some are misguided, and none are relevant.
We have seen a wide variety of responses to public and private criticism. In some cases, the speaker issued a heartfelt apology and demonstrated they learned from the incident. Others, shamefully, refused to retract their statements. And some retracted but begrudgingly, with nonapology apologies that showed their responses were driven by feeling the heat, not seeing the light.
We know why people resort to this language when passions run high — it is inflammatory and designed to send a very clear message. It is also lazy, ignorant, and hurtful, an effort to score cheap points and cast a complex debate in terms of “good” and “evil.”
Asserting that governments are acting autocratically or anti-democratically — using just those words — is a strong charge. So, too, is the charge that a government is ignoring rules of transparency and accountability. Each of those claims stands on its own, without invoking Nazis or Hitler. We should be capable of engaging in debate and making political arguments without resorting to rhetoric comparing our opponents or critics to Nazis or invoking the Holocaust. To do otherwise belittles the unique tragedy of the Holocaust and deflects attention away from important discussions.
Some would argue that the Holocaust cannot be diminished or trivialized, but it can be, and we see it happening more frequently. When staying at home is compared — even in jest — to the horror of Jews hiding from Nazis, when protestors who want small businesses to open hold signs invoking the words at the gates of Auschwitz “work makes you free,” when secretaries of health and governors are called Nazis because of their efforts to save lives — the murder of six million Jews and millions of others is lost in the conversation. And, when we need to have yet another discussion about why that rhetoric is offensive, the legitimate debates about how states respond to COVID-19 or any other challenge are also pushed aside.
So, a lesson for elected officials, candidates, political parties, and really any of us: Holocaust analogies should only be used when referring to actual genocides. The only appropriate time to call someone a Nazi is when you’re referring to actual Nazis. We hope Pennsylvania’s leaders and residents learn this lesson.
Shira Goodman is the regional director of the Anti-Defamation League.