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Sean Spicer’s Hitler comments: a warning from the history of speech and atrocity

Earlier this month, during a media briefing, Donald Trump’s Press Secretary, Sean Spicer, engaged in what some have referred to as a form of Holocaust denial. In referencing Bashar al-Assad’s most recent alleged use of chemical weapons on his own citizens, Spicer made an unprompted reference to Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler: “We didn’t use chemical weapons in World War II. You know, you had a, you know, someone as despicable as Hitler who didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons.” Given that Hitler notoriously used chemicals as part of gas chamber mass murder operations against Jews, many in the room seemed aghast. When later asked to clarify this comment, Spicer only added to the sense of disbelief, noting that Hitler “was not using the gas on his own people the same way Assad is doing…” Hitler, he stated, “brought [the chemicals] into the Holocaust center” while Assad “dropped them down to innocent, in the middle of towns…”

Ghetto of World War II by WikiImages. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.

The implications of Spicer’s words are chilling. He began by suggesting Hitler did not use Zyklon B against the Jews. When confronted with this apparent whitewash of history, he tried to distinguish Hitler from Assad by emphasizing that the former did not use chemicals against “his own people,” despite the fact that over one hundred thousand murdered German Jews were among Hitler’s victims. His characterization of grisly extermination camps, such as Auschwitz, as “Holocaust centers” could give one the impression that they were innocuous administrative units. In describing Assad’s victims as “innocent” when contrasting them with Jewish victims, one could infer that the latter were perhaps being perceived as “not innocent.”

Steven Goldstein, executive director of the Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect, accused Spicer of having “engaged in Holocaust denial, the most offensive form of fake news imaginable, by denying Hitler gassed millions of Jews to death.” Apart from the anti-Semitic implications of Spicer’s statements, some have noted their value as a diversion in reference to Trump’s many failings as president. Francine Prose points out that this latest controversy allows us “to stop thinking about the damage being done to our environment and our schools, about the mass deportations of hard-working immigrants … about the ways in which our democracy is being undermined, every minute, every hour.”

But it would be a mistake to focus on these short-term implications of Spicer’s statements without understanding the broader harms they could engender. The history of speech and atrocity reveals that the most effective persecution campaigns can begin with relatively ordinary words with more subtle negative connotations. On their own, and in the abstract, they seem innocent enough. But in the larger context, they anesthetize the majority individual to the idea that the minority is an alien “other,” as opposed to a fellow citizen. And combined with other words and actions, they can eventually lead to tragic ends. For example, before ultimately falling victim to genocidal violence in Rwanda, Tutsis were at first chided by extremist Hutus for their alleged Ethiopian origins or their supposed accumulation of great wealth. But as Rwanda inexorably ramped up for genocide, such rhetoric intensified, with Tutsis eventually reduced to the vile caricature of “cockroaches” bent on liquidating the Hutus.

This is not to say that Spicer’s comments augur violence of such a scale. But it is important to remember that they are part of a larger, disturbing trend. One of Trump’s key advisers is Steve Bannon, “whose Breitbart news is a wellspring of bigotry and propaganda.” During his campaign, in bashing Hillary Clinton, Trump tweeted the image of a Star of David over a pile of money, which allegedly emerged from a neo-Nazi message board. In January, the White House omitted reference to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust in a statement to commemorate International Holocaust Remembrance Day. And this is all in the context of a rising tide of anti-Semitism and hate crimes against Jews in the U.S. and around the world. In this sense, Spicer’s oafish Holocaust denial could be part of a larger, emerging mosaic of anti-Semitism.

Steve Bannon by Gage Skidmore. CCO Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

As conditions deteriorate, when anchored to more direct calls for violence, Holocaust denial can morph into a technique for incitement to genocide. And in the context of a widespread or systematic attack against a civilian population, it can be part of the conduct element of persecution as a crime against humanity. Genocide denial is not merely an ugly reminder of a bloody past but should also be treated as a potential harbinger of a violent future. We are not anywhere close to that stage now, but we have been given notice and we ignore the larger context at our own peril.

Featured image credit: Sean Spicer, by Gage Skidmore. CC-BY-SA-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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