Remember how the Trump administration deliberately ignored the Jewish victims of the Holocaust? That is key to understanding Sean Spicers gaffe
In a press conference on Tuesday, Sean Spicer claimed before an incredulous room of journalists that Hitler did not use chemical agents to kill people during the Second World War. Beneath this stunning factual error lurks a horrifying moral one.
We didnt use chemical weapons in World War II. You know, you had someone as despicable as Hitler who didnt even sink to using chemical weapons Spicer said. When asked to clarify his comments he added: I think when you come to sarin gas, he was not using the gas on his own people the same way that Assad is doing. Spicer then went on to refer, in a weird phrasing, to holocaust centers a seeming reference to Nazi death facilities.
Under the rule of Adolf Hitler, German authorities, beginning in 1939, gassed millions of people to death. The first victims were German citizens deemed handicapped and thus unfit for life. After Germans with local assistance had shot about a million Jews in Eastern Europe, gassing was added as a second technique of mass murder. Jews were killed by carbon monoxide at Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka, and by hydrogen cyanide at Auschwitz.
Spicers comments on Tuesday must be understood in the context of how the White House chose to reflect upon Holocaust Memorial Day in January: by deliberately ignoring the Jewish victims of the Holocaust. This is the key to the whole affair: the White House cannot acknowledge the basic politics of the Holocaust.
This incredible statement by Spicer which erases the use of deadly chemical agents by Nazi Germany fits very well into the general historical politics of the Trump administration. The name of Hitler is invoked to criticize the enemy of the moment (today Assad, not long ago American intelligence officers).
The general consequence is to minimize the scale of Hitlers crimes: we are instructed that intelligence agencies are acting like Nazi Germany, or we learn what Hitler supposedly did not do. And this is an administration that is not very clear on what Adolf Hitler in fact did.
Trivialization is a step towards denial, and denial is the landmark of repetition. To recall Hitler as the cartoon supervillain of momentary convenience is to prevent serious consideration of the kinds of politics and policies that made mass killing possible. They begin when authorities invite us to exclude neighbors from the community by associating them with a global threat.
The key phrase spoken by Spicer was his own people. Hitler was supposedly not as evil as Assad because Assad killed his own people. This is wrong, and not just factually. It is a moral horror. At the moment when the Trump administration declined to commemorate the historical tragedy of the Jews, it was defending its own ban of Muslims. Trumps very first policy was to pick a group of people, and to stigmatize them as members of a threatening group.
The truth is, Hitler did kill his own people. And the killing began with the disowning. It is precisely the stigmatization and murder of the people who were gassed that removed them from the national community to which they believed they belonged.
Leaders speaking of that past have a duty that goes beyond getting the facts right. They also have a duty to mend and heal by acknowledging the victims in terms that the victims, not the killers, would have understood.
And still there is another, deeper, shade of black. As Victor Klemperer, the great student of Nazi language, long ago pointed out, when Nazis spoke of the people they always meant some people. Mr Spicer has imitated that usage. Some people, our own people, are more worthy of life than others.
First the Nazi regime murdered German citizens. Then it murdered others. People who learned to disown neighbors also learned to kill foreigners. And all of the murders were equally wrong. The politics of Nazi killing has two steps: creating the other within, and then killing the other without. It all begins with the nefarious distinction Spicer made without even thinking about it: that murder of others is somehow not as bad as the murder of ones own.
Timothy Snyder is the Levin Professor of History at Yale University and the author, most recently, of On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century.