Is it always wrong to make comparisons to 1930s Nazi Germany?

When are these comparisons beyond the pale and when are they reasonable?


LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 12: Gary Lineker leaves his home with his dog on March 12, 2023 in London, England. Match of the Day anchor Gary Lineker was asked by the BBC to step back from presenting their flagship football highlights program, Match of the Day this weekend, until they agree on a social media policy. Lineker, a former England international football player and previous winner of the prestigious Golden Boot award, tweeted his own views on the government's Stop Small Boats policy provoking a row over the impartiality of freelance BBC TV presenters. Several pundit colleagues of Lineker's have also refused to appear on the show in solidarity. This week's show aired as a highlights package only with no punditry and many other BBC sports radio and TV shows were cancelled. (Photo by Hollie Adams/Getty Images)

March 23, 2023 10:02

Let’s begin this in the right way, by quoting Gary Lineker exactly. He was responding to a brief social media post by the Home Office, in which the Home Secretary accused those arriving on small boats of “jumping the queue and gaming the system” and ended up with the slogan, “enough is enough. We must stop the boats”. In response, the football pundit wrote: “this is just an immeasurably cruel policy directed at the most vulnerable people in language that is not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the 30s”. I would just add for context that Braverman has several times referred to the arrival by boats as being an “invasion”.

I believe, alongside the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Board of Deputies, that the government’s policy is immoral in itself and doubly immoral because it won’t work and is designed instead to appeal to a section of voters. But the question for today’s column arises out of the fact that the Lineker reference to “Germany in the 30s” became itself such a huge issue. All of a sudden everyone was a historian. And every Jew was apparently offended, not least by the supposed diminution of the Holocaust said to be implicit in the Lineker comparison.

There are very good reasons for treating the Holocaust as being “owned” by Jews (and Roma), in a similar way to trans-Atlantic slavery being owned by the descendants of those transported and enslaved. It happened to particular groups of people and not to the others. And there are also good reasons for doubting the motivations of some of those who make such comparisons too easily. But there is no rule. Let me illustrate.

Back in early 2009, there was a fashion on the far-left for a straight comparison to be made between the Warsaw Ghetto and Gaza. Ken Livingstone (before he went mad) argued that Gaza was a ghetto “in exactly the same way that the Warsaw Ghetto was”. And George Galloway (then MP for Bethnal Green and Bow) spelled it out more exactly with “those murdering them [the Gazans] are the equivalent of those who murdered Jews in Warsaw in 1942”.

The bad faith of these accusations was as palpable as the absurdity of so exact a comparison. They were both wrong and insulting. But let’s spool on five years to find another public figure being criticised for Hitler comparisons. In 2014, while on a visit to Canada, the then-heir to the throne was overheard telling a well-wisher that the pretext for the Russian annexation of Crimea reminded him of Hitler’s various late 30s territorial grabs. This apparently was an unbecoming thing for the future King to say.

In Charles’s case, however, what he said was absolutely true. In fact, it was truer than even he knew. He did no disservice to the history, nor was he in any way diminishing the eventual full horrors of Nazism. He merely illustrated where such aggression can end up.

I took Lineker’s tweet to suggest that the language in which some people — including members of the government — have couched their hostility to those arriving in boats is dangerous. And in his tweet he used the example with which people are more familiar. He did not reference the Holocaust, though some people have argued that given we know how the story ended, he must have intended a comparison.

However, the literature of the 1930s is clear enough. At the time — lamentably — almost no one believed or wanted to believe that the language of “human vermin” culminated in physical extermination. The governments of the democracies didn’t believe it. Most Germans didn’t believe it. Most Jews didn’t believe it. Indeed, as Bernard Wasserstein’s excellent new book about his family reminds us, as late as mid-1939, the Nazis were frantically deporting displaced Jews back over the Polish border because they were about to lose their Polish citizenship.

So Lineker’s reference to language, though not really appropriate (though “invasion” is, I think, a highly inflammatory word) can’t be taken as some kind of reduction of the Holocaust.

There is the other point I want to address here. If we agree that Jews have a greater interest in an accurate understanding of the Holocaust, then I don’t agree that the same is true of Nazism or even of German racial nationalism. For example, the Nuremberg Race Laws applied to mixed race and black Germans as well as to Jews and Roma.

In 1937, a sterilisation programme was aimed at the mixed-race adolescents, mostly the children of German women and French troops who had occupied the Rhineland, and nearly 400 were forcibly sterilised. Not the Holocaust, for sure, but something all the same. My point? Jews don’t own the Nazis. Everyone does.

March 23, 2023 10:02

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