“Many, if not most, Nazi analogies are historically inaccurate”: Richard J Evans on the trouble with comparisons
In March, leading sports presenter Gary Lineker was suspended by the BBC for a tweet likening UK government rhetoric to that of 1930s Germany. Richard J Evans argues that such comparisons risk eroding the full horror of history and the experiences of those involved
In early March, Gary Lineker sparked a political and media storm. The former footballer, now the BBC’s best-paid presenter, said that the Illegal Migration Bill introduced by UK home secretary Suella Braverman “is just an immeasurably cruel policy directed at the most vulnerable people [presented] in language that is not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the 30s”.
Lineker’s comments were made not on a BBC channel but on Twitter, in a personal capacity. Nevertheless, the BBC suspended him from his presenting role on Match of the Day for breaching its impartiality guidelines. After other commentators and pundits declined to appear on the show without Lineker, he was reinstated a few days later.
Lineker’s suggestion that Braverman’s language was “not dissimilar” to that used in Germany during Nazi rule was viewed as particularly offensive by the home secretary, who has stated that her husband is “a very proud member of the Jewish community”. But his comparison was far from unusual. It’s become increasingly common in recent years for politicians, journalists and pundits of various kinds to draw parallels between policies, language and institutions of which they disapprove, and the politics, language and institutions of Nazi Germany.
Some conservative commentators have compared what they see as leftwing “cancel culture” to the censorship exercised by the Nazis. Meanwhile, leftwing commentators have likened the removal of books dealing with LGBTQ issues from school libraries in some states of the US to the book-burnings carried out by the Nazis in May 1933. The bowdlerisation of books by authors such as Roald Dahl has attracted similar parallels. Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton and other Democrats in the US have compared Donald Trump’s rallies to those of Adolf Hitler.
Russian president Vladimir Putin has been widely compared to Hitler, his assault on Ukraine seeming – in the eyes of some, at least – to echo Germany’s invasion of the country. During the Covid pandemic, some anti-vaxxers sported yellow stars to equate themselves with the Jewish victims of the Third Reich, who were forced by law from 1941 to wear a yellow star to distinguish themselves from non-Jewish citizens. Others produced posters of pro-vaccine politicians daubed with a Hitler moustache. In 2020, Democrat congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez sparked a media storm by describing as “concentration camps” US immigrant detention centres set up on the Mexican border on the orders of Donald Trump. Accused of demeaning the memory of the Holocaust, she observed that concentration camps in Nazi-ruled Europe were different from extermination camps.
She was right. Extermination centres such as Treblinka and Sobibór were set up during the Second World War with the sole purpose of killing Jews. That wasn’t the sole – nor even the main – purpose of concentration camps such as Dachau or Buchenwald. These were initially established during the Nazis’ seizure of power in 1933, when political opponents were placed in hastily improvised facilities where they were beaten up and tortured – but not killed. From the late 1930s, they were used as dumping grounds for vagrants, the “work-shy”, gay people, petty criminals and socially marginalised people.
During the war, the camp system expanded rapidly, its sites acting as the main holding centres for hundreds of thousands of forced and slave labourers. Jewish inmates were singled out for particularly brutal and sadistic treatment, but at no time did Jews form a majority of concentration camp inmates. So if we (rightly, in my view) reserve the term Holocaust for the Nazi extermination of Europe’s Jews, concentration camps weren’t part of that murderous campaign.
It was misleading, therefore, to accuse Ocasio-Cortez of insulting the memory of the Holocaust or its Jewish victims. Migrant camps on the US-Mexico border may not be, strictly speaking, concentration camps, but conditions in them are, in the view of many people, inadequate and inhumane.
As was the case with the concentration camps of Nazi Germany during the 1930s, they are designed to deter. Unlike in Nazi Germany, though, inmates aren’t on the whole deliberately terrorised, brutalised, starved or worked to death – so in that respect, Ocasio-Cortez’s comparison was inaccurate.
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In fact, many – if not most – Nazi analogies are historically inaccurate, to put it mildly. Lineker wasn’t right to imply that Suella Braverman was using Nazi language about asylum seekers: hardly anyone, for understandable reasons, sought asylum in Nazi Germany. Plenty of Nazi claims were made about the supposed eugenic threat of people with mental health problems or physical disabilities allegedly corrupting the hereditary purity of the German race – language that served as a justification for the murder of up to 200,000 of them in gas chambers and by lethal injection during the Second World War. But that’s not quite the same thing. Nor has Braverman come even remotely close to threatening to kill people in order to keep them out of the country.
Trump’s rallies may be deeply partisan events, but they’re not orchestrated in the way that Hitler’s were. When anti-vaxxers compare themselves to the Jewish victims of Nazism, they can no more point to any real evidence that wearing a mask or being inoculated against Covid does any harm – nor that failure to do so, unlike failure to render the Hitler salute instead of saying “good morning” to people on the street in Nazi Germany, could lead to incarceration in a concentration camp. Pointing out these things doesn’t amount to any kind of justification or defence of policies that a comparison to the Nazis is intended to condemn. It’s understandable that critics grasp for such an analogy, because the Nazis were, for most people, the most evil and inhumane individuals in history. Inaccurate though it may be, this comparison seems to many the most effective way of expressing a justified condemnation of policies and actions that may seem morally reprehensible. The danger is that using this kind of language carries with it the risk of trivialising the enormity of Nazism’s crimes, and thus downplaying the experience of Nazism’s victims.
Any kind of racism is abhorrent, but not all racists are mass murderers. “Cancel culture”, whether it comes from the right or the left, is a threat to free speech – but banning books isn’t the same as burning them, and censoring an author isn’t the same as putting him or her in a concentration camp. Arresting asylum seekers and illegal immigrants and incarcerating them in degrading conditions without checking the validity or otherwise of their claims is a cruel violation of basic human rights, but it isn’t the same as working them to death or sending them to the gas chambers.
Describing Vladimir Putin as a 21st-century Hitler confuses his drive to extend Russia over the territory of the former tsarist empire with the Nazi drive to conquer the whole of Europe – indeed, ultimately the entire world – potentially fuelling what could be a deadly escalation of the current conflict in eastern Europe.
Historians aren’t going to be able to stop these analogies any time soon. But we can point out that some of them, at least, are dangerously misleading.
This article was first published in the April 2023 issue of BBC History Magazine
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