Politics

Why Holocaust Comparisons Matter

The Nazi genocide gives us a frame of reference to understand modern atrocities.

Side by side of Nazis transporting concentration camp prisoners and the U.S. transporting immigrants.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by German Federal Archives and Mario Tama/Getty Images.

“The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum unequivocally rejects efforts to create analogies between the Holocaust and other events, whether historical or contemporary.”

This statement, posted on the museum’s Twitter feed last week, was prompted by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s description of the immigration detention centers on the southern border as “concentration camps” and the backlash from those who felt that, by using the term, she was cheapening the memory of the Holocaust.

It would have been one thing for the museum to just dispute the applicability of the phrase “concentration camps.” (Although, it’s worth noting that experts on concentration camps have weighed in to say that, yes, the term is appropriate and that the abuses at the border fit into the same category of events as German crimes against the Herero in Namibia and French internment of successive “unwanted populations” at Rivesaltes military camp.)

But that’s not what the museum did. Instead, it rejected any comparisons to the Holocaust, ever. That’s a problem, and not only because it runs contrary to so much of the museum’s own work.

As an open letter from more than 100 historians, published on Monday, emphasized, the Holocaust Memorial Museum’s “Never Again” mission requires that we understand past episodes of genocide and other mass atrocities and analogize between them to draw out lessons for the future. This is exactly what historians and social scientists who study atrocities do. That’s why the museum works with so many of us. My own work, for instance, has examined patterns in the way atrocity perpetrators suppress evidence of their crimes, drawing parallels between Sri Lanka, Syria, and Myanmar, and analyzed the effects of international interventions on different types of mass atrocities.

Recently, I chaired a session of a conference at the museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide. I opened by talking about the link between prevention and historical memory, reflecting on the cognitive dissonance of sitting in a building erected to preserve the memory of one atrocity on land that had been stolen in another largely unremembered atrocity. In the United States, we don’t even give to the genocide of indigenous peoples the lip-service recognition that is increasingly a feature of public life in other settler colonies. We don’t think of this piece of our past as something that needs to be redressed, or even addressed. The absence of comparison to other recognized atrocities is both a symptom and a process of erasure.

A Canadian national commission of inquiry recently concluded that Canada has committed genocide against its indigenous peoples. The conclusion met with resistance from many quarters, much of it arguing implicitly or explicitly that decades of abusive policies and official indifference do not resemble the Holocaust closely enough to constitute genocide.

Like most scholars of mass atrocities, I spend approximately 60 percent of my waking hours making comparisons between “the Holocaust and other events, whether historical or contemporary.” This is not a recent development. I started in grade school. Half of my family are European Jews, so I already knew the word genocide when Rwanda descended into hell in 1994. But I understood it as history, and the Holocaust as a singular, horrific event that had happened a long time ago. It was staggering to discover that hundreds of thousands of people, including children and babies, could be brutally slaughtered while the world stood idly by. Again.

Jewish prisoners are issued food on a building site at Salaspils concentration camp in Latvia in 1941; overcrowding of migrant families observed on June 10 at a Border Patrol station in McAllen, Texas.
Jewish prisoners are issued food on a building site at Salaspils concentration camp in Latvia in 1941; overcrowding of migrant families observed on June 10 at a Border Patrol station in McAllen, Texas.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by German Federal Archives and OIG.

What was not clear to me then was the role that comparisons to the Holocaust played in justifying that inaction. As the event that prompted the invention of the word genocide, the Holocaust has become the yardstick against which all other atrocities are measured. It’s therefore virtually impossible to define anything as a genocide without making an explicit or implicit analogy to it. To say “X is a genocide” is to say “X is of the same category of event as the Holocaust.”

As a consequence, activists, policymakers, and the public all have the perception that “the G-word” carries with it a heightened imperative to act, reflective of a consensus that a repetition of the Holocaust would be unconscionable. This was clear in the Clinton administration’s refusal to use “genocide” to describe Rwanda in 1994—an explicit effort to duck the moral commitment of “Never Again.” It’s clear today in conversations among Western policymakers about how to respond to the Rohingya crisis, conversations that follow the same well-trod paths of wrangling about body counts and the reliability of reports from active killing fields. The subtext is always “how close are we to the line past which inaction would be unforgivable?”

There is exactly one case that we know for sure sits on the other side of that line: the Holocaust.

Fifty-one women are held in a cell designated for male juveniles with a capacity for 40 in a Border Patrol station.
Fifty-one women are held in a cell designated for male juveniles with a capacity for 40, as observed by OIG on June 12 at a Border Patrol station in Fort Brown, Texas.

For victims of other atrocities, the ability to compare the crimes committed against them to the Holocaust is therefore critical to their quest for recognition and redress. Victim activists often invoke the historical example of the Holocaust (even when it may not be applicable) because the genocide label constitutes an acknowledgment that the worst thing that can be done to a people has been inflicted on their community. Given the uphill battle victims must fight against perpetrators’ denials and external audiences’ apathy, this kind of recognition matters deeply. It not only vindicates their claims; it makes them legible.

Almost no atrocities match the scale of the Holocaust’s 11 million deaths and vast, systematized machinery of death. But an analogy is not an assertion that two things are the same. It’s an observation that they have meaningful similarities and that understanding one can tell us something useful about the other. As the single undisputed entry in a highly contested category, the Holocaust’s example holds tremendous power as an analogy—both for victims and for scholars and policymakers. This is why it’s so disappointing to see the museum reject its comparability.