OPINION: False historical equivalence empties Nazi era of its unique horror

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OPINION: False historical equivalence empties Nazi era of its unique horror

Don’t trivialise Nazism to score political points, warns authorJeremy Havardi.

Jeremy Havardi is a freelance journalist and author

Gary Lineker outside his home on Saturday.
Gary Lineker outside his home on Saturday.

Last week’s comments by Gary Lineker, referencing the government’s proposed illegal migration bill, caused a storm of protest, writes Jeremy Havardi for Jewish News.

In his tweet, the ex-footballer decried ‘an immeasurably cruel policy directed at the most vulnerable people in language that is not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the 30s’.

One must be blind to assume that he was referring to the excesses of the Weimar Republic.

Jeremy Havardi, B’nai B’rith

To believe that the language of British politicians today over immigration is similar to that of the Nazis is naïve and ignorant. Jews were referred to as bacteria and microbes, as parasites feeding on a ‘host’ nation, as sexual predators lusting after German women and as sub-humans intent on destroying the German nation.

No British politician today would survive such a verbal onslaught against a minority.

Pic: Sky News

Neither were Jews in the 1930s targeted for being unwanted refugees. They were citizens of Germany with deep and long-standing ties to the country and were attacked simply because they were Jewish. The hateful language of the Nazi state came from a genocidal regime that was engaged in systematic eliminationism: first to demonise and isolate Jews within Germany, then to eliminate them from Germany and finally to destroy them altogether.

While the government’s new migration bill is controversial, and while some hostile language has (shamefully) been directed at refugees, it is not the case that British ministers are agents of a would-be genocidal state. A better reference point might have been Britain’s own right-wing press in the 1930s or Australia’s current immigration policies.

Nazis remove Jewish prayer books from a shul for burning during Kristallnacht in 1938. Credit: Yad Vashem

Some might argue that celebrities cannot be expected to offer sophisticated political analysis. Perhaps so, but this is no excuse. High profile figures have millions of followers and the historical distortions to which they allude can be hugely influential.

The problem with Lineker’s false analogy is that it serves to de-historicise the Nazi era. Instead of seeing it as a complex period in the past with unique policies aimed at particular victims for very specific reasons, that era becomes a shorthand for more generalised forms of perceived immorality, cruelty and intolerance.

The main point of referencing Hitler or the Nazis is not to understand historical events in their own right, something that would lead to valuable warnings about the danger of genocidal regimes, one-party states or antisemitism, but to attack disagreeable political events of the present, no matter how distant they are from the reality of Nazi Germany.

Sadly, there seems to be no shortage of British policies that are supposedly a reincarnation of Hitlerite hatred. Amid the Lineker furore, Alistair Campbell was tweeting that the ‘abolition of BBC singers and cuts to BBC orchestras was ‘another resonance with 30s Germany’.

Discussing Brexit, British journalist India Knight wrote of her battles with obtaining settled status in the UK, writing: ‘I now have a letter from the Home Office that I carry about on my phone, in case I need to show it to someone, like a Jew in late 1930s Berlin.’

David Lammy

On another occasion, Labour MP David Lammy implied that resisting the Tory ERG (European Research Group) was akin to fighting the appeasement of Hitler while former UKIP leader Gerard Batten suggested that the Nazis ‘drew up’ the basic plan for the EU.

This perverse mangling of history has also seeped into American discourse. In 2019 Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez slated the immigration policies of the Trump administration by declaring that the US was ‘running concentration camps’ on the country’s southern border.

CNN anchor Christiane Amanpour offered her own distortion of the historical record on a show from 2020 on the anniversary of Kristallnacht. Invoking the ‘attack on fact, knowledge, history and proof’ in that ‘tower of burning books’, Amanpour claimed that there had been ‘four years of a modern-day assault on those same values by Donald Trump.’ Amanpour later expressed contrition for her remarks after a barrage of condemnation.

These false historical equivalences empty the Nazi era of its unique horror and importance. They offer a dangerous trivialisation of the past and insult the victims of racial persecution and dictatorship. There is a simply lesson here. One should invoke history to learn its lessons, not to score cheap political points.

  • Jeremy Havardi is director of international affairs for B’nai B’rith UK, a journalist, historian and long standing political activist.
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