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‘Never Again’: On Holocaust Remembrance Day, extremists are still using Nazi rhetoric and tactics

Yom HaShoah – Holocaust Remembrance Day – has become increasingly important not only for remembering the horrors of the Holocaust, or Shoah, but for reflecting on what we can learn from it and how to apply these lessons today as antisemitism surges in the U.S.

Antisemitic incidents reached an all-time high in the U.S. in 2021, totaling 2,717 incidents of assault, harassment and vandalism reported to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). That’s a 34% increase year over year and the highest number of incidents on record since the ADL began tracking antisemitic incidents in 1979.

If “Never Again” is to retain its meaning and not become a convenient political platitude, we must acknowledge the influence of the U.S. on the rise of Nazism and the current resurgence of antisemitism as an ideology that animates and connects other forms of racism as well.

Scholars of the Holocaust and Nazism know well that white supremacy in the U.S. provided precedence that the Nazis could and did exploit – from slavery to the removal of Indigenous people and Manifest Destiny up to the Jim Crow laws, anti-immigrant and exclusion laws, and the country’s embrace of the pseudoscience of eugenics.

Yale Law School professor James Q. Whitman wrote in a piece for Time in 2017 that in “the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, America led the world in race-based lawmaking, as a broad political consensus favored safeguarding the historically white character of the country. That is, it codified white nationalism.”

The Nazi upper echelon clarified that these policies and laws were as much an inspiration as American industrialist Henry Ford’s depiction of Jewish people in his weekly newspaper, The Dearborn Independent, which published a weekly series of front-page articles under the heading “International Jew” and a bound collection of essays called “The International Jew: The World’s Foremost Problem.”

Ford’s description of Jewish people – the supposed threat of Jewish power and its hidden influence on civilization – inspired Hitler, a fact largely unknown or ignored by the U.S. public today. Indeed, Hitler told The Detroit News, “I regard Henry Ford as my inspiration.”

In his manifesto Mein Kampf, Hitler praised the U.S. as the country that had made the most progress toward a unified and specific racial identity by “excluding certain races from naturalization.” Hitler proclaimed that American eugenicists and their efforts toward eugenical sterilization made America the only country on the correct path regarding race-based citizenship. He lamented that the race-based segregation laws were of U.S. origin and that Germany had yet to replicate them.

As Whitman wrote in his book Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law, “The United States was not just a country with racism. It was the leading racist jurisdiction – so much so that even Nazi Germany looked to America for inspiration.”

The Jim Crow laws that were upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1896 decision in Plessy v. Ferguson legalized a system of racial segregation and overt discrimination against Black Americans, based on the idea of white supremacy. The Nazis saw Jim Crow as a positive, calling it “race protection.” They believed that Hitler and his regime would carry the torch lit by the U.S. regarding “the leadership of the white peoples” in the Aryan struggle for world domination, Whitman wrote in his book.

The Nuremberg Race Laws, introduced in 1935, were the most profound example of the Nazis’ emulation of Jim Crow. The authors were “quite conscious of the racist strain in American law and society,” Whitman wrote, adding that they often praised the U.S. as the “forerunner” in creating a proper race-based society.

‘Dehumanization and fear’

All this is not to lay the blame for the Shoah at our country’s feet.

But we must remember the past with accuracy and authenticity. And we must recognize that the racist themes that underpinned Nazism remain with us today and that antisemitism must not be studied simply as a monolith.

Antisemitism, in fact, is employed to animate or enhance racism and racist conspiracy theories that go well beyond anti-Jewish animus and provides a cross-ideology baseline between other diverse and disparate groups.

In the last year, for example, antisemitism has been used effectively to promote anti-LGBTQ+ hatred in the U.S. The conspiratorial notion that the gay community poses a danger to children is a well-trodden path by the far right. Right-wing TV personalities like Fox News’ Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham have frequently accused the LGBTQ+ community of grooming and “indoctrinating” children. Those who make such accusations would undoubtedly be interested to know that they share the same ideas as Holocaust architect Heinrich Himmler and the Gestapo.

The Nazis, like those who demonize the LGBTQ+ community in the U.S. today, falsely linked gay people with child molestation and the seduction of young people. As the LGBTQ+ rights activist Evan Wolfson says, this is “not a new tactic” but rather a “classic trope of dehumanization and fear.”

The Nazis expertly used this tactic to target those they believed to be Untermenschen – or subhuman. Attempts by the U.S. political right to undermine LGBTQ+ rights are eerily reminiscent of the persecution and condemnation of gay people during the Third Reich, when they were dubbed “career criminals.”

Himmler, commander of the murderous SS squads, believed that “homosexuals were psychologically sick to the core” and were “plagues that would lead any nation into the abyss,” Peter Longerich wrote in his book Heinrich Himmler: A Life. This rhetoric is similar to the way the modern conservative movement claims that “transgender ideology” will, and has had, a “corrosive impact” on society.

One of the most dominant conspiracy theories – again illustrating the overlay between the Nazi regime and modern American rhetoric – is that homosexuality is considered deviant behavior. It should be noted that just as the Nazis did in the 1930s, the antisemitic Goyim Defense League (GDL) of today accuses Jewish people or Judaism of being the root cause of whatever dangers the supposedly pernicious LGBTQ+ “agenda” poses to society. In the Nazi era, Jewish people were frequently depicted in cartoons and pictures as sexually depraved and predators, so it is no surprise that groups like GDL are doing the same.

Jewish people as puppeteers

While it might seem tangential to discuss anti-LGBTQ+ hate on a day like Yom HaShoah, it must be noted that if the surface is scratched at any of these anti-LGBTQ+ organizations, there is a strong strain of antisemitism.

In his article “Skin in the Game,” Eric Ward, a nationally recognized expert on the relationship between authoritarian movements, hate violence and preserving inclusive democracy, succinctly illustrates how antisemitism is a subcurrent under virtually all discriminatory ideologies and theologies.

Jewish people, for instance, have been accused of orchestrating whatever extremists believe the “transgender agenda” is. And in some versions of the white nationalist “great replacement” conspiracy theory – one that has inspired numerous deadly terrorist attacks – Jewish people are ostensibly behind an effort to replace white people in Western nations with immigrants of color.

The depiction of Jewish people as puppet masters or manipulators is an all-too-common theme.

Whether it is Tucker Carlson or conservative podcaster Jason Whitlock claiming that “transgenderism” or an inclusive, “woke” agenda will destroy the nation, there was a similar theme – professed by the upper echelons of the Third Reich – that if these “forces” were not eliminated, society would be destroyed.

Perhaps the revelation that many of these pundits and personalities find themselves in the same rhetorical company with the likes of Himmler will give them pause. But let’s not hold our breath that they will be so enlightened.

What we can do on this day of remembrance and reflection is recognize that the dehumanizing laws, actions and rhetoric that were applied to Jewish people by the Third Reich are being used by U.S. extremists today – not only against Jewish people but other marginalized groups as well.

If “Never Again” is to remain an effective mantra, it is necessary to recognize that Holocaust memory and reflection are larger than antisemitism and that the Holocaust’s lessons must be applied to all marginalized groups in all countries for all time.

Alon Milwicki is a senior research analyst for the SPLC’s Intelligence Project.

Picture at top: Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day, falls on April 17 this year. But amid reflection on the horrors committed by the Third Reich, the U.S. is facing a surge in antisemitism. According to the Anti-Defamation League, antisemitic incidents in the U.S. rose 34% in 2021. Pictured, children visit the New England Holocaust Memorial in Boston during International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Jan. 27, 2023. (Credit: Matt Stone/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald via Getty Images)