Sometimes a clarification of a mistake is even more damning than the mistake itself.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer declared this week, in an attempt to show that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is worse than Hitler, that Hitler "didn't even sink to the level of using chemical weapons.”
Given the obvious fact that Hitler did in fact use chemical weapons — a large share of Holocaust victims were gassed — Spicer clarified.
“He was not using the gas on his own people,” he said.
This is yet another obviously false statement: Thousands of Germans — Jewish, Communist, LGBTQ+, Romani, people with disabilities, and others — were gassed.
But it’s arguably even worse than the first because of what it implies: that Spicer thinks German Jews weren’t really Germans.
This is personal for me. Many of my father’s family members were gassed by the Nazis, and they were certainly German.
They loved Germany, and were it not for the genocide, their descendants would likely be living happily in Germany to this day. In fact, it was precisely because they so identified as Germans that they stayed until it was too late.
Our story isn’t unusual. Germany’s Jewish population in 1933 was 565,000. Just 37,000 remained in 1950.
It is shameful that Spicer erased their stories with his remarks this week. His erasure is part of two important patterns: a pattern of behavior with this administration and also a very long pattern of anti-Semitism in Western civilization.
My family’s life in Germany
My ancestors lived in Germany for centuries; their presence there was first documented in the 17th century. Though they were Jewish, they chose traditional German names and took great pride in their country. My great-grandfathers were German officers in World War I and successful professionally. Arthur received the German military award the Iron Cross, wrote a dissertation on administrative law in Bavaria, and achieved the title of Justizrat, reserved for prominent attorneys. Alexander served as a department director of Dresdner Bank in Augsburg. They lived happy, unremarkable lives. They worked hard, spent time with their families, and had friends, Christian and Jewish alike.
For a little while after the Nazis came to power, it wasn’t so bad. One branch of our family operated a shoe business (Schwagers of Cham), and they did well in the early years, as the military bought a lot of shoes.
Soon though, the Nazis gained more power and used it, in part, to subjugate minorities. Many in the family thought of this period as a horrible aberration and certain to pass — soon, they thought, reasonable people will run the country again. After all, they were loyal Germans; they thought that things would certainly return to normal.
On November 9, 1938, Kristallnacht, an officially coordinated pogrom coupled with large-scale incarceration, shattered their lives. The SS and Gestapo forcibly removed approximately 30,000 Jewish men from their homes, among them were the men of our family. They were detained in Dachau, a concentration camp near Munich. Eventually, many of them were gassed to death with Zyklon B in death camps.
My father’s father survived — after some time in Dachau he was released. He previously applied for a visa to come to the United States, but the wait was long. Because of that status he was permitted to go to a Kitchener transit camp in England where he stayed until he was accepted to the United States in late 1939. He became a citizen and lived a remarkably successful life — notable for someone who was banned from middle school because of his ethnicity. His parents, who were late middle-aged, believed that the trouble would soon pass and didn’t apply for a US visa until much later. They were killed by the Nazis in 1943.
A pattern within the Trump administration
Spicer’s comments this week are not new for this administration: Ever since the campaign, there have been many moments indicating hostility to Jews. In one episode, Donald Trump tweeted a meme focusing on a Jewish star and money, which Matt Yglesias showed originated from white supremacists. In another example, Donald Trump Jr. likened unfavorable media coverage to Holocaust victims’ treatment in gas chambers.
Just a week after his inauguration, President Trump made a statement on Holocaust Remembrance Day that omitted reference to Jews as victims — he referred simply to the “innocent people” who died at the hands of the Nazis.
This was a major departure from decades of past practice and was quickly and rightly identified as an act of anti-Semitism. Without context, the statement might seem completely reasonable and benign. In many cases, referring generally to innocent people rather than enumerating them would be fine.
In this particular instance, there is a more problematic context. Many neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and their allies were thrilled with this choice, since they seek to minimize the victimization of Jews when discussing the Holocaust. On the face of it, the change doesn’t appear very major. But when one understands it as putting aside longstanding, bipartisan White House approaches to instead use a neo-Nazi talking point, the episode is deeply disturbing.
Several administration officials, notably Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka, have longstanding ties to white supremacist, neo-Nazi, and fascist groups. Add the exceptional support and praise of David Duke, perhaps the US’s most prominent Klansman, anti-Semite, and Holocaust denier, and one can see a clear pattern of anti-Semitic political support, personnel, and speech.
It’s not only Jews who have been treated with hostility by the Trump administration. Its members routinely vilify Hispanics, Native Americans, immigrants, and Muslims, to name a few of the more recently prominent. Not only has the Trump administration worked to use its bully pulpit to make these communities feel unwelcome and endangered, it has also used its administrative tools to put them at risk.
A pattern throughout history
For millennia, Jews have mostly lived in countries where they were minority groups. Sometimes it went well and sometimes it didn’t. Those opposed to Jews living peacefully as part of their countries have traditionally relied on a few major tropes. Among them, that Jews aren’t really trustworthy and they aren’t really “like us.” A prominent example of this is the Nazi idea of Volksgemeinschaft: that there is a German volk, a people, and that it was defined in a way that kept Jewish-German citizens outside it.
The propaganda approach preceded the legal discrimination. The Nazi regime began by crafting the ideal of Germans (light-skinned, blonde, blue-eyed, etc.) and differentiating them from various groups they described as degenerate (Jews, Romani, people with disabilities, etc.). The Nazis pushed the idea that these degenerate groups would mix with true Germans and spoil Germany. They also blamed many of Germany’s misfortunes on these groups, especially Jews.
As the Nazis worked to narrow the cultural understanding of who really is German, they also passed the Nuremberg laws to institutionalize many of these discriminatory ideas. These laws forced my great-grandfather, and tens thousands of others, out of their professions. It started with pushing the idea that various sub-groups weren’t really German and were the cause of many problems.
When Spicer implied that German Jews weren’t German, despite people like my family members who lived in Germany for hundreds of years, it hits a very raw nerve. Does he think American Jews are as American as he is or other American Christians are? Does he think that other minority groups are real Americans? The pattern of this administration so far indicates that it doesn’t.
This is especially alarming because of how it fits in with centuries of anti-Semitism. It’s also hard not to see the parallels to the current administration’s treatment of immigrants and Muslims. What’s important isn’t that my ancestors were German, but that we understand the consequences of a narrowing definition of who was a real German then — or a real American now.
Why I am speaking out
This is the first time in my life I have ever publicly noted someone’s anti-Semitism, and I don’t do so lightly. I do it because America is stronger politically, morally, and practically when we celebrate one of our most important values: diversity. Many people have come to this country to escape oppression, famine, persecution, and war, and others were brought here as slaves. These immigrants and their descendants of all religions and ethnicities have been some of our leading Americans, scientists, politicians, business leaders, generals, entertainers, journalists, and academics.
We became the dominant world power because we have long accepted and integrated those from all places. If we want America to remain a superpower, we’ll need to continue to embrace our diversity — plus, it’s the right thing to do.
My family were loyal Germans for centuries. We’ve lived here in the US since 1939. We are so grateful to be Americans now. We love America and dream to always be Americans. We are no less American than our friends and neighbors whose families have been here since before the Revolutionary War. When Trump and his staff imply otherwise, they degrade America and insult every American citizen.
Zach Teutsch is a values-focused financial adviser helping clients structure their financial lives to support living fulfilling lives. He is also the chairperson of his Advisory Neighborhood Commission in Washington, DC, and active in several Jewish communities. Visit his website, and follow him on Twitter: @zteutsch.