Jeff Sessions tries to beat back Nazi comparisons, gets literally everything wrong

Attorney General Jeff Sessions went on Fox News on Monday night to defend the Trump administration’s immigration policy, which has led to family separations at the border. He ended up botching Holocaust history, accidentally making the case that the Trump approach to immigration is similar to the way Nazis treated Jews.

Border Patrol officers have apparently been telling parents that they’re just taking their kids away to bathe, only for the parents to realize hours later the kids are never coming back. This is the exact same thing concentration camp guards told people before being taken to gas chambers to stop them from panicking, which has led to a lot of Nazi comparisons in the press.

Fox Host Laura Ingraham asked Sessions about these comparisons on Monday night. Here was his response: “It’s a real exaggeration. In Nazi Germany, they were keeping the Jews from leaving the country.”

There are a significant number of historical and logical errors packed into that one short answer. Perhaps the most notable is, prior to the creation of the concentration camps, the Nazis did in fact forcibly expel thousands of Jews from Germany — and, as part of the policy, forcibly separated Jewish families.

In October 1938, before the Nazis had developed the plan for the Holocaust, the German government expelled roughly 17,000 Jews with Polish citizenship living in Germany. At this point, the Nazis hadn’t yet figured out what they wanted to do to their Jewish population and were exploring mass expulsions as an option.

In some cases, this policy involved breaking up families. Gestapo officers would round up the men and expel them while leaving Jewish women and children in Germany. The intent was to force the women and children to “self-deport” back to Poland, to attempt to find their male family members, sparing the Nazis the expense and effort of formally deporting them.

By Sessions’s own standard — it’s only like the Nazis if it’s literally something the Nazis did — then he’s made the case for comparing current US policy to the Third Reich’s. The family separation policy, much like the expulsion of Jewish men, is an attempt to inflict so much pain on a particular population (Central American migrants) that they won’t risk trying to live in the United States anymore.

Leaving aside the historical specifics, though, it’s remarkable that Sessions thinks this is a compelling argument. “We aren’t exactly like the Nazis; we’re just separating children from their parents indefinitely and holding them in detention camps” isn’t exactly a compelling brief for the Trump policy.

Now, the US government is not setting up extermination camps for migrants, nor is it going to. Suggesting it is really would be going too far.

But that’s not what the Trump administration’s critics are suggesting here. Instead, they’re making the comparison to point out the disturbing moral worldview behind family separations. Treating children like pawns, intentionally inflicting suffering on them to deter migration from overwhelmingly Latino countries, is not something that liberal democracies are supposed to do. The only historical parallels are dark chapters in democratic history, like Japanese internment, or authoritarian states that have embarked on ethnic cleansing campaigns.

Whether the policy is literally identical to what the Nazis did is almost beside the point. If you need to explain why you aren’t like Hitler, you’ve already lost.

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