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The Wisconsin high schoolers’ Hitler salute and the problem of “ironic” Nazism

This is what happens when memory of the Holocaust fades.

Baraboo, Wisconsin students give the Nazi salute before prom this spring.
Jules Suzdaltsev
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

It looks like something out of a dystopian alternative history novel: a group of kids from Wisconsin, dressed up in their finest for prom, giving the Nazi salute while grinning from ear to ear.

Except the photo is 100 percent real. It was taken in Baraboo, Wisconsin, before the 2018 prom, but went viral on Monday after an anonymous Twitter account sent it out with the caption “We even got the black kid to throw it up #barabaooproud.” Journalist Jules Suzdaltsev first noticed it, and subsequently reported a number of accounts from other Baraboo High School students detailing a culture of racism and bigotry among the class of 2019.

This isn’t just a story, though, of one high school. It’s representative of the grim fact that American memory of Nazi crimes is fading, especially among younger generations. In a poll released in April, by the Claims Conference, an advocacy group for Jewish Holocaust survivors, 66 percent of millennials didn’t know what Auschwitz was. The number was 41 percent for all Americans.

This widespread ignorance has a lot of causes, but the two most obvious ones are the weak state of Holocaust education in American schools and the dwindling number of Holocaust survivors and World War II veterans remaining in the country. The clear result is a distance from the reality of the Nazi regime, a fading of the moral horror that Americans with more immediate experiences with World War II felt.

At Baraboo High School, Jordan Blue, one of the few students in the photo who refused to give the salute, told a local newspaper that his classmates were trying to make an “upsetting” joke. It was apparently encouraged by the photographer; according to someone present, the students spent “about five minutes taking pictures and laughing” about their salute to Adolf Hitler.

This is the inevitable result of a world in which remembrance of the deadly reality of Naziism has faded. A world where Nazis are primarily the enemies in video games and stock bad guys in movies is one in which they don’t have to be taken as seriously — and where among certain young white men, “ironic” celebrations of Nazism becomes possible, whether they’re hanging out at high schools like Baraboo or in alt-right troll dens like 4chan.

But the forces that animated genuine Nazism are experiencing a kind of resurgence — and too often, ironic neo-Nazism can bleed into the genuine article.

The problem isn’t Holocaust denial — it’s Holocaust forgetting

I’m a millennial — born in 1988 — but I never felt distanced or ignorant about the Holocaust. That’s because my maternal grandparents are survivors.

While my grandmother Anita died when I was little, my grandfather David was around a lot when I was growing up, even living with us for a time. I saw the tattoo on his arm and the psychological trauma being in Auschwitz inflicted on him. The Holocaust wasn’t past for me; it was almost literally present in our home.

But my experience was far from typical, and becomes less so by the day. CNN estimated in 2017 that there were about 100,000 Holocaust survivors still living in the United States, about half of whom resided in the New York metropolitan area. While older Americans had a lot of chances to meet either a survivor or a liberator — an American soldier who saw active concentration camps with their own two eyes — a smaller and dwindling proportion of younger Americans will have had the same opportunity.

America’s school system is not picking up the slack. Only nine states mandate some kind of Holocaust and/or genocide education for students in elementary, middle, or high school, per the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. Even history classes aren’t necessarily teaching students what they need to know.

The result is significant and growing ignorance about the true nature of Nazi crimes, as documented in the Claims Conference study. It found that 22 percent of millennials are “unaware” or “not sure” of what the Holocaust is, as compared to 11 percent of all US adults. Forty-one percent of millennials believe that 2 million or fewer Jews died in the Holocaust; 31 percent of all adults believe the same. (The number is closer to 6 million.)

These figures include millennials like me — people old enough to have spent significant time with survivors and World War II veterans. The Baraboo students are part of the next generation, Generation Z, which is likely to display even lower levels of awareness about what happened in places like Auschwitz and Dachau.

“The issue is not that people deny the Holocaust; the issue is just that it’s receding from memory,” Greg Schneider, the Claims Conference’s executive vice president, told the New York Times.

The problem of “ironic” anti-Semitism

Several examples of Pepe the Frog, a meme popular with alt-right internet users, altered to serve as a neo-Nazi emblem.

That’s not to say that these younger Americans are ignorant of World War II, per se. The conflict is a part of national mythology, omnipresent not only in political rhetoric but also pop culture. Awareness of the conflict itself seems, to me, to still be fairly high.

The problem, instead, is the cartoonification of Hitlerism. The Nazis are less of a real-life villain than a stand-in for overall villainy, the go-to insult if you want to call a political movement evil but one devoid of actual content. It’s related to a problem that scholars and advocates call “Holocaust trivialization:” the minimization of one of the most profound historical evils through cheap and commonplace references to it.

“There are still living survivors, and already their past has been turned into a kind of no man’s land where false certainties and true arrogance rule,” Elie Wiesel, the famous Holocaust survivor, wrote in a prescient 1989 New York Times article. “In the field of the audio-visual, the temptation is generally reductionist: shrinking personalities to stereotypes and dialogue to cliches.”

The culture Wiesel describes, where the unimaginable horror of Nazism is replaced in memory with its superficial twin, is likely the same one that makes “ironic” Nazi invocations like the one in the Baraboo prom photo possible.

A group of teenagers like this wouldn’t laugh about the Nazis if they actually understood what they were invoking. Either they wouldn’t do it, or they would be so far gone morally that they would be doing it in earnest. Instead, widespread ignorance about the Holocaust has contributed to a climate where Sieg-Heiling is seen by some youth as a transgressive act: Not an actual call to genocide, which it remains among hardcore white nationalists, but a way of sticking it to the stuffy PC elites.

If Nazi Germany and the Holocaust are props, simulacra of events rather than the real thing, then it becomes much easier to throw them around jokingly as part of a jocular culture war.

That may be what the kids at Baraboo High are telling their parents and school administrators right now: That they were just joking around. But that excuse, as many of their own classmates have noted in comments to journalists, isn’t enough: The line between ironic and serious Nazism is scarily blurry.

The internet trolls who say they’re “just kidding” when they sling anti-Semitic online sound indistinguishable from dedicated anti-Semites. In fact, they sound the same. An investigation into 75 far-right activists by journalist Robert Evans found that “ironic” anti-Semitic memes played a role in radicalizing several of them.

“It’s not uncommon for white supremacist, fascist and anti-Semitic beliefs to arise initially as the result of humor,” Evans writes on the investigative journalism site Bellingcat. “Ironic memes gave this individual a chance to get used to the temperature before diving in.”

I know how this works firsthand. 4chan, a popular web forum for internet trolls, has a dedicated forum (/pol) that’s become a haven for “ironic” anti-Semitism and racism. My reporting on a white nationalist rally earlier this year attracted the attention of /pol users, who were unhappy both with the content and my Jewishness. They doxxed my personal address and the date and location of my wedding, threatening to crash it. One promised, in a note to my wife and I in our online guestbook, that “some day soon you will shut your lying mouths for good.”

My experience is not entirely atypical for Jews who live in the public square. All can point to some degree of anti-Semitic harassment, especially since the beginning of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. A lot of it comes from allegedly ironic internet trolls, who claim to be in it more for the joy of transgression then from a deep hatred of Jews or other minorities.

It’s a scary social and political climate, one enabled by America’s failure to educate about the Holocaust. And if schools don’t get better, things could well get worse. Survivors, increasingly unable to tell their own stories, are counting on us to keep the flame of remembrance. We’re not doing a good enough job.