This week marks the 75th anniversary of Anne Frank’s family going into hiding. We originally published this essay May 6.
When White House press secretary Sean Spicer suggested in April that atrocities carried out under Syrian President Bashar al-Assad were in some way worse than those of Adolf Hitler, his statement placed him firmly in the bosom of a fine American tradition. Spicer may have sparked national outrage and calls for his resignation — a sign that, at least in some quarters, it was understood that what he said was beyond the pale. Yet the historical record reveals him as the latest in a long line of American officials making questionable Hitler comparisons similarly rooted in ignorance or thoughtlessness.
During the opening months of the first Gulf War in 1990, President George H.W. Bush asserted that Saddam Hussein had used human shields on strategic targets, a kind of "brutality that I don't believe Adolf Hitler ever participated in." Five years later, New York City Congress member Charles Rangel equated Republicans' social policies toward minorities with the treatment of Jews under Hitler, and his fellow representative, Major Owens, declared Republicans "worse than Hitler."
The impulse to Hitlersplain existed across much of the 20th century, starting as far back as Rep. John Robison of Kentucky, who claimed that FDR's New Deal "treated our citizens worse than Hitler treated the Jews in Germany." Posted into the congressional debate record in 1939, Robison's indictment predated the Holocaust itself — not that that made the argument any less foolish.
Nor did Spicer’s comment represent his first foray into Holocaust-related controversy. A January statement issued on International Holocaust Remembrance Day had previously rattled historically minded listeners by addressing the tragedy without referencing Jews at all. What might have started as a gaffe was underlined the next day, when Spicer emphasized the many groups of people who had died at the hands of the Nazis. "Despite what the media reports," he said, "we are an incredibly inclusive group and we took into account all of those who suffered."
The Holocaust occupies a peculiar place in American political discourse. Hitler serves as shorthand for pure evil, and the Holocaust is taught in schools, memorialized in a DC museum, and remembered in films like Schindler’s List as the epitome of inhumanity in the modern world. It is, in some ways, everywhere.
Key elements of it are nonetheless missing when it comes to US Holocaust literacy. Knowledge of the basic facts of Hitler’s murder of 6 million Jews is sufficiently thin that Spicer-level ignorance persists. America has processed the Holocaust in a very American way, lionizing the liberation of camp survivors without doing a very good job of recalling the remaining details.
In combination with the willful denial of committed anti-Semites — some of whom see Trump as a fellow-traveler — a superficial understanding of the Holocaust can be toxic. The repeated embrace of ignorance by those in power eventually bleeds over into denial.
In the 1940s, skepticism — followed by a revelation of horrors
During World War II, despite eyewitness accounts, many Americans remained skeptical about reports of the Holocaust. When the last Nazi concentration camps were liberated in spring 1945 and the public saw newsreel footage and photos of emaciated prisoners and piles of corpses, those reports were brutally confirmed.
That April, Allied Commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower paid a visit to the camp at Ohrdruf, Germany, afterwards cabling to his superior, General George C. Marshall, Chief of Staff of the US Army, that he wanted "to be in a position to give first-hand evidence of these things if ever, in the future, there develops a tendency to charge these allegations merely to 'propaganda.'" He called for a contingent of press and elected representatives to visit the same month, and these accounts formed the core of the first chapter in postwar American interpretation of the Holocaust.
Still, American journalists did not at first fathom the machinery of genocide set in motion by Hitler's executioners. The Nazis had tried to conceal their actions, dismantling extermination sites at places like Sobibór and Treblinka ahead of approaching Allied forces. Hiding all signs of Treblinka's existence, workers razed buildings, removed train tracks, plowed the earth, and brought in sand from a nearby quarry to cover what was left. Even at Auschwitz, fleeing Germans detonated the crematoria to destroy evidence, evacuating most prisoners on a forced march westward.
Though Soviet forces liberated Auschwitz in January 1945, months passed before US journalists understood that Buchenwald and other sites reached first by American soldiers had served as antechambers to the Nazis' most nefarious acts. By summer, some groups began to assert that six million Jews had been murdered, but it would take years to piece together how the system had grown from the first permanent Nazi camp at Dachau in spring of 1933 to the creation of extermination factories to implement the Final Solution.
The Iron Curtain went up before the extent of Nazi atrocities were fully understood. The need to reclaim Germany as an ally to face the threat of communism in the East led to diplomatic efforts not to offend Berlin. Jewish American publications and organizations protested that in everything from the reduction of Nazi war crime sentences to the US failure to demand the return of Jews' stolen property, an emphasis on the Soviet foe was leading the government to paper over Germany's crimes for political purposes.
In addition, survivors who made it to America were sometimes reticent about their experiences, leading to a public aware of spotty examples and the fact of mass killings but with no real handle on the Holocaust.
When the Holocaust entered popular culture, it was often sanitized
Into this mix of public ignorance and anti-Communist anxiety came popular representations of the tragedy. On this front, nothing compared to the worldwide popularity of the publication of Anne Frank's The Diary of a Young Girl, which ended up selling in excess of 30 million copies and being translated into more than 70 languages. In many ways, Anne's story — universally known, historically a little opaque — came to represent the American interpretation of the Holocaust.
The diary of an adolescent girl trapped in hiding during Nazi occupation first appeared in English in the US in 1952. Though it contains only bits of Jewish identity, such as the family's Hanukkah celebration in 1942, Anne's entire existence is sharply circumscribed by the danger posed by Nazis and collaborators. Much of the power of the book comes from historical events not directly discussed. Readers do not hear from Anne after she is deported to Auschwitz or Bergen-Belsen. They do not see her sick with typhus. They never have to watch her die.
When the playwrights Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett adapted the diary into a 1955 play for American audiences, they steered the story even further from the history that had birthed it. Goodrich and Hackett deliberately minimized the Jewishness of the Franks in favor of a more universal story that could reach a larger audience. Gone were the Gestapo at the door and the Franks' Hanukkah celebration. In their place was an upbeat finale in which Anne declares her faith in humanity. The script won a Tony award for best play, and the Pulitzer for drama.
The 1959 movie that followed pulled Anne Frank deeper into the realm of the generic. For those who knew some background history, her story was always freighted with additional meaning; for those who did not, she became an inspirational spirit defying her somewhat vague captivity. It was possible to watch the play or see the movie and learn almost nothing about the Holocaust.
Anne Frank's adolescence and images of concentration camp liberation were seared into American consciousness, but absent greater historical context the Holocaust quickly became an all-purpose symbol rather than a series of historical events to be reckoned with. The Nazis were transformed into cardboard villains, and the Jews of Europe became victims of the camps, without the US public gaining any understanding of the evolution of the camps or exactly what was done in them.
On the heels of the Anne Frank movie, more complete depictions of the Holocaust made their way into American culture. War correspondent William Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, the benchmark popular synthesis of the Nazi era, appeared in 1960 and addressed the Final Solution directly. Shirer's opus sold millions of copies despite running more than a thousand pages, and reached even more readers through serialization in Reader's Digest.
The abduction of Adolf Eichmann from Argentina by Israeli agents the same year and his subsequent trial before the District Court of Jerusalem provided additional grounding in the minutiae of the Holocaust for those who paid attention. Months after his capture, the former German lieutenant colonel faced more than a dozen charges, including "crimes against the Jewish people," for his role in orchestrating the Nazi deportation and murder of European Jews.
Eichmann sat in the dock behind bulletproof glass for a trial that drew international attention. Hannah Arendt went to Israel to cover the proceedings for the New Yorker, the Associated Press sent out updates that wound up on front pages of local newspapers around the country, and portions of the trial were broadcast to dozens of countries.
Americans performed poorly on a questionnaire about the Holocaust
Historian Deborah Lipstadt notes that a poll conducted after the Eichmann trial suggested 77 percent of Americans had heard about the trial and approved of it. Nonetheless, questionnaires in subsequent years indicated a lack of even basic knowledge about the Holocaust.
As late as 2005, less than half of Americans could correctly identify Auschwitz, Dachau, and Treblinka as concentration camps. Given a choice of numbers, only one in three could identify that 6 million Jews had been killed. (Options ranged from 25,000 to 20 million.) In by far the worst performance among citizens from seven countries surveyed, nearly 40 percent of Americans got both questions wrong. Spicer's ignorance of the Holocaust may be more representative than we would like to admit.
By the mid-1960s, other marginalized groups began to use the Holocaust as a metaphor for their own suffering. The Holocaust became a means of insisting on the acknowledgment of abuses that had been less visible or less acknowledged. In The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan compared married women's subjugation and death of the spirit in domestic settings to "a comfortable concentration camp," suggesting that American wives had become similarly dehumanized and victimized.
During the same decade, the idea of a "Black Holocaust" emerged to draw attention to centuries of atrocities endured by African Americans under chattel slavery and its aftermath; the notion took on material form in 1988 at America's Black Holocaust Museum, in Milwaukee. Even when the vastness of the suffering merited the analogy, the specificity of the Holocaust as a Jewish event was further obscured.
Conflicts that erupted in the wake of World War II also shaped how Americans came to view this history. After troop deployments in Korea and then Vietnam, which continued into the 1970s, the Second World War retroactively took on additional meaning: a battle against an inarguably evil foe who was utterly defeated. By the 1970s, it had become less clear if Americans were still the good guys.
The Holocaust was not the reason the US entered World War II, but the incontrovertibly noble mission of saving European Jews allowed the public to avoid too much contemplation of complicating events like the US failure to offer refuge to those fleeing Hitler, the Allied firebombing of Dresden and Tokyo, and later, the use of atomic weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
However, studio productions remained perhaps the biggest cultural culprits in rendering the Holocaust memorable yet generic. Heroes and survivors often became more vivid than the dead. Schindler's List, for example — though it rocketed the Holocaust back into American consciousness — is about a repentant Nazi who saved in excess of 1,000 Jews far more than it is about the dead or their murderers.
The United States has been built on optimism and centuries of historical amnesia, and it is unlikely that those things will change anytime soon. Blaming the public for failing to comprehend the context and complexity of the Holocaust is hardly fair when even those philosophers and writers most connected to it have been unable to come to terms with its meaning.
In the end, it remains incomprehensible that a society steeped in Enlightenment culture and intellectual sophistication could shape its technology, bureaucracy, and citizens into a monstrous apparatus willing to work against its own strategic needs during wartime to execute the disabled and eradicate Jews and Roma from the face of the earth. It will never be possible for anyone to fully fathom or be accountable to this history.
Ignorance abets denial — and “denial lite”
What society can less afford to tolerate is actual denial, which thrives on ignorance as well as on the kind of generic memories used to preserve the Holocaust in pop culture. Denial can take many forms. Best known and least common, the strongest form of denial holds that the Holocaust is a hoax, thereby casting racist radicals and the alt-right as victims of an elitist global conspiracy. Stoking fears of crime, disease, degeneracy, overt denialists tribalize individuals into opposing communities, sow hate and fear, and foster violence.
More subtle is a kind of "denial lite," which questions the numbers actually killed or relativizes the death of Jews in the Holocaust by comparing them to losses during other historical conflicts. In one variant of denial lite, emphasis is redirected to additional victims of the Nazis, such as Catholic Poles or Soviet residents who starved during the siege of Leningrad. In other cases, the staggering toll of communist repression in Eastern Europe or Soviet occupation of the Baltic states are trotted out, as if fully acknowledging Nazi genocide would somehow lessen the significance of other atrocities.
Spicer’s comparison of Assad and Hitler — to Hitler’s advantage — was foolish and received the scorn it deserved. It may have been rooted in ignorance, but at some point repeated inadvertent denial becomes indistinguishable from the intentional kind. For Spicer to unwittingly compound his errors again and again signals that the truth is not worth the effort to learn, or to keep in mind.
By balking at distancing itself from overtly anti-Semitic supporters and flirting with “denial lite,” the Trump administration as a whole has unsettled historians. Sebastian Gorka, a counterterrorism adviser to the Trump administration, has been accused of extremist tendencies for ties to a Hungarian group identified as Nazi collaborators by the State Department. Chief strategist Steve Bannon’s apocalyptic views on race, and his admiration for the Nazi propaganda of director Leni Riefenstahl, should make anyone familiar with Holocaust history nervous.
The proximity of such people to presidential power makes it harder to tell how much Trump’s, or Spicer’s, rhetoric should be chalked up to incompetence, and how much to malice.
Not since Pat Buchanan's presidential campaign as a Republican in 1996 have accusations of white supremacy so dogged a serious contender for the presidency. Trump's penchant for retweeting white nationalists, Richard Spencer's early support, and David Duke's enthusiasm over Trump's candidacy were followed by echoes of anti-Semitic propaganda in a campaign ad. In such a setting, Spicer saying Hitler was more restrained than Assad because he “was not using the gas on his own people” comes across as especially ominous, relying as it does on the notion that Jews remain essentially alien.
So it was with a sense of relief that many heard President Donald Trump spout more appropriate boilerplate language for the US Holocaust Memorial Museum's "Days of Remembrance" event at the Capitol Rotunda. "Those who deny the Holocaust are an accomplice to this horrible evil,” Trump said. “And we’ll never be silent.”
His performance was an unusual success, by his standards, in that he managed to avoid distorting history, sympathizing with deniers, or delivering unintentional slurs against his audience. But his speech will likely be forgotten more quickly than his failure to separate himself in any meaningful way from the troll army of supporters who spent the campaign posting images of ovens and stoking anti-Semitism.
Americans have vowed "never again," but what does that mean? That we will not allow literal Nazis to rise once more? That we will stop anti-Semitism? That we will not permit another genocide? That we will protect vulnerable peoples when they are targeted by governments?
While the US has already failed to greater or lesser degrees at each of these, the "again" in "never again" implies the ability to recognize that future dangers might well resemble past tragedy. At a minimum, those at the highest levels of American politics must learn the basics of Holocaust history and be accountable to its indelible facts.
Correction: This article originally included an incorrect title for George C. Marshall. In 1945, he was Chief of Staff of the US Army.
Andrea Pitzer is the author of One Long Night: A Global History of Concentration Camps, forthcoming in September 2017
The Big Idea is Vox’s home for smart discussion of the most important issues and ideas in politics, science, and culture — typically by outside contributors. If you have an idea for a piece, pitch us at firstname.lastname@example.org.