COMMENTARY: An abyss of historical ignorance

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A boy cleans the street after Kristallnacht in November 1938. Religion News service file photo

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

A boy cleans the street after Kristallnacht in November 1938. Religion News service file photo

(RNS) Demonstrating that a truly ill wind blows no good, The Wall Street Journal proved this week that Holocaust education programs deserve society’s continued support.

A boy cleans the street after Kristallnacht in November, 1938.

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

A boy cleans the street after Kristallnacht in November 1938.

The evidence started with a letter to the editor from venture capitalist Tom Perkins under the headline “Progressive Kristallnacht Coming?” He wrote: “I would call attention to the parallels of fascist Nazi Germany to its war on its ‘one percent,’ namely its Jews, to the progressive war on the American one percent, namely the ‘rich.’”

A few days later, the editorial board of the Journal backed Perkins for what may have been the most-read letter to the editor in the paper’s history.

As for the Nazi metaphor, the editorial said: “That comparison was unfortunate, albeit provocative; a useful rule of thumb is not to liken anything to Nazi Germany unless it happens to be the Stalinist Soviet Union.”

In which case, the headline on the editorial was, ahem, unfortunate: “Perkinsnacht.”

I will leave to others the concept that America’s wealthiest is a persecuted minority. I will focus only on the abyss of historical ignorance displayed by the letter and column.

Start with this: Not all evil things are evil in the same way. And the Nazi Holocaust was different in essence from any other recent evil you can name. Including, say, the Stalinist Soviet Union.

It is no defense of Stalin and his successors to say they were basically standard-issue oppressive dictators operating on a horrifically large scale. Their many millions of targets were mostly those who opposed the Communist Party’s drive for power or whom the party imagined might threaten that power.

Stalin persecuted Jews (and Christians and members of other faiths) partly because their beliefs represented a challenge to the official state philosophy. Ditto for scientists, historians and other scholars whose work defied the Communist dogma. Soviet anti-Semitism was widespread but this uneven: Two of Stalin’s children married Jews.

For many people, disavowing their beliefs, joining the party and keeping their heads down meant they suffered only the same terrible oppression as lots of others in the USSR.

If Perkins were to give away his money, he would surely no longer be subject to the attacks he says he fears. Which is something akin to what his fate might have been under Stalin.

But for Perkins’ Nazi comparison to be remotely accurate, there would have to be a government program to persecute and eventually murder anyone anywhere in the world whose grandparents had ever been wealthy, whether or not they currently had money.

The Nazi Holocaust was a government-run, socially sanctioned persecution of a specific group of people not primarily for their beliefs or their politics or their opposition to the state or their interference with Hitler’s drive to power. Jews (and homosexuals and Roma) were targeted simply because of what they were.

If three of their grandparents had been born Jews, they were considered Jewish — including some Protestant ministers — and were among the slaughtered six million. If two of their grandparents were Jews they might only be subject to forced sterilization. That was the law.

Apartheid in South Africa and American slavery similarly trapped their victims. But their persecution propped up prosperity for whites — a logic the Holocaust lacked. And neither the Afrikaner government nor the Confederacy ever envisioned murdering every black person in the entire world.

That’s what made the Holocaust different from Stalinism or Maoism or any other governmental evil you can name: The scope and ambition, the meticulous organization, the still-inscrutable senselessness. The difference should matter to letter writers like Perkins and it should certainly matter to the editorial board of the Journal.

Cavalier Nazi comparisons disrespect the actual victims of the Nazis by suggesting that any perceived wrong is like the Holocaust.

It’s not.

What’s “Kristallnacht,” that word referenced by those Journal headlines? The website for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum offers this:

“Kristallnacht, literally, ‘Night of Crystal,’ is often referred to as the ‘Night of Broken Glass.’ The name refers to the wave of violent anti-Jewish pogroms which took place on November 9 and 10, 1938, throughout Germany, annexed Austria, and in areas of the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia recently occupied by German troops.”

At least 91 Jews were murdered, 267 synagogues destroyed, 7,500 Jewish-owned businesses wrecked and looted, and as many as 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and eventually sent to concentration camps.

I cannot imagine that a thoughtful person could visit the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, Yad Vashem in Israel, or any number of other such museums and centers and emerge prepared to toss out casual comparisons to the Nazis.

I suggest that Perkins and the members of the Journal editorial board schedule a tour.


  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    I have visited the Holocaust Museum. And it is heart wrenching to see some of the information and exhibits. But there is a debate going on among some interested in history-including Jews- about strategy to make sure horrors like what the Jewish people endured never happens again.
    The question is–is it counterproductive to always point to the unquestioned uniqueness of the Holocaust. For,as one victim of the Armenian Massacres and attempted genocide in Turkey told me: “Don’t our piles of murdered count”.
    One particular professional and very successful Armenian-American writer got so exasperated with no one wanting to publish his book on the Armenian Massacres (while the market was full of Holocaust books) that he lost sympathy for what happened to the Jewish people–even saying “What is this chauvinism of suffering that won’t recognize other’s suffering..”
    Another aspect debated is the issue of whether the use of Holocaust analogies is simply “casual” by some or is it an affirmation of the unique horror of the Holocaust. For by becoming the common example for:” Nothing could be worse” it will unfortunately be loosely used in a manner upsetting to some..

  • Jeffrey Weiss

    Other evils are also evil. But they are different evils. And the differences matter. The Armenian example, like most others, was understandable as a power struggle. The Turks wanted something and the Armenians were in the way. Preventing other such episodes means using the lessons offered by understanding what happened. The Nazi Holocaust has *some* similarities to Armenia, Rwanda, the Balkans, etc etc too many etc. They all involve the dehumanization of the enemy, the Other, in ways that allow the abuses to happen.

    But in every other example I can think of, the attackers could imagine a clear benefit as their primary goal: Land, resources, political power. The Holocaust is simply opaque to that kind of reasoning. The primary goal of the Holocaust was the Holocaust. Whatever mercenary gain fell out as the Jews were slaughtered was secondary gain from the Nazi perspective.

    Had the Journal used a metaphor that referenced Stalin or Mao or the French Revolution, it might still have been absurd as to the merits of the argument. But it would not have failed nearly so utterly as comparison.

    The author’s frustration might be more about the fickle marketplace than how relative evils are understood. Jews and Judaism and the fate of Europe are more woven into American identity than anything to do with Armenia. The US did not wage a war to defeat the enemies of Armenia. The market, the interest, in the Holocaust is simply going to be greater here.

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  • Tommy

    When someone dies their very essence leaves this earth forever. What does it matter one person or 6,000,000 persons? I’m not too sure that I totally disagree with the article. Anyone targeted for abuse and/or death for no reason other than a belief, their skin color or because of what they own fall into the same category. They will die because of a government sanctioned policy to rid the general population of their type. One person so targeted is one person too many. What happened to the Jews and the Armenians may differ as to the reason but the ultimate evil was visited upon a group of people who did not deserve to die. The article draws a perceived parallel to the Jews murdered in the Holocaust and the wealthy. Keep in mind, Hitler outlined exactly where he stood on the “Jewish question” in Mein Kampf. He was always anti-semetic and that bias would not have had an outlet but for his ascension to power in Germany. Even at that he needed to have laws enacted to prosecute the pogram against the Jews. I believe Tom Perkins, in his article, is doing nothing more than pointing out a parallel to what began as a set of laws that discriminated against the Jews and eventually led to the murder of 6,000,000 plus unfortunate people. Though I really do not see the wealthy as targets in the same manner as the Jews or Armenians or Russians I do see a trend to force those with wealth to share that wealth with those who are less fortunate. I must state that I am solid middle class, neither wealthy or lacking but I must take exception to penalizing anyone because their success lead to wealth. Not another Holocaust but then the Holocaust didn’t begin in earnest until the first Jew was murdered. The groundwork had been laid for that first Jew and as I see this article, Perkins is simply stating that we are progressing by laying the groundwork for eventual targetting of the wealthy in America.

  • We Christians sure have a COOL new Pope, don’t we? I really like him a lot, lets keep him in our prayers…. Because prayer really DOES make a difference. Peace in Love to All, Yo

  • Atheist Max

    Alas. Hatred of the Jew. The permanent infidel.

    “And as for these enemies of mine who didn’t want me to be their king–bring them in and EXECUTE THEM right here in front of me.'” (Luke 19:27 )

    “Hence today I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: by defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord.” -Adolf Hitler (Mein Kampf)

    Religion itself is the problem.

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  • Pamela Demasi

    Now let’s talk about the extermination of the American Indian by the government of the United States of America.

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