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COMMENTARY: An abyss of historical ignorance

(RNS) Cavalier Nazi comparisons disrespect the actual victims of the Nazis by suggesting that any perceived wrong is like the Holocaust. It's not.

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.

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.


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