NEW YORK — This is really not all that complicated. Once and for all, politicians and pundits of all persuasions should get it into their heads that making analogies to the Holocaust or Nazi Germany in the context of 21st-century U.S. politics is not just unseemly but borders on, if not crosses over, into the obscene.
It was both vicious and reprehensible when Rush Limbaugh repeatedly likened President Obama to Adolf Hitler, braying to his nationwide radio audience that “Obama’s got a health care logo that’s right out of Adolf Hitler’s playbook.”
He said, “Obama is asking citizens to rat each other out like Hitler did”; the president “is sending out his brownshirts to head up opposition to genuine American citizens who want no part of what Barack Obama stands for and is trying to stuff down our throats”; and “Adolf Hitler, like Barack Obama, also ruled by dictate.”
Unfortunately, most Republican leaders, with a few notable exceptions, have refused to renounce Limbaugh even with respect to his most pernicious excesses. It would have been nice, for example, if former U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) had publicly called Limbaugh to task for comparing the president of the United States to Hitler. By allowing Limbaugh’s Nazi analogies to go largely unanswered, the GOP leadership has given him and others like him a virtual license to defame.
Thus, no one should have been surprised when, like a grotesque caricature of the Energizer bunny, Limbaugh kept on going just last month with yet another offensive Nazi analogy, only this time he also targeted former President Clinton.
“Propaganda versus truth. Which wins?” Limbaugh asked. “What was Hitler more concerned with? Propaganda. Did Hitler succeed for a time? Yeah, he did. What was Clinton more concerned with, truth or propaganda? What’s Obama more concerned with, truth or propaganda?”
Limbaugh is far from alone. As I noted in a different context in these pages only eight months ago, the head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission had no problem saying publicly that the Obama administration’s health care reform “is not something like what the Nazis did. It is precisely what the Nazis did.”
Glenn Beck, another ultra-conservative radio talk show host, disparaged the president’s plan to expand the Peace Corps and its domestic counterpart, AmeriCorps, as “what Hitler did with the SS.” The president of the Republican Women of Anne Arundel County in Maryland chose to write on the group’s website, “Obama and Hitler have a great deal in common.” Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich declared that the Obama administration’s policies represent “as great a threat to America as Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union once did.” And then there are the participants in Tea Party rallies who brandished images of President Obama with a Hitler-like mustache and signs with “Obama” written under a swastika.
Now comes California Democratic Party Chairman John Burton to remind us that Democrats are quite capable of making Nazi analogies that are every bit as odious.
Reacting to Representative Paul Ryan’s speech at the Republican National Convention, he said in an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle that Republicans “lie and they don’t care if people think they lie. As long as you lie, Joseph Goebbels, the big lie, you keep repeating it, you know.” And just to drive home his ill-conceived point, he then said in a radio interview that, “If you’re not telling the truth, you’re lying. Joseph Goebbels’ concept was the big lie. If you tell it enough, people will think it’s the truth.”
Nazi Germany’s Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, it should be remembered, was personally responsible for creating the atmosphere in which millions of Jews, including my grandparents, my brother and all my parents’ siblings, were brutally murdered in places such as Auschwitz, Treblinka and Bergen-Belsen. “The Jews have deserved the catastrophe that has now overtaken them,” Goebbels commented in his diary on Feb. 14, 1942. A few weeks later, on March 6, 1942, he wrote, “I am of the opinion that the greater the number of Jews liquidated, the more consolidated will the situation in Europe be after this war. … The Jews are Europe’s misfortune. They must somehow be eliminated, otherwise we are in danger of being eliminated by them.”
Let’s be clear. Nazi Germany visited the greatest human carnage in history on humankind. There can be no excuse whatsoever for using Nazi analogies in an effort to score political points, and comparing anyone other than a mass murderer to Hitler or Goebbels is simply unacceptable behavior.
Moreover, Burton is not the first American politician to compare his opponents to Goebbels. During the 2012 California gubernatorial campaign, then-California Attorney General Jerry Brown, the Democratic nominee, said that his Republican opponent’s war chest was “like Goebbels. Goebbels invented this type of propaganda.” Less than a year ago, U.S. Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.) declared that, “if Joseph Goebbels were around, he’d be proud of the Democrat Party, because they have an incredible propaganda machine.”
It should also be noted that both Burton and Brown apologized for their remarks, something West never did. And the Republican majority of the House of Representatives, voting overwhelmingly on party lines, killed a Congressional resolution to condemn West’s Nazi analogy.
To its credit, the Obama campaign promptly and firmly repudiated Burton’s remarks. “That obviously doesn’t reflect the views of the campaign,” said Obama for America National Press Secretary Ben LaBolt. “That doesn’t have any place in the political discourse here in Charlotte.”
On the other hand, the Republican expressions of outrage over Burton’s words ring a bit self-serving. Coleman, the national co-chair of the Romney Jewish coalition, charged that Burton’s “likening the Republican Party to Nazis and Joseph Goebbels” was “disgraceful” rhetoric “that has no place in our political system,” and the Republican National Committee called Burton’s comment “outrageous and insulting to all Americans.” Fair enough. But why have we not heard similar condemnations from Coleman or the RNC when far worse Nazi analogies were hurled by the likes of Limbaugh against President Obama? To be credible, denunciations of Nazi analogies in contemporary political discourse cannot be directed only at one’s opponents but must be truly bipartisan.
(Menachem Z. Rosensaft teaches about the law of genocide and World War II war crimes trials at the law schools of Columbia, Cornell and Syracuse universities.)