Monday, Jan. 27, marks the 69th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. Auschwitz survivors and others, including the president of Poland, will gather at the site for a somber ceremony of prayer and commemoration in honor of more than 1 million people who were murdered there.
Nine years ago, the United Nations declared the day “International Holocaust Remembrance Day.” U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said its global observance is vital, so that “new generations know this history.”
For Holocaust survivors and their descendants, these milestone historical dates are especially poignant and personal. My grandparents, on both sides, were killed by the Nazis. My father’s mother, along with nearly half a million Hungarian Jews, perished at Auschwitz.
Minnesota has made great strides in helping our youths “know this history.” Many school districts and colleges offer Holocaust-related curricula. A large number of religious institutions participate in educational programs and interfaith dialogue around the topic. Traveling exhibitions and public activities with Holocaust content are well-attended.
Despite important efforts by schools and religious institutions to educate Minnesotans, I have observed a growing and deeply troubling propensity to trivialize the Holocaust in our political and public discourse. This happens whenever someone directly attacks another person as being “a Nazi.” In other instances, certain policies or ideas or organizations are likened to those of the Nazis or Hitler. These inappropriate comparisons are now so ubiquitous that they have become a normal part of civic conversation in Minnesota, the United States and around the world.
In the 1990s, attorney and author Michael Godwin observed this phenomenon in Internet discussion threads. His insight was coined “Godwin’s Law” and is defined in the Oxford dictionary as “the theory that as an online discussion progresses, it becomes inevitable that someone or something will eventually be compared to Adolf Hitler or the Nazis, regardless of the original topic.”
Godwin’s Law is now applicable far beyond Internet posts and discussions; it’s true of our overall political culture. As a state legislator, I have heard colleagues, constituents, the media and the general public use inappropriate Holocaust analogies with increasing and alarming frequency. This kind of trivialization of the Holocaust can be found in the rhetoric of both the political right and left.
For example, in 2007, a DFLer and a Republican both spoke on the House floor and argued that a ban on smoking in restaurants was something akin to what took place in Nazi Germany. Another Minnesota lawmaker once criticized a teachers union policy proposal as promoting a “Teacher Gestapo.” A business owner testified to a legislative panel that light-rail construction around his University Avenue store included “concentration camp fencing.” Earlier this month, a participant at a meeting in St. Louis Park declared that public agencies had given her community a “Sophie’s Choice” regarding an upcoming decision on the routing of freight trains.
At a state agency hearing last summer, a citizen waved a sign describing freight trains carrying Canadian oil as “the train from Auschwitz.”
Two years ago, I toured Auschwitz and Birkenau. My guide for the day was a twenty-something Pole named Lidia, who grew up and still lives in Oswiecim, just a few miles from the concentration camp. Lidia mentioned to me that as a native of the town, she felt a special responsibility to honor Auschwitz victims and to teach visitors about the site.
As we made our way from the barracks at Auschwitz to the barren fields that once housed the massive gas chambers and crematoria of Birkenau, I told Lidia the story of the legislators who compared the restaurant smoking ban to prewar Nazi Germany. Her confusion about the statement quickly turned to anger. “The people saying those kinds of things must not think what happened here is all that important,” she said.
I have often thought about Lidia’s strong reaction to my colleagues’ Holocaust trivialization. Our survivor community feels the same way. Much work needs to be done to ensure that the memory of our parents and grandparents is not lost to flippant and historically ignorant public comments.
As the 2014 election season kicks off with the Feb. 4 precinct caucuses, and with another legislative session around the corner, I have a simple request of candidates for public office, elected and appointed leaders at all levels of government, the media, and the public at large:
Let’s try to get through a legislative session and an election season without equating an opponent or an issue to Nazi Germany. Our civic discourse will be healthier for it, and we can better honor and respect the memory of those lost in the Holocaust.
Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, is a member of the Minnesota House.