Many of us are surely lacking in knowledge of the Holocaust– including White House reporters. You can see from yesterday’s press briefing that after Sean Spicer made his gaffe about Hitler not using chemical weapons, as Bashar al-Assad had allegedly done in Syria (at 15:46), 12 minutes went by and Spicer fielded 16 questions on matters such as North Korea, Ivanka Trump, and tax policy before Cecilia Vega of ABC brought up his comment, apparently because it was blowing up on Twitter (another tweet; WSJ tweet).
Sean, thanks. I just want to give you an opportunity to clarify something you said that seems to be gaining some traction right now. “Hitler didn’t even sink to the level of using chemical weapons.” What did you mean by that?
Spicer then dug the hole deeper, by saying that Hitler hadn’t used “the gas on his own people the same way that Assad is doing…. He brought them into the Holocaust center, I understand that.”
The press conference then went on for another 12 minutes and 15 questions or so without any question about Hitler and gas. So it was only when reporters were instructed about how horrifying the comments were that the story took off.
Spicer has never apologized as much as he did last night. He was especially ashamed, he said, because he had ruined a great week for his boss, the president, surely a reference to Trump bombing Syria– with the overwhelming approval of the US foreign policy establishment.
By then Spicer’s historical mistakes had elicited an outpouring of outrage and crocodile tears. Chris Matthews said it was disturbing to think this had happened on Passover. Barbra Streisand and Chelsea Handler were shocked. Wolf Blitzer lectured Spicer: “As you know 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust, many of them by poison gas. Tell us who you are apologizing to right now. There are Holocaust survivors out there who were listening to what you said and couldn’t belief a spokesman.. for the president of the United States would make such a statement.” (More self-flagellation from Spicer.)
It’s obviously a good idea for officials to know basic historical facts, but the fact that Spicer got this wrong is a reflection of his age (45) and background. He clearly was not steeped in Holocaust information. Now that’s part of his job description. Some of the ritual surrounding this necessity is absurd, and probably makes a lot of people cynical about the centrality of the Holocaust in the cultural register of atrocities. The best/worst moment of the night was when Spicer reached out to Sheldon Adelson, saying “he made a terrible mistake+ apologized if he was offensive.” Adelson is of course a giant rightwing supporter of Israel who called on President Obama to nuke Iran, and Adelson is one of the biggest donors in Republican politics. So is that what this is about– donors?
Another part of the piety that is annoying is the claim that No one is allowed to mention Hitler. Chris Cillizza of CNN echoed the conventional wisdom:
White House press secretary Sean Spicer forgot the first rule of politics during a press briefing on Tuesday: Never, ever compare anyone or anything to Adolf Hitler. “Oh yeah, well this is like when Hitler did. …” is a sentence that you should never, ever say.
That doesn’t make much sense. Ever since Trump got elected, smart friends of mine have likened his rise to Hitler’s. Many people have done so publicly. Chris Matthews compared Trump’s speeches to Hitler. Should they all be stopped? No, why? People find historical analogies useful to understanding what’s happening now, so they should talk about them. When I visited Gaza all I could think about was my own childhood indoctrination in the horrors of the Warsaw Ghetto. Alan Dershowitz calls the ’67 borders of Israel “Auschwitz Borders,” and no one chastises him.
The real question here is equating Bashar al-Assad to Hitler as a mass murderer. As David Bromwich points out in the New York Review of Books, the evidence that Assad committed the chemical weapon attack is less than convincing; “the most clear-cut evidence provided to reporters was simply “an image of the radar track of a Syrian airplane leaving the airfield and flying to the chemical strike area Tuesday.'” Russia’s foreign minister just called for an investigation. That’s what the press ought to care about. But no, they think Trump had a really good week.