The Nazi Image in Contemporary American Politics

What gives with the prevalence of Nazi symbolism in American politics today? Recently the New York Times published an article entitled "Using Nazi Images to Hit Political Opponents Now a Common Tack." The article chronicled the use of Nazi images by politicians around the country as well as in the O.J. Simpson trial (Johnnie Cochran's comparison of Mark Furhman to Hitler) and a National Rifle Association fundraising letter referring to agents of the federal Bureau of Tobacco, Alcohol, and Firearms as "jack-booted thugs" (a "clear reference to Nazi storm troopers" says the Times article, in case you didn't make the connection). Among the political situations the Times notes are three campaigns for the State Legislature in Virginia and one for a county sheriff in Virginia's Henry County in which one candidate has compared another to Hitler or his Gestapo, an Idaho Superintendent of Education who likens herself to Anne Frank with regard to the adversity she has faced since entering office, and two Democratic Congressmen from New York comparing the social programs outlined in the Republicans' Contract with America to Nazism.

To many people, and certainly to most if not all Jews, Nazism represents the strongest possible image of inhumanity. The Times' article calls Nazi actions during World War Two "a benchmark of atrocity and, as such, a wholly inappropriate comparison for almost anything else." I believe this to be true, and am deeply offended by the use of the Nazi image for anything other than what it truly represents: the consolidation and use of military power to commit genocide. On these grounds Mark Furhman is not Hitler, even if he is a racist with a gun and the authority to use it. The Republicans currently in control of Congress, as compassionless as they may be, are not championing the unrepentant murder of their constituents. As powerful or even as accurate as the image of the poor and disenfranchised dying as a result of the Republican's heartless assault on social programs may be, it is not on par with the global military conquest championed by Hitler and the senseless murder that resulted. The Henry County, Va. sheriff is certainly not Hitler. In fact his opponent, in a truly ignorant and presumptuous use of symbolism, compared the sheriff to Hitler because he refused two reporters entry to a private political fundraiser. Despite this relatively minor political offense, the opponent used in his television attack on the sheriff a picture of Hitler and a scene from the film "Schindler's List" in which a concentration camp prisoner is shot and killed without reason. Even the "neo-Nazi" skinhead groups that purport to be Nazis are not Nazis. Their beliefs may be akin to those of Hitler, but the power of the Nazi symbol is found not only in the philosophy it represents, but in the horrific actions it recalls.

The Idaho Superintendent of Education who likens herself to Anne Frank due to the political pressure she faces provides perhaps the most absurd and disparaging of all comparisons. Anne Frank, as a child, faced the knowledge that she would likely be killed were she discovered in her hiding place from the Nazis. Although her diaries have proven how brave one child can be in the face of the ultimate adversity, she, in the end, met the fate that 6,000,000 others did at the hands of the Nazis: she was killed for being a Jew. No political appointee in this country at any time since the Civil War has had the right to invoke such powerful symbolism to represent the rigors of political life. It is a self-serving, pretentious, and ultimately repulsive use of a political symbol to pretend that due to partisan politics you are an equal to one who faced death as courageously and eloquently as did Anne Frank.

Not since World War Two has there been a political situation or military strategy comparable to Hitler's Final Solution. His power was international, his goal to bring to its knees the whole of the western world and to exterminate the Jews and Gypsies in the process. While the scope of the Nazi regime's genocidal acts have no equal in the post- World War Two period, there are some political comparisons usefully made by recalling the tactics of the Third Reich. Genocide exists still, and has in various forms continued unabated since the end of World War Two. The most prominent recent examples are the "ethnic cleansing" in Bosnia and the Hutu-Tutsi war in Rwanda. These are situations no less severe in their atrocities than the systematic killing of the Jews and Gypsies at the hands of the Nazis. They represent genocide on a national or regional level, as opposed to Hitler's global ambitions, but genocide is genocide, no matter what the scale. These are the actions that remind us of the terror of the Third Reich. The use of the Nazi image in U.S. politics, where there is no Nazi analog, cheapens the symbol and does a disservice to the memory of not only the victims of Nazi oppression, but the victims of genocide anywhere on Earth.

Richard Wallace is a PhD candidate in environmental policy at Yale.