On the morning of June 19, President Trump published the following tweet: “Democrats are the problem. They don’t care about crime and want illegal immigrants, no matter how bad they may be, to pour into and infest our Country, like MS-13. They can’t win on their terrible policies, so they view them as potential voters!”
For a few years it was my responsibility to teach public high school students and two groups of college students about the Holocaust. I was acutely aware of the importance of this work. The remembrance of the Holocaust is closely tied to the mandate “Never again.” We have a shared responsibility to remain vigilant against the kind of prejudice and twisted thinking that paved the way for genocide.
I have always considered this a civic responsibility. My understanding of what it means to be an American is predicated on the idea that “all men are created equal.” A commitment to the shared dignity of all humanity is essential to our national identity.
The propaganda effort leading to Auschwitz confused my students. They didn’t have the necessary understanding of anti-Semitism to identify the ancient threads being picked up by the Nazis. They also struggled with understanding how German society could be drawn in by messages they found ridiculous.
Nazi propaganda was conspiracy theory, and it blamed all the problems of the world on one group. Nazi propaganda presented human beings, including German Jewish veterans who had fought and bled for their country, as alien outsiders. It would be ridiculous, except that people believed it. People accepted it even from the early years when Mein Kampf described “the Jew” as a “parasite upon the nations.” Infestation was a favorite theme for the Nazis.
Hitler again referred to Jews as “parasitical” in Zweites Buch, his little-known second book. Nazi illustrations frequently depicted Jews as rats, insects or disease. Der Stürmer, an anti-Semitic newspaper of the time, stamped the Star of David on images of worms and serpents. In the Nazi film Der ewige Jude (1940), images of Jewish migration were juxtaposed with rats swarming from a sewer. Through the entire history of Nazi propaganda, the Jewish people were presented as vermin infesting Europe. And this was an important step toward the Holocaust. By denying the humanity of the Jewish people, it became acceptable to imprison and abuse them. It became possible to murder them.
These ideas persist. I have spoken face-to-face with hardened racists who casually talk about “vermin,” “infestation” and “extermination.” When I had to prove to my students such ideology persists, I easily gathered examples from Stormfront and other white supremacist websites.
In our present moment, I am sorry to say abundant examples could be drawn from everyday news. In August of last year, a large group of white nationalists recreated a Nazi torchlight rally through the streets of Charlottesville, Va., while screaming “Blood and Soil” and “The Jews will not replace us.”
Our politicians sometimes use veiled language to tap into the horrible power of these old Nazi themes. But you don’t want to be “that guy” who points at every injustice and starts talking about how it’s “just like Hitler.” There’s an old Internet joke called “Godwin’s Law” asserting any online conversation of sufficient length will end up comparing someone or something to Hitler. I generally view such comparisons as unhelpful and often silly.
But this morning I saw one of the presidential tweets that are all the rage these days, and it got right under my skin. And not because of the politics or policies necessarily. However we decide to handle immigration and border control is a separate conversation open to some give and take.
What I cannot take is seeing a person in a position of authority refer to human beings as an “infestation.” The Nazi parallel is striking. It is un-American, it is “like Hitler,” and it turned my stomach, because I never thought I would see such language unveiled in the mainstream.