The problem with Holocaust trivialization

“Even in Hitler’s Germany, you could … cross the Alps into Switzerland,” Robert F. Kennedy Jr. said at a Washington rally this week to protest vaccine mandates. “You could hide in an attic, like Anne Frank did.”

Kennedy’s suggestion that people suffer more from vaccine mandates than the victims of Adolf Hitler’s reign is particularly disturbing. Holocaust “trivialization,” comparing other events to the Holocaust and thereby minimizing its significance, is not just morally reprehensible — it also complicates U.S. efforts to confront such global challenges as making peace, promoting human rights, and eradicating a pandemic.

Holocaust trivialization is inherently polarizing. Once one side of an issue accuses its opponents of a Holocaust-like action, the two sides retreat to their corners, far more inclined to fight than seek common ground. When protesters in London, Paris, and elsewhere last May compared Israel to Nazi Germany and suggested that it was conducting a Holocaust against the Palestinians, that further complicated efforts to achieve Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Over-the-top disparagement of the Jewish state also diverts global attention from the truly despicable human rights abuses by, for instance, Kim Jong Un’s North Korea, which holds hundreds of thousands of people in internment camps; Xi Jinping’s China, which holds more than a million Muslim Uyghurs in prisons and “reeducation” camps; Vladimir Putin’s Russia, which stamps out any serious political or grassroots challenge to his rule; and Ali Khamenei’s Iran, which imprisons dissidents and treats women and minorities as second-class citizens.

The list of examples goes on.

When, in 2016, protesters in the Czech Republic compared Germany’s then-Chancellor Angela Merkel to Hitler during Europe’s migrant crisis, that further complicated efforts by European nations to come together around a joint approach to immigration.

Public protests attract broad attention, but Holocaust trivialization is far worse online. This week, the Combat Antisemitism Movement released an internet monitoring report that found, through 2020 and 2021, more than 60 million “engagements” (e.g., posts, comments) on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and other sites in six languages that tied the Holocaust to the pandemic.

Such trivialization is driven by ignorance or malice. To address ignorance, societies should make greater efforts to teach history and about the Holocaust in particular. In the United States, just 19 states require their schools to teach about the Holocaust. Around the world, there are considerable differences in whether, and how, the Holocaust is taught at school, the Georg Eckert Institute and UNESCO reported a few years ago.

To address malice, societies should not let Holocaust trivialization take place without comment. Influential figures should call it out in the strongest possible terms to help prevent it from going further mainstream. Kennedy’s wife, actress Cheryl Hines, set a good example by denouncing his remarks, calling them “reprehensible and insensitive” and making clear that she doesn’t share them.

No one can prohibit Holocaust trivialization. But governments, societies, and citizens around the world can do a better job of marginalizing it so that it doesn’t acquire more mainstream acceptance.

Lawrence J. Haas, a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council, is the author of The Kennedys in the World: How Jack, Bobby, and Ted Remade America’s Empire from Potomac Books.

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