I’ve seen the video of Sean Spicer from yesterday’s press conference. You’ve seen the video of Sean Spicer from yesterday’s press conference. If you haven’t seen it, here it is. Spicer was trying to make the point that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had violated the norms of the civilized world by using chemical weapons against his own people. Spicer, however, is too much of a blithering imbecile to make that point. Instead he made callous and patently idiotic claims about Hitler’s use of chemical weapons and then compounded them by claiming that Hitler never used them against his own people—as if German Jews were somehow not German. Is Spicer some kind of anti-Semite? No, that’s Steve Bannon’s job. Instead Spicer relied on the laziest historical comparison of all, Hitler. He robbed reporters and anyone who has read or listened to his remarks of the historical context that informed the rise of Nazi Germany and of the civil war in Syria. He also trivialized the suffering of millions of Jews and other victims of the Nazi regime. And he did it all to score some cheap political points for boss.
Comparing other historical events to the rise of Hitler and Nazi Germany is the laziest act of a person or student trying to sound smart. As historians, we see it all the time—on television, in classroom discussions, and on papers and exams. Analyze Stalin’s purges—just like Hitler. Analyze Belgian Colonial policy in Africa—just like Hitler. Analyze the treatment of American slaves by their masters—just like Hitler.
These comparisons ignore an essential historical truth: context matters. Very few things in world history compare to the rise of National Socialism in Germany. A specific set of historical circumstances alchemized together and resulted in the ascension of Adolf Hitler to power. This non-exhaustive list of circumstances includes: the German economic collapse as a result of the Great Depression and World War I reparations, the ineffectual policies of the Weimar Republic, rampant and centuries long anti-Semitism, the unwillingness of European powers to intercede prior to 1939, the relative youth of Germany as a nation-state, and dozens of others. The same is true of Syria. Spicer ignored the historical circumstances that prompted the Syrian Civil War including the Arab Spring, divides between Sunni and Shia Muslims, the role of U.S. intervention in Iraq, the rise of ISIS, and a host of other factors. (How knowledgeable he and his boss are on these matters is an open question.) We need to study these atrocities, understand how they came about, and then put measures in place so they never happen again.
Spicer’s comments also minimized the suffering of the victims of the Holocaust and the Syrian Civil War. Comparisons between atrocities should not be undertaken lightly (they can be done, but with much more attention to nuance and historical context than Spicer offered). As a historian, I’ve often encountered the “who was worse” question. Generally, it’s Hitler or Stalin. There is no “worse” when comparing the Holocaust and Stalin’s purges and pogroms. The loss of millions of lives is no more or less tragic than the loss of tens of millions. Each person who lost their lives in Syria or in Dachau had dreams, aspirations, families, and loved ones. You cannot compare historical genocides the way you would cars or homes. And when we make glib comparisons from the White House Press Room, we lose sight of the victims, the ordinary Jews, Russians, Armenians, Rwandans, Cambodians, Syrians, and others, who have suffered at the hands of brutal dictators.
By honoring and remembering the victims of Hitler, Stalin, and Assad and others, we can avoid what Sean Spicer did yesterday. Trying to make political points off the death of innocent people.