Should Lauren Boebert Visit Auschwitz?
There’s a lot of Holocaust talk going around among certain members of the House of Representatives. In May, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene compared the rules requiring masks on the House floor to “a time in history where people were told to wear a gold star, and they were definitely treated like second-class citizens, so much so that they were put in trains and taken to gas chambers in Nazi Germany.”
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Minority Whip Steve Scalise both waited five days to criticize Rep. Greene’s remarks. After visiting the Holocaust Memorial Museum in June, she did the right thing and apologized: “There are words that I have said, remarks that I’ve made that I know are offensive, and for that I’d like to apologize.” And that was it: House Republicans made it clear that there was no real price to pay for this kind of rhetoric.
The results were predictable. On July 8, another freshman member of Congress, Lauren Boebert, dropped a Nazi reference to mock the Biden administration’s vaccination-education efforts:
Biden has deployed his Needle Nazis to Mesa County.
The people of my district are more than smart enough to make their own decisions about the experimental vaccine and don’t need coercion by federal agents.
Did I wake up in Communist China? pic.twitter.com/gKXzogwM2C
— Lauren Boebert (@laurenboebert) July 8, 2021
Once again, Kevin McCarthy is delinquent in policing his conference. He has yet to publicly address Rep. Boebert’s tweet.
After all, it’s not clear what he stands to gain by doing so.
What makes the Holocaust off limits in political discourse, even in hyperbole? Who enforces the rule that the first person to compare their interlocutor to Hitler loses the argument? It’s been 76 years since the end of the Holocaust. Lifetimes have begun and ended since then. Most of the remaining survivors were children in the camps. Soon the last Allied soldiers to have liberated a camp will be gone, and the Holocaust will slip entirely and irrevocably from the realm of living memory to the realm of history.
Among the first to anticipate the moral meaning of this moment was Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, who in April 1945 ordered the documentation and publication of the horrors of the camps. He wanted to witness the atrocities firsthand so that, “if ever, in the future, there develops a tendency to charge these allegations merely to ‘propaganda,’” he could rebut the claim. Recounting his visit to the Ohrdruf concentration camp, he wrote in his memoirs, “I visited every nook and cranny of the camp because I felt it my duty to be in a position from then on to testify at first hand about these things in case there ever grew up at home the belief or assumption that ‘the stories of Nazi brutality were just propaganda.’” As his grandson, David Eisenhower, explained a few years ago, Ike wanted photographs and videos made of the camps immediately after their liberation, because “‘If they do not see this, they’ll never understand emotionally.’ And so the idea was to make a record that people could emotionally connect with”—not just then, but in future generations.
The institutions devoted to Holocaust remembrance—the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum that Rep. Greene visited, Yad Vashem in Israel, the museums at Dachau and Buchenwald and Auschwitz and other camps, and other Holocaust museums around the world—continue to realize Eisenhower’s vision, seeking to make the brutality and evil of the Holocaust emotionally compelling to anyone who encounters it.
If Rep. Boebert were to visit Auschwitz, perhaps she would feel compelled to apologize, just as Rep. Greene did. If she saw where Josef Mengele, the Nazi “Angel of Death,” conducted his inhumane experiments on prisoners, perhaps she would understand how grotesque it is to refer to Americans participating in vaccination-education efforts aimed at saving lives as “Needle Nazis.” Perhaps she would know in her heart that she had used millions of murdered souls for cheap political points.
Rep. Boebert may yet apologize. That would be more than welcome. But it would hardly matter. Signs bearing the phrase Never Again—a promise? a hope? a prayer?—in several languages mark the former sites of the Dachau concentration camp and the Treblinka death camp. But how can such a thing never happen again if we fail to understand why it happened in the first place?
The Holocaust used to be out of bounds in political discourse because its enormity shocked the world—at least the free world. The original enforcer of this norm was conscience. Merely knowing the horror was sufficient to prevent any serious person from abusing its memory. At some point, shame replaced conscience. Polite society didn’t compare Democrats or Republicans to Nazis or policy proposals to the Holocaust. It was bad form.
What happens, though, when the forgetting that comes with the changing of generations—Greene and Boebert were born respectively three and four decades after the concentration camps were liberated—and failures in historical and moral education mean that the horror of the Holocaust is deemed suitable for the slams and slurs and insults of everyday political discourse? What’s to prevent half a dozen members of Congress from proclaiming that, say, Sen. Joe Manchin’s voting-rights compromise is just like the Nazis? Certainly not Kevin McCarthy.
When the Holocaust is fair game, everything is Auschwitz, so nothing about Auschwitz is exceptional and worth holding apart. At that point, the memory of millions of murdered innocents is desecrated. But worse, never again becomes: eventually.