From Sean Spicer and Bashar al-Assad to a North Carolina lawmaker and Abraham Lincoln, it has been a bad week for Adolf Hitler comparisons. Both remarks have received widespread condemnation, but none more powerful perhaps than from a man who experienced firsthand the brutality of the Nazi leader’s policies.
Gene Klein was just 16 when he was taken from his home in Hungary to the infamous Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in 1944. And, while miraculously his mother and two sisters survived the Holocaust, his father, harrowingly, did not.
Speaking with Newsweek on Thursday, Klein recalled being separated from his father when entering the camp. “My father was sent to the left, and I was sent to the right.” Upon later agonizing over where he had gone, a fellow prisoner pointed him in the direction of a tall brick chimney with smoke billowing out of it. “Your father is going up with the smoke,” Klein remembered him saying.
It is hardly surprising that, to the now 88-year-old, comparisons to the man behind his father’s death are never acceptable.
“There’s no reason to,” he said. “Everybody knows that Hitler was one of the worst dictators in the history of humankind. What he did to the Jews, plus other millions of so-called undesirables. Everybody knows what he has done. Never, never bring this up. There’s no reason for comparison.”
Godwin’s law states that if an online discussion continues for long enough someone will make an analogy to the man widely regarded as modern history’s greatest villain. But recent events mean the law could now just as easily be applied to life away from the keyboard.
On Wednesday, revered President Abraham Lincoln became just the latest figure to be compared to Hitler. Attempting to explain the introduction of legislation that attempts to nullify the Supreme Court’s decision on same-sex marriage, North Carolina Republican Rep. Larry Pittman reached for the Nazi leader.
“And if Hitler had won, should the world just get over it?” Pittman wrote on his Facebook page. “Lincoln was the same sort if (sic) tyrant, and personally responsible for the deaths of over 800,000 Americans in a war that was unnecessary and unconstitutional.”
Klein, who now gives talks around the country and whose story was detailed in a book written by his daughter, Jill Klein, We Got the Water: Tracing My Family’s Path Through Auschwitz, was similarly offended.
“There are so many terrible, horrible human beings in political positions in this country, it really is frightening,” he said.
But Pittman is far from alone. Just a day earlier, White House press secretary Spicer attracted an even fiercer backlash for appearing to lessen the crimes of Hitler in order to try to convey the heinousness of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s alleged chemical weapons attack that prompted United States missile strikes.
“You had someone who was despicable as Hitler who didn't even sink to using chemical weapons,” he said at his daily press briefing.
The remarks, Klein explained, were simply inexcusable.
“That was very, very upsetting to me,” he said. “I am offended by the fact that my father was killed by gas and millions of Jews have been killed by gas. If you compare that to the horrible, horrible situation in Syria, the children are being gassed, how do you think I feel as a Jew thinking back of all those lovely wonderful babies and children being killed. It’s very upsetting.”
Spicer subsequently embarked on a clarification and, ultimately, apology tour. Although saying sorry represented a rarity in the Donald Trump administration, for Klein, it did not go nearly far enough.
“It was a stupid, stupid mistake and I really feel very strongly that just because you apologize after making a horrendous statement like this, that’s not good enough,” he said. “There’s no apology for something like this. If you are not smart enough not to make a comment like this, you should be punished for it.
It was the emergence of Trump himself that arguably started the modern surge in Hitler comparisons. As he exploded onto the campaign trail with talk of Mexicans as “rapists” and banning all Muslims, talk of Hitler came thick and fast, including on the cover of the Philadelphia Daily News, which labeled him as “The New Furor.”
Klein has no great affection for Trump, criticizing him for not doing enough to tackle a wave of anti-Semitism in 2017 and for not coming out to condemn and help remove both Spicer and Pittman.
Yet, simply put, for Klein and many others, it is impossible to invoke a man credited with the deaths of 11 million people, including six million Jews, without sounding both hyperbolic and insensitive to the true gravity of the crimes he committed.
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