Republicans are having difficulty deciding how they should think about Nazis and the Holocaust. They deny actions they have publicly taken, propagate and then delete messages, verbally promote and legislatively limit teaching about what the Nazis did. They seem confused, but aren’t. Some Republicans cozy up to Nazis. Some Republicans, often the same ones, call Democrats Nazis. Many Republicans across the country are attacking the foundation of Holocaust teaching. These three arms of Republican behavior around the Nazis have a single result: to trivialize the Holocaust.
Embracing Nazis always makes news. Carl Paladino, Republican nominee for NY Governor in 2010, Trump’s NY campaign chair in 2016, and current House candidate, is simply the latest fascist advocate. In a radio interview last year, which somehow did not become public news until this month, he praised Hitler: “He would get up there screaming these epithets and these people were just, they were hypnotized by him. I guess that’s the kind of leader we need today. We need somebody inspirational. We need somebody that is a doer.” Paladino combines admiration for Nazis and old-fashioned American racism: in 2016, he hoped that Barack Obama would die of mad cow disease and suggested that Michelle Obama be “let loose in the outback of Zimbabwe where she lives comfortably in a cave with Maxie, the gorilla.”
The overlap between conservative Republicans and neo-Nazism has a long history. Former Nazis and neo-Nazis were founders of the Republican Heritage Groups Council in 1969, which excluded Black and Jewish Americans. Some Republican candidates in the 2018 elections were open Nazis, white supremacists and/or Holocaust deniers: Vox said 5, the Forward said 9. Illinois Rep. Mary Miller approvingly quoted Hitler the day before the January 6 riots, and recently won the Republican primary.
More Republicans stand next to Nazis without themselves praising Hitler. Arizona Republican office holders and candidates appeared at a 2021 rally organized by Matt Braynard, former director of data and strategy for Trump’s 2020 campaign, featuring Greyson Arnold as a speaker, who calls Nazis “the pure race” and supports the neo-Nazi group Stormfront. Idaho Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin appeared this year at the America First Political Action Conference, which is hosted by white nationalists who express antisemitism and deny the Holocaust. She posed for pictures with Holocaust denier Vincent James Foxx. Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene stood proudly next to Nazi-sympathizer Nick Fuentes at the same conference, where he later praised Putin and Hitler.
White supremacy has become integral to Republican messaging. A Twitter employee in 2019 argued internally that getting rid of racist content would involve deleting Republican Party messages, including Trump’s: “on a technical level, content from Republican politicians could get swept up by algorithms aggressively removing white supremacist material”. Prominent Republicans who have openly promoted the “white replacement theory” that Democrats are trying to replace real Americans with ethnic minorities in order to win elections include Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, and House Republican Conference Chair Elise Stefanik. FOX’s Tucker Carlson has been the most vocal propagator of this theory. German Nazis could not have been so bad if our political celebrities want to take selfies with their American cousins and parrot their racist nonsense.
It only seems contradictory that for many Republicans, including those who happily consort with American fascists, “Nazi” is a favorite label for politicians and government employees they don’t like. Donald Trump, Jr., in 2018 said the Democratic Party’s 2016 platform was “awfully similar” to Nazi Party platforms. Doug Mastriano, the Pennsylvania nominee for governor, compared Democrats’ gun control proposals to the Nazis in 2018 and again this year. In June 2021, Pennsylvania Rep. Scott Perry said Democrats were like Nazis who want to destroy America. Even though Trump’s most notable achievement was the development of a vaccine, Republicans as a Party have criticized every government effort to save lives through masks and vaccines. Colorado Rep. Lauren Boebert called government advocates of vaccinations “needle Nazis” and “medical brownshirts” in front of a cheering CPAC crowd in July 2021. Sen. candidate Josh Mandel in Ohio in April 2021 and Ohio Rep. Warren Davidson in January 2022 compared our government’s health policy to the Nazis. Lara Logan, a host on Fox News Media’s streaming service, said in November that Anthony Fauci “represents Josef Mengele”.
Marjorie Taylor Greene denounced the media for comparing Republicans to Nazis in May 2021, then said the Democrats were the “national socialist party”. When Nancy Pelosi announced rules in May 2021 requiring unvaccinated members of the House to wear masks on the chamber floor, Greene said on a Christian Broadcasting Network program: “You know, we can look back at 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. And this is exactly the type of abuse that Nancy Pelosi is talking about.” After the American Jewish Congress tweeted back, “Such comparisons demean the Holocaust”, she insisted: “I stand by all of my statements; I said nothing wrong, I think any rational Jewish person didn’t like what happened in Nazi Germany, and any rational Jewish person doesn’t like what’s happening with overbearing mask mandates and overbearing vaccine policies.” She was so convinced of her imagery, she used it the next week in a tweet about one company’s vaccination policy: “Vaccinated employees get a vaccination logo just like the Nazi’s [sic] forced Jewish people to wear a gold star.”
Greene is not demeaning the Holocaust. Playing with Nazis, calling her opponents Nazis, and comparing herself to Jewish Holocaust victims all serve to diminish the Holocaust. Republicans are attempting to remake the Holocaust into a normal political event. If America’s doctors are like German Stormtroopers, if requiring one’s employees or our members of Congress to follow the most obvious public health rules is like murdering thousands of Jews and others every day for years, then the Holocaust as a singular event has disappeared.
Weeks later Greene apologized. As one of the most public faces of the Republican Party, she had gone one step too fast in pursuit of the Party’s goal of normalizing the Holocaust.
The Holocaust is a dangerous subject for American conservatives, because it was the mass murder of Jews by Christians. A few prominent Nazis espoused crackpot theories of Aryan paganism, and Polish Catholics and Russian Orthodox Christians were also slaughtered in vast numbers. But the murder of 6 million Jews was the culmination of centuries of official Christian persecution. Teaching about the Holocaust should begin with the Bible and must explain the violent antisemitism of nearly all Christian denominations right into the 20th century. Anti-Jewish racism was embedded in Christian European and American societies and their legal systems in order to uphold the supremacy of white Christians. The recognition of Christian responsibility for Western antisemitism and the Holocaust led every Christian denomination in Western Europe and America after 1945 to repudiate centuries of their own dogma.
The wave of Republican censorship of public school and university curricula in response to the sudden American reckoning on race after George Floyd’s murder purports to be about “critical race theory”. When Florida’s Board of Education banned “critical race theory” from public school classrooms one year ago, the Board seemed to protect Holocaust education by also banning any teaching that denies the Holocaust. But their language points in the opposite direction. Critical race theory “distorts historical events” by asserting “that racism is not merely the product of prejudice, but that racism is embedded in American society and its legal systems in order to uphold the supremacy of white persons.” The Holocaust was caused by precisely such embedded white supremacy. And like American anti-Black racism, that white supremacy had deep roots in official Christianity.
I have seen my students become uncomfortable when confronted with facts about Christian persecution of Jews and Nazi admiration for American Jim Crow legislation in the 1930s as a model for the Nuremberg laws. The American eugenicist Madison Grant, whose 1916 eulogy for Nordic supremacy was entitled “The Passing of the Great Race”, was equally popular with American segregationists and Adolf Hitler, who called the book his “bible”. They were disturbed by the realization that German Jews, from the passage of Nuremberg Laws in 1935 until the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, were treated essentially the same as African Americans here, whose racial persecution continued unabated into the 1960s. That same knowledge frightens today’s right-wing Christians across the Western world. The Christian nationalist parties in Europe all seek to diminish the Holocaust, especially the role played by Christians in their own nations: those in power in Poland and Hungary, and those trying for power in Germany and France.
The literal wording of recent Republican censorship laws bans education that doesn’t exist. The fake narrative that critical race theory is taught in public schools is the basis of this wave of legislation. A different and broader invention imperils Holocaust education: the claim in Wisconsin’s 2021 law that it is necessary to forbid teachers from indoctrinating their students with the idea “that one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex and that an individual, by virtue of the individual’s race or sex, bears responsibility for acts committed in the past by other individuals of the same race or sex.” That kind of systematically damaging pedagogy was in fact integral to American education for centuries. The long racial reckoning which began in the 1960s demonstrated how white supremacy was written into all levels of educational curricula. The claim that American racism is over, the foundation of the attacks on critical race theory, ignores the continuing power and weight of adult Americans who were subject for years to those curricula, as I was.
Any hint that a teacher is promoting racial or gender superiority is likely to be called out without any help from new laws. The Republicans are not anxiously hunting for hidden examples of white supremacy or male superiority. That’s what they promote. They want their supporters to believe that they will reveal and defeat the teaching that blacks are superior to whites and that women are superior to men, exactly the kind of fake crisis that dominates the politico-cultural war.
Over years of interacting with teachers of the Holocaust, I never heard of any who told students that they bore “responsibility for acts committed in the past by other individuals of the same race or sex”. Holocaust teachers do mention that this was precisely what Christian churches had been saying for centuries about Jews. Such claims were fundamental to murderous persecution. But inducing guilt in today’s students is hardly useful in teaching history.
The discussions during the Republican effort in Louisiana to ban critical race theory display how the right-wing ideology of the Holocaust plays out at the state level. Republican state representative Valarie Hodges sponsored a bill in 2021 to mandate Holocaust education in Louisiana. Hodges was an avid promoter of the idea that Democrats are as bad as Nazis. She was part of the effort of conservative Republicans in the state to require the teaching of patriotic themes in American history and to block more teaching about America’s racial history. Hodges brought a Metairie resident to testify about the dangers of “communism” in our government: “To put it in Holocaust terms, the communists are now the Nazis and we are the Jews. They are the predators. We are the prey. We need to teach this history to our future citizens so we don’t end up like the Jews.” No Jewish organizations testified in favor of Hodges’ bill. The executive director of the American Historical Association, Jim Grossman, speaking for professional historians in America, recognized the ultimate goal. “You’re saying, ‘You have to teach the history of the Holocaust, but you can’t teach the history of institutionalized, deeply embedded racism in the United States.’”
Rep. Ray Garofalo, the head of the Louisiana House Education Committee, sponsored a bill barring teaching about institutional racism. He then slipped and said the right-wing truth: any lessons about American slavery should include “the good, the bad, the ugly”. Garafalo’s other unprofessional antics made him such an easy target, that the Republican Speaker of the House removed him as chair, and replaced him with another Republican. All the bills about mandating and preventing subjects in Louisiana public education ultimately failed.
The legislative history of Republican censorship in Arizona offers similar clues about what the issues are and what will be attempted in the future. Arizona Republicans in the state legislature are unanimously in favor of putting an amendment to the state’s constitution before the voters. The bill’s lengthy section B enumerates seven varieties of fake complaints about non-existent educational practices. The key is section A: teachers in public schools from elementary to high school: “may not use public monies for instruction that promotes or advocates for any form of blame or judgment on the basis of race, ethnicity or sex”. The bill’s sponsor, Michelle Udall, argued that, “If a teacher can’t teach [history] without placing blame or judgment on the basis of race, they shouldn’t be teaching.” She was clear about what she meant: it will be okay to say that a mass murder in a Buffalo grocery story happened, but it would “not be appropriate” to say that the mass murderer was a white supremacist. Her bill would insure that such teachers could be personally punished. Republicans in the Arizona House and Senate unanimously voted in favor. The bill was signed into law as part of a budget whose main item was a tax cut for better-off Arizonans.
How does one teach the Holocaust or slavery without detailing the responsibility of particular human groups for inhuman treatment of fellow humans of other groups based on racist ideologies?
Conservative politicians can count on well-funded organizations to create the local crises around curriculum that alarm enough parents to get educators fired. Nearly 900 school districts across the country, educating one-third of all public school students in the country, were targeted by anti-CRT efforts from September 2020 to August 2021. The most thorough study of the nationwide campaign against teaching about race concluded: “The anti “CRT” effort is a purposeful, nationally/state interconnected, and locally-driven conflict campaign to block or restrict proactive teaching and professional development related to race, racism, bias, and many aspects of proactive diversity/equity/inclusion efforts in schools, while — for some — gaining political power and control. The conflict campaign’s loudest, most powerful voices caricature actual teaching and stoke parent anxiety in a quest to control both schools and government.”
The real danger that Republican curricular censorship presents to Holocaust teaching is not the occasional eruption of stupidity, as in Southlake, Texas. Texas House Bill 3979 requires teachers to present multiple perspectives when discussing “widely debated and currently controversial” issues. Gina Peddy, the executive director of curriculum and instruction in the Carroll Independent School District in Southlake, told teachers,
“Just try to remember the concepts of 3979 . . . make sure that if you have a book on the Holocaust, that you have one that has an opposing, that has other perspectives.” That caused a small scandal. Despite posing for photographs with Holocaust deniers, Republican politicians don’t yet demand that Holocaust denial become part of the curriculum.
But when Holocaust denial comes from within the community, from antisemitic parents, the new laws make teaching difficult. A North Carolina teacher wrote: “My SUPERINTENDENT asked us to advise students to ‘ask your parents’ rather than insist that the Holocaust was real. We received professional development to help us navigate this political environment safely. Our superintendent attended and told us to advise kids to ‘ask your parents’ instead of try to show evidence to a child whose family swears the Holocaust didn’t happen.”
New Republican laws and their emboldened approach to white supremacy will inevitably lead to an attack on any Holocaust teaching which goes beyond the discussion of prejudice to analyze the power of embedded racism and Christian white supremacy.
For Republicans, teaching the histories of America and of the Holocaust is too dangerous to allow. Those educations cause intellectual, then social disturbance. Both explain the role of embedded racism in Western society and the disastrous consequences. The Holocaust is over, and Christian nationalists all over Western society have been calling for Jews to get over it. But American racism and sexism are not. The success of the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements in demonstrating the continuing influence of male and white supremacy has frightened Christian conservatives. They are using the inevitable discomfort of students learning that their predecessors committed genocide to try to sanitize the history they will learn.
The American Association of University Professors and the American Historical Association, along with other educational organizations, released a statement in June 2021 opposing the new rollout of bills restricting the teaching of history. The statement focuses entirely on “the role of racism in the history of the United States”. Thus far, Holocaust teaching has suffered only collateral damage in the Republican war against American history. But without trivializing Holocaust education into anodyne lessons on intolerance, Republicans will never be able to cover up the historical truth that critical race theory foregrounds: racism has been and may still be embedded in American life.
Today teachers of American history are the targets of Republican censorship. Holocaust teachers, you’re next.
Steve Hochstadt is emeritus professor of history at Illinois College, after teaching there 2006-2016, and at Bates College 1979-2006. His first book, Mobility and Modernity: Migration in Germany 1820-1989 (1999), won the Allan Sharlin Prize of the Social Science History Association. Sources of the Holocaust (2004) is a documents collection widely used in Holocaust courses.