We Should Talk About Concentration Camps on the U.S. Border
The Holocaust started with normal people in uniform rounding up people because of who they were
My grandfather was a doctor in the British army. In April 1945, he was in the group that liberated Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. He wrote an essay about what he found. It was a very practical description, a doctor’s view of what they encountered: “Typhoid was raging; there were 13,000 dead bodies lying around.”
He observed how the emaciated inmates who had survived gradually recovered their strength, and over time reemerged as professors, artists, lawyers — real people with pasts and identities. He also declared in his essay that we must never forget this, and it must never happen again.
My grandfather was lucky. His Jewish family had fled the Baltics in the 1890s, running away from pogroms and settling in the U.K. where, a generation later, his experience of the Holocaust was as a British officer. While he and his immediate family were not interred or killed in the camps, his personal experience of Belsen scarred him for the rest of his life in ways we are only now beginning to understand.
My grandmother’s family was different. Her parents left Poland around 1900, as economic migrants. I wrote about their journey, and how luck prevented them from getting back to Poland in the 1930s. Everyone they left behind was killed in the concentration camps. Recently, the online family tree websites have given me an insight into this that I never had before. I can now see my great-grandfather’s extended family tree, listing people by name, with photos, and the date and location of their murder. Almost his entire family was killed by the Nazis — his three brothers, their wives, their children, his cousins, aunts, uncles.
There is plenty of debate about whether it is appropriate to talk about President Donald Trump, and other right-wing populists, in the context of Nazism and fascism, in particular referring to the immigrant prison camps on the U.S.-Mexican border as concentration camps. Some people say it is a simplistic comparison, a weak fallback argument for liberals with no better case against Trump. Others say it demeans the memory of those who died in the Holocaust to compare their fate to the actions of a tedious American president who is distasteful, but hardly Hitler.
The experience of my grandparents informs my opinion on whether it is appropriate to talk about Trump, and other right-wing populist leaders, within the context of the Holocaust. The only conclusion I can reach is that it is imperative for all good people, and in particular for people whose personal history traces back to that lowest point in human history, to use the Holocaust as a warning, especially now.
The point is that we should be warning about what happens at the end — when a society loses its way as it appears to be doing now. It is not about saying that the internment camps on the Mexican borders are exactly like Nazi concentration camps, but that their existence now means our societies are beginning to do things that previously led to the Holocaust.
It would be an injustice to all those who died not to speak out, and not to do so in their name quite specifically using the specter of the Holocaust as a comparison. It is important and relevant to be using Nazism and the Holocaust to draw attention to the similarities between Trump’s behavior now and events in Germany in the early 1930s. If the 1940s is our reference point, we will only be speaking out after it is too late. This happened with the Bosnian war, where people didn’t really start to react until there were actual concentration camps and mass murders.
The lesson from the atrocities of the last century is not just that we must protest when things have reached a breaking point — it is that we should protest when we see society beginning down that path.
In particular, I see a direct comparison today in the way American law enforcement officials are being ordered to round up and imprison immigrants and separate children from their parents. Trump’s orders, which are designed to create the perception of a crisis on the border, and to fan hatred toward minority groups, are classic populism and fascism. Blaming “others,” and creating scapegoats is part of fascism. People in uniforms, normal people, doing their job, are separating babies and children from their mothers, impounding them in subhuman conditions, and are rounding up civilians because of their race or nationality.
No decent person could forcibly separate an innocent child from its mother. It is only once they see that child and mother as somehow less than equal with themselves, as having fewer rights because they are not the same, or as bad people simply because of their race or circumstances, that they can do things they would never want to be done to themselves. That is precisely how things started going wrong in Germany in the 1930s.
These people in uniforms are starting to go down the path of treating “others” as less than human, without the same rights as “us.” That mental step ultimately led to the Holocaust, and elsewhere has led to genocide. I am not suggesting that will be the inevitable outcome in the United States, simply that history tells us this is not a good path down which to go.
Once people in uniform are willing to abandon their own social norms and follow orders from a populist political leader without questioning them, things have already gone very wrong.
The comparison is stark because the Holocaust began with a reserve police battalion — made up of middle-aged, middle-class German men in uniforms, following orders — rounding up people because of who they were, who were suddenly marked as different, and “other.” It started with mass arrests, then with the imprisonment of innocent people, and then with marching men, women, and children into forests and executing them. They made them lie down in rows, and then shot them in the back of the head with rifles. It is one of the things people forget — it started very normally, with normal people crossing a line and suddenly doing horrific things. The policemen were not members of the Nazi party, they were not young brainwashed fanatics. They were just average policemen, following orders that started off normal, and ended up leading to the worst atrocity in modern history.
One step down that path — rounding up women and children because of their status or race — begins the process of dehumanization of a group of people, and of not questioning orders. History has shown us where that leads, again and again. That is why the comparison with the Holocaust is important now.
So, we should be alarmed at the sight of otherwise ordinary people — border guards, ICE officials, local police — crossing that same line and behaving in ways that are not normal. It is not normal to wrest a baby from its mother’s arms against her wishes. It is not normal to leave children in caged enclosures sleeping under foil blankets. It is not normal to round up groups of people just because of who they are or where they are from. It is not normal to imprison innocent children. Once people in uniform are willing to abandon their own social norms and follow orders from a populist political leader without questioning them, things have already gone very wrong.
It doesn’t matter if American migrant centers are literally concentration camps or not; you can get lost in the semantics and definitions. What matters is that a political leader who is following a well-understood fascist playbook is persuading otherwise ordinary people to do things that are morally objectionable, without questioning their orders. It matters that his fellow Republicans and his voters are staying quiet, or encouraging it. That is very precisely how the Holocaust started, right in the very early days before it was the Holocaust, and before there were concentration camps.
It is at this precise point that I feel my murdered ancestors would expect me, and us, to be using their memories to jolt people into seeing how wrong this is. I am sure when my grandfather said, “never again,” he meant this, now, not a surrendered death camp full of corpses. It is not just appropriate, but incumbent upon us to use the comparisons of Nazism and the Holocaust to shock people now, early, while it can be turned around.
Noncriminal people, including children, are dying in prison camps, overseen by normal people in uniforms on the instruction of populist political leaders. That is close enough for me to justify talking about concentration camps.
We should also not only be talking about what happened to the victims, but also what happened to the perpetrators. We should already start now talking about a future inquiry into the deaths and other injustices after this political period is over. We should remind those people wearing the uniforms that Nuremberg established that following orders is not an acceptable defense for crossing the line of accepted social norms.
People are willing to follow orders, even when they are wrong by America’s own standards.
The United States has shown clearly that as a country it has the potential for fascism. The speed at which Trump has undone the norms that made the United States a great democracy in the world is astonishing, and the noise he makes distracts us from these very basic realities. The United States clearly has at least part of its population quite ready to follow him over a line from dysfunctional democracy to functional autocracy. People are willing to follow orders, even when they are wrong by the U.S.’s own standards. People are willing to be silent, to be complicit, and then as with Nazi Germany, bad people are ready to ride the wave and pursue the worst policies with vigor. We are seeing that begin with the white supremacist terror attacks.
I was struck by the news footage of Vice President Mike Pence visiting the detention centers in which men were packed into cages. He stood there, avoiding eye contact with the inmates, looking on from a position of power, from a distance, instantly dehumanizing the men behind the cage just as the Nazis did when they started to throw people into ghettos and camps. Pence claims to be a devout Christian. I wondered how he reconciled with his faith being responsible for imprisoning men, women, and children who were in search of help, charity, and a better life.
Back in 1930s Germany, perfectly civilized, law-abiding Christian Germans — middle-class, nice, family people — stood by as neighbors from other social groups were taken from their houses, forced into ghettos and prison camps, and eventually murdered. Some of them wore uniforms and carried out orders, doing things we cannot now forgive. Others stood by and did nothing, and were complicit in their silence. That is the lesson for the United States today, and one that I am happy to be made in the name of my grandfather, and in the name of all my great-grandfather’s brothers, nieces, nephews, and in-laws, the only memory of whom now exists as names on lists.
In my grandpa’s own words: “Let us remember too, the causes and the rise of a system — a system of fascism — which can bring into a 20th Century civilization such medieval barbarism. If we can keep those causes in our memories, so that it can never happen again, then indeed the lesson of Belsen will have been well learned.”