You’ll remember Godwin’s law, which holds that the longer an online debate goes on, the likelier it is that someone will mention Hitler or the Nazis. It was an amusing observation and one that served a useful purpose, guarding against hyperbole and fatuous comparison. Except last August, as the American far right staged a torchlight parade in Charlottesville, Mike Godwin suspended his own law. “By all means, compare these shitheads to Nazis,” he tweeted. “Again and again. I’m with you.”
Despite that dispensation, I’ve tended to abide by my own version of Godwin’s law. I try to avoid Nazi comparisons, chiefly because they’re almost always wrong and because, far from dramatising whatever horror is under way, they usually serve to minimise the one that killed millions in the 1940s. And yet, there’s a cost to such self-restraint. Because if the Nazi era is placed off limits, seen as so far outside the realm of regular human experience that it might as well have happened on a distant planet – Planet Auschwitz – then we risk failure to learn its lessons. That would be to squander the essential benefit offered by study of the Third Reich: an early warning system.
So yes, when Donald Trump ordered US government agents on the southern border to separate migrant children from their parents, to tear screaming toddlers from their fathers and even to pull a baby from its mother’s breast, he was not re-enacting the Holocaust. He was not ordering the eradication of an entire people or sending millions to their deaths. But there were echoes. And we must hear them.
For one, there’s the elemental act of separation itself. If you interview survivors of the Holocaust, one thing you notice is that even those who’ve grown used to describing events of the most extraordinary cruelty, and who can do so without shedding a tear, often struggle when they recall the moment they were parted from a parent. Mostly now in their 80s or older, they are taken back to that moment of childhood terror, one that never leaves them.