Baraboo Photo Is Not About Nazism
It's about inadequate education. Survey found most millennials did not know what Auschwitz was.
There is a good reason why many people say, “we must never forget,” after a tragic event such as 9/11 or the Holocaust. As awful as the memory of the events may be, it is important to remember them so that we do not repeat the same mistakes of the past and so that we can put into proper context the memory of the horrors.
The photo of the smiling students from Baraboo High School, in which many of them appear to be giving the Nazi salute, is a prime example of how forgetting the horrors of the past can cheapen the memory of the millions of lives lost during the Holocaust.
Although there is some controversy over whether the kids in the photo are waving or giving the Nazi salute, the photo speaks for itself. Even one student who was in the photo, but who did not give the salute, said that his classmates were trying to make an immature and unfortunate “joke” that he was very uncomfortable with.
The photo went viral and sparked worldwide outrage from many people who immediately condemned the students. Locally, Gov. Scott Walker called the students “idiots.” Gov.-elect Tony Evers said the photo has “no place in Wisconsin.”
Some people have called the students in the photo Nazis, but it seems more likely that they’re ignorant. Unless someone is truly evil, no person who knows what happened at Auschwitz would ever be seen Sieg Heiling, especially as a joke.
This is not to suggest that there are not Nazis and Nazi sympathizers in the United States. They exist. Just last year in Charlottesville, Virginia, many professed neo-Nazis marched and violently protested, resulting in the death of a woman protesting against them. Fortunately, however, they comprise a tiny minority of the population.
The Baraboo High School students who appear to have given the Nazi salute are very likely ignorant, perhaps because we have far less direct connections to the Holocaust than we did in the not too distant past. Many Holocaust survivors have died. Those who fought in World War II have nearly all passed on. We simply do not have the first-hand accounts of the horrors of Nazism like we did before, and so we turn to our schools to teach the history.
Are schools teaching kids sufficiently about Nazis and the Holocaust? According to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, only nine states currently mandate Holocaust or genocide education. A 2018 poll found that 66 percent of millennials did not know what Auschwitz was.
We also appear to be far too quick to call those with whom we disagree (typically politically) Nazis, which further cheapens the word. You hear it all the time when people are referring to political opponents: “He’s a Nazi!” Comparing current policies or people to Adolf Hitler and Nazism is an embarrassing and insulting part of our political discourse. Such disgusting analogies almost always demonstrate gross political ignorance and reveal lazy arguments.
Reductio ad Hitlerum, a phrase coined in 1951 by German-American political philosopher Leo Strauss, is the attempt to invalidate a person’s argument by comparing their position to one held by Adolf Hitler or the Nazi Party. It is, in effect, a logical fallacy. In 1990, attorney and author Mike Godwin coined what is now known as Godwin’s Law, which says the longer an online discussion drags on, the likelier it is that someone will compare someone or something to Hitler. Facebook political discussions are places where one can see Godwin’s Law in full effect on a daily basis.
It has been reported that the police are investigating the photo incident involving the Baraboo High School students. It is unclear why that would be the case because in the United States, throwing up a Sieg Heil Nazi salute, while disgusting and incredibly offensive, is not unlawful. Freedom of speech quite clearly includes the right to do this.
But with freedom of speech comes great responsibility. We must start practicing respect, decency and civility in our political discourse, and avoid the casual and lazy analogies to Adolf Hitler.
To help remedy the problem of cheapening the Holocaust and Nazism, we must not be afraid to teach the true horrors of that time and we must condemn those who try to minimize the pure evil of the Nazi beliefs, either through lazy political discourse or unfunny jokes.
Casey Hoff is a criminal defense attorney based in Sheboygan.