US press secretary Sean Spicer’s excruciating gaffe at a White House press conference yesterday, in which he told reporters, while discussing Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s alleged gassing of civilians in Idlib, that ‘someone as despicable as Hitler… didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons’, shows we’ve finally reached Peak Hitler.
But rather than enjoying the glorious schadenfreude – Spicer tried to eat his words looking like a toddler trying to chew steak – commentators reacted with anger. This is surprising. After all, Hitler comparisons have become all the rage in politics. Spicer’s ramblings about the difference between sarin bombs and ‘Holocaust centres’ aren’t really that much more outrageous than the comments being made elsewhere. Yes, Spicer is clearly historically illiterate and his comments debased the Holocaust – but this is true of all Hitler comparisons.
When it comes to Assad, Spicer is not the first to invoke the spectre of the Führer. In 2013, the then secretary of state, John Kerry, declared Assad to be in the same league as Hitler. So did Boris Johnson, when he compared the UK House of Commons vote against bombing Syria to appeasing Hitler: ‘We did the wrong thing in the case of Hitler. We didn’t stand up early enough.’ The Daily Mail once ran a terrifying feature on sarin, ‘the Nazi death gas so horrific even Hitler feared using it’. Up until Spicer’s slip-up, the ‘Assad is worse than Hitler’ line was deemed perfectly acceptable to trot out to justify military action.
And, let’s not forget, President Trump has been the subject of far more Hitler comparisons. It’s not just internet memes and protest placards, serious news outlets like Newsweek and the International Business Times have entertained the idea that Trump is like Hitler. The Washington Post went one further: ‘Don’t compare Donald Trump to Adolf Hitler. It belittles Hitler.’ One journalist and ‘Hitler expert’ told the LA Review of Books he’d been approached by numerous editors to comment on the Trump-Hitler comparison. And, after refusing at first, he soon joined in, accusing Trump of using the rhetoric of Mein Kampf during his presidential campaign.
Comparing Trump or Assad or whoever to Hitler is a dangerous game – not only is it historically illiterate, it relativises the Holocaust, presenting it not as a uniquely barbarous historical event but something almost routine. What’s more, the Assad-Hitler trope has long been used, by interventionists on left and right, as a battle cry for another senseless Middle East war. Spicer is hardly the only offender here. After this monumental gaffe, we need to leave Hitler where he belongs – in the past.