Holocaust Memorial Day: Pushing Back against Attempts by Vaccine Opponents to Relativise the Holocaust

International Holocaust Remembrance Day is a good time to point out once again why comparing events surrounding the current coronavirus pandemic with the Holocaust or Nazi Germany is a poor idea. It’s necessary, too, given how many Covid deniers and vaccine opponents in Germany and Europe are willing to do just that.

This article was initially published on Belltower News (German) and Get The Trolls Out! (English).

By Simone Rafael

The Holocaust is a unique crime against humanity – motivated by antisemitic views, perpetrated by the National Socialists and organised on an industrial scale, the mass murder of Jews in Germany and Europe led to the loss of 6 million lives. At least 200,000 people in Germany and Austria were actively involved in the act. That so many people were culpable of involvement – often without a shred of guilt – was due to the widespread antisemitism propagated on a massive scale by the state ever since the Nazi Party took power. The antisemitic propaganda of the Nazi era contains many motifs and narratives which continue to endure among far-right circles and groups espousing conspiracy ideologies today: slurs made against Jewish people due to certain qualities or physical characteristics attributed to them, tales of a Jewish global conspiracy that intends to subjugate all non-Jews, rhetoric about a biological and racial unit – the Volkskörper, as it is known – whose purity is threatened by the virus-like tendencies of the Jews. 

In other words, given the genuine, deadly consequences of antisemitism, it pays to be wary when these types of narrative resurface in the present. Now, within the context of the coronavirus pandemic, the conspiracy narrative alluding to an alleged Jewish world order (or, to use the preferred term today, a “global elite”) and the virus metaphor have found root well beyond far-right circles. 

Holocaust denial remains a tool of the Nazis 

Even more popular than these narratives is a desire among coronavirus denial groups to relativise the Holocaust. This is not to be confused with outright denial of the Holocaust – a step too far toward extremism for these opponents to democracy, who wish to still be seen as civic-minded. They are not saying the Holocaust never happened or that the number of victims is not correct; this is something they leave to the eager ranks of the far right (some have even embraced a new strategy: to avoid denying that the Holocaust happened while claiming that its existence is part of an alleged “Jewish global conspiracy”, wherein the Jews arranged for themselves to be murdered so that the rest of the world receives the blame). While denial of the Holocaust is a criminal act in Germany, this is not always the case when it comes to relativising it.  

Relativising the Holocaust: I am the victim here 

The lack of punishment is not (only) why protests against coronavirus measures go hand in hand with relativising the Holocaust. In fact, its proponents are much more concerned with repositioning themselves as victims: they wish to express the torment they are suffering as “victims” of the protective measures imposed by the state due to the potentially deadly coronavirus. They are giving voice to their pain at not being allowed to contract a potentially fatal disease and endanger those around them without being sanctioned for it. In this situation, they equate themselves with Jews who were hunted down, arrested, deported and murdered under National Socialism. 

This is what relativising the Holocaust means. The Nazi genocide of European Jews is downplayed when it is compared to the exhortation to wear a mask or the rule that only vaccinated persons may enter certain stores. Where the Jews had no legal opportunity to oppose the Holocaust, opponents to the coronavirus measures and the vaccine may continue to live their lives as before without interruption. It is only certain social interactions that have had to be modified to accommodate additional protective measures as the pandemic ebbs and flows – with those failing to heed these democratically agreed rules having to pay a fine. However, this is a decision they make independently. It is not their fate. Asking whether these people are actively trying relativise the Holocaust is not relevant – the fact is that they are doing it anyway. 

For all those who are unsure whether the words they use to protest against the coronavirus measures relativises the Holocaust or National Socialism, here are a few common variants for which the following rule applies: saying them out loud is not a good idea.  

Examples of relativising the Holocaust: 

  • The “unvaccinated” star, inspired by the yellow badges worn by the Jews under National Socialism, is not just a prime example of relativising the Holocaust among coronavirus denial groups, but wearing it now is a punishable offence: no, anyone unwilling to follow the rules negotiated by society at large is not in the same situation as people in the time of the “Third Reich”, who had to wear the star due to an ascribed religious affiliation – a badge that marked them out with the purpose of robbing them of their human rights and ultimately murdering them. The same applies to those who say “the unvaccinated are the Jews of today”.  
  • Equating vaccinations with Zyklon B (former Alternative for Germany (AfD) politician Stefan Bauer did exactly that): no, a protective vaccination is not the same as the gas used for the mass murder of Jews in concentration camps. 
  • Putting oneself side by side with victims of National Socialism is another form of relativising the Holocaust. Acts such as the neo-Nazi Sven Liebich posing at a Holocaust memorial in Berlin clutching a copy of The Diary of Anne Frank are downright malicious and relativise the Holocaust. Another example: the little girl who, during a demonstration by the “Querdenker” movement, was prompted by her parents to say she felt like Anne Frank when she had to keep her lockdown birthday celebration quiet so as not to incur the wrath of her neighbours. 

Comparisons that relativise the Nazi period 

  • All references to dictatorships (“Merkel dictatorship”, “Coronavirus dictatorship”, etc.) equate the protective measures passed by a democratically elected government with autocratic, authoritarian decisions made by an absolute ruler. This is an inappropriate dramatization and can easily be refuted: in a true dictatorship, those who oppose the system are rarely able to demonstrate at will, flood the Internet, sell their own media or seek to incite others at their place of work – all things the “Querdenker” movement does on a regular basis. 
  • Comparing a democratically elected government to the Nazis’ totalitarian regime just because a person’s preferred party fails to receive the most votes or because they disagree with some decisions is also tantamount to downplaying the dictatorship under Nazi Germany. While democracy implies freedom of expression, it does not grant the right to always be in the majority with one’s own opinion. 
  • Presenting democratic politicians as Nazi commandants or war criminals – such as at the Nuremberg Trials – is a popular motif among radicalised coronavirus denial groups, and has surfaced in the form of memes such as “Nuremberg 2.0”. Turning to this kind of imagery is the highest level of emotional escalation, and is intended to legitimise all forms of resistance – including violence.  
  • Part of this narrative – and especially popular in Germany – involves equating these people with resistance fighters during the time of National Socialism. No: a person who goes to three “Querdenker” demonstrations to hand out “Students, take a stand” flyers is not Sophie Scholl – despite what the infamous student Jana from Kassel would have us believe. Similar associations are achieved by demonstrators holding signs with quotes from staunch adversaries to the Nazi regime, such as Bertolt Brecht and Hannah Arendt. This is done to disguise their own antisemitism and assure themselves that they are on the “good” side. The disconnect here is that Germany is not a dictatorship. 
  • Media reports “like during the Third Reich” – this refers to the Editor’s Law passed by the Nazis in 1933, which robbed journalists of their independence and brought the press to heel. Today, we have a free press, journalists are not regulated, and anyone can become one, thereby preventing the media from ever being controlled in this way again. This does not mean, however, that every “Querdenker” YouTube channel needs to be given an official press pass – today, these are awarded by the relevant federal associations, not the state (see: tagesschau.de [German only]). 
  • Another inappropriate comparison to the Nazi period: The revised version of the German Protection against Infection Act has been classified as another Enabling Act by opponents including delegates of the AfD. Passed on 24 March 1933, the Enabling Act de facto transferred all legislative power to Adolf Hitler, thus enabling the founding of a National Socialist dictatorship. 

All these comparisons to the Nazi period seek to demonise and delegitimise democratic politics, presenting it as inappropriate, unwanted or even monstrous in its actions against “the people”. The aim is to convey a mood that legitimises all forms of rebellion and force against the prevailing practices. These narratives are the type that lead people to arm themselves and go on marches framed as innocent “walks”.  

Openly relativising the Nazi period can often be unbearable for Holocaust survivors and their descendants. As stated by the Jewish Forum for Democracy and Against Antisemitism, “It harms the Jewish community when the extermination of 6 million Jews under National Socialism is equated with measures passed by the government to combat the pandemic.” The forum contends that this amounts to perfidious mockery of the victims of the Nazi era (see tagesschau.de[German only]). 

Felix Klein, Federal Government Commissioner for Jewish Life in Germany and the Fight against Antisemitism, has described the consequences of relativising the Holocaust as follows: “The increasing comparisons by protestors against the coronavirus measures with victims of National Socialism scorn the actual victims and relativise the Shoah. The Holocaust is not a decal that people can apply to any old situation in which they feel victimised.” He did, however, make a point of stating how important it is that society at large continues to strongly criticise those who relativise the Holocaust: “This is testimony to the fact that the value system of the democratic majority works.” (see RND [German only]).  

Hence the advice to anyone who genuinely wishes to voice their concerns about the coronavirus measures: relativising the Holocaust and making comparisons to the Nazis discredits these arguments and ensures that criticism which would otherwise be worth listening to is ignored.