Eighty-three years ago this past week, Nazi bombs rained down on Polish cities marking the beginning of World War II. My late mother was 14 when she experienced that horrific morning in the Polish city of Lvov, which is now Lviv in Western Ukraine. She relayed her experience:
“I remember very vividly when I heard the first bombs … it must have been between nine and 11 in the morning, and the minute they started bombing they never really stopped. So we moved into a very large basement, all of the tenants of our building which my father made into a bomb shelter.”
That fateful morning, she did not know the inferno unleashed on her hometown would portend the murder of six million Jews including her parents, two brothers, and nearly all her extended family. The Holocaust stands out as one of the most heinous acts of genocide in human history, and as the generation of survivors passes, proper memorialization of this traumatic event is more urgent than ever.
That is why trivialization of the Holocaust in American politics is so offensive and inappropriate, particularly to survivors and their descendants. It is now commonplace for elected officials and candidates for public office to invoke the Holocaust and Nazi Germany while making political points. Oftentimes, those authoring such comments are held accountable in the media and other public spaces. In some cases, they issue apologies with varying levels of sincerity. Still others, like Minnesota Republican gubernatorial candidate, Scott Jensen, double down on his comments, reinforcing myths and misappropriating proper Holocaust remembrance.
Jensen echoed familiar Republican talking points likening COVID mask mandates to developments in Nazi Germany. When asked to clarify his comments he became insistent, stating, “So when I make a comparison that I saw government policies intruding on American freedoms incrementally, one piece at a time and compare that to what happened in the 1930s, I think it’s a legitimate comparison.”
As a member of the Minnesota House of Representatives, I have heard many inappropriate Holocaust analogies by my colleagues and political candidates. Yet Jensen’s comments are particularly odious because they propagate the rhetoric of a broader social movement that continually links mask mandates with Nazi policies.
The analogy is so ubiquitous and goes far beyond the musing of individual officials. It is now a staple of American politics, and the claim that mask policies reflect Nazi actions serves to incite a growing, dangerous, violence-prone movement wherein an amalgam of organizations opposed to vaccines have joined forces with some of the groups involved in the January 6th Capitol insurrection.
The link between mask policies and violent extremism started shortly after the pandemic when armed groups surrounded state capitols and governors’ residences in Michigan, Colorado, Ohio, Minnesota, and other states. Those rallies often featured Nazi imagery juxtaposed to state leaders. A placard in Michigan read “Heil Whitmer” in reference to that state’s governor, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, while in Minnesota a sign included an image of Gov. Tim Walz with a penciled in Hitler mustache.
The associations between extremist groups and those seeking elected office have grown stronger in the intervening two years since the initial mask mandate protests. Candidate Jensen’s views are now part of the fabric of the 2022 mid-term elections. Earlier this year, the Anti-Defamation League’s Center for Extremism noted that more than 100 political candidates espouse views that, “promote extremism, associate with extremists, and/or promote potentially dangerous conspiracy theories. Support for such candidates demonstrates a continuing shift of the so-called Overton Window-the parameters of what is considered ‘normal’ and ‘acceptable’ in political and social discourse.”
As recently as June of this year, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) was held accountable for making comments like Jensen’s, invoking the Holocaust and masking policies. She was rebuked by colleagues on both sides of the aisle, and by some in her Georgia district. She then issued a grudging apology.
No such apology is forthcoming from Scott Jensen. Not one elected Minnesota Republican official or party leader has spoken out in opposition to Jensen’s comments. I fear that at least in Minnesota, the Overton window on destructive Nazi analogies may also be shifting.
Leaders at all levels of government must forswear extremism. When Nazism is invoked –especially in this fraught political moment – tensions heighten.
There is a Holocaust and Humanity Center in Cincinnati where my parents lived after immigrating to the United States. One of the walls displays a quote from my mother: “I owe it to all of those who did not survive to tell the story.”
We owe it to her, the remaining survivors, their descendants, and all those murdered by the Nazis, to honor their memories by telling the story accurately. The memory of the Holocaust should not become a cudgel leaders can use to incite dangerous political polarization and extremism.
Rep. Frank Hornstein (DFL) represents Minnesota House District 61A