The Abuse of Holocaust Memory Chapter Six: Holocaust Equivalence

Within the broad category of abuse of Holocaust equivalence, there are a number of subcategories of manipulations of history whose motivations differ. Prewar and wartime Holocaust equivalence are based on the allegation that the Germans’ genocidal behavior during World War II was similar to that of other nations before and during the war. The perpetrators of these distortions mainly aim to whitewash or diminish German crimes.

As the Holocaust is both the summit and the symbol of modern evil, the promoting of prewar equivalence is also an attack on the uniqueness of the Jews’ victimization.

The postwar variant is based on a number of claims. One is that communist rule after the war was similar to that of the Nazis. Another is that there are many events in today’s society that are similar in nature or equivalent to those caused by Germany under Hitler’s rule. Another element of postwar Holocaust equivalence is that some contemporary organizations or individuals have the same character traits or attitudes as the Nazis. It is thus claimed that various actions or attitudes since the end of World War II are equivalent to what the Germans did during the war. Many, but far from all of these comparisons, refer to what Germany did to the Jews.

The three components of Holocaust equivalence have to be analyzed separately because their motivations and aims differ.

Prewar Holocaust Equivalence

A major claim of perpetrators of prewar Holocaust equivalence is that Hitler’s Germany did not act differently from what other nations had done earlier. The motivation for this claim is simple. If others had invented and carried out the murderous acts that were later copied by the Germans, why should the latter be blamed specifically? If these were such horrible crimes, those who had been the first to commit them should carry most of the blame and not the Germans who were followers and not initiators. A second line of defending German behavior would then be that, if these were acts frequently seen in times of war or ethnic tension, they should not be singled out for extreme blame.

An example of prewar Holocaust equivalence was mentioned by Lipstadt. She noted that a few years after the war, the French Holocaust-denier Paul Rassinier claimed that the concentration camps were not a German invention and many other countries had used them, including France.1 The uniqueness of the integrated and multifaceted complex of crimes committed by the Germans and their allies against the Jews does not, however, exclude that some elements had already been used by others earlier.

Lipstadt, for whom the uniqueness of the Holocaust starts in 1941, mentions some of the similarities between prewar German behavior and that of others:

If one stops the comparison at 1939, one finds strong parallels between apartheid policies in South Africa and Nazi attitudes toward the Jews. There were times when the apartheid government convinced blacks that they were being taken to new homesteads. The authorities, however, took them to the bush and left them there without food and water. They died by the thousands, which was a limited form of genocide. Of course, the apartheid government was not intent on destroying the entire black population, because they needed them to do the work that sustained the country. Consequently, it was not a full-fledged genocide. It was horrible, it was inhumane, it was anti- democratic; but it was not intended to wipe out the black population.2

The Historikerstreit

One well-known example of prewar Holocaust equivalence is the claim that Hitler followed Stalin’s example when establishing concentration camps. This argument was part of the Historikerstreit (the historians’ debate) that raged in West Germany in the mid-1980s, especially in 1986–1989. This debate should be seen against the backdrop of the friction between Left and Right in the German political landscape, where conservative German historians were perceived, rightly or wrongly, as trying to exonerate the German history.

The historian Ernst Nolte started the debate by claiming that the Germans turnedto Nazism because they were afraid of Bolshevism. In his view, the Holocaust or “race murder” was a response to the Soviet “class murder” perpetrated in the Gulag. In 1985, he wrote: “Auschwitz…was above all a reaction born out of the annihilating occurrences of the Russian Revolution…the so-called annihilation of the Jews during the Third Reich was a reaction or a distorted copy and not a first act or an original.”3

The philosopher Jürgen Habermas rejected this way of understanding German history by the “canceling out of damages,” seeing it as part of conservative whitewashing of Germany’s Nazi past.4 The debate was conducted in the German press, and centered mostly on issues concerning the uniqueness of the Holocaust, the place of the Holocaust in German history — an exception or a logical outcome — and the issue of whether the German people as a whole bore a special burden following the Holocaust. Besides Nolte and Habermas, a number of others also contributed to the sometimes bitter and personal debate.

Wartime Equivalence

The perpetrators of this type of Holocaust equivalence claim that there were no radical differences between the behavior of the major participants in World War

  1. This false narrative aims to lead to the conclusion that there is no reason for specific culpability of Germany when compared to its opponents.

During the Eichmann trial in 1961, the accused claimed that there was no basic difference between the two sides in World War II. Judge Benjamin Halevi confronted Eichmann, saying:

You have often compared the extermination of the Jews with the bombing raids on German cities and you compared the murder of Jewish women and children with the death of German women in aerial bombardments. Surely it must be clear to you that there is a basic distinction between these two things. On the one hand the bombing is used as an instrument of forcing the enemy to surrender. Just as the Germans tried to force the British to surrender by their bombing. In that case it is a war objective to bring an armed enemy to his knees.

On the other hand, when you take unarmed Jewish men, women, and children from their homes, hand them over to the Gestapo, and then send them to Auschwitz for extermination it is an entirely different thing, is it not?5

The use of the wartime-equivalence type of Holocaust distortion is currently increasing in German society. German historian Susanne Y. Urban discusses a bestselling book of another German historian, Jörg Friedrich:6

Friedrich’s popularized style helped this book become a bestseller. He uses terms that for decades were associated with Nazi persecution and the Shoah; thus, cellars and air-raid shelters in which Germans died are “crematoria,” an RAF bomber group is an Einsatzgruppe, and the destruction of libraries during the bombings constitutes Bücherverbrennungen. In this way the Shoah is minimized through language.7

Urban also discusses a second book by Friedrich, who depicts the Germans in World War II as victims:8

There are no SA men, no SS, no soldiers involved in persecution, murder, and “aryanization.” The book contains horrifying photos of the effects of the Allied bombings of Germany. Ruins, burnt bodies, and ashes everywhere evoke associations with the Warsaw Ghetto after its liquidation in 1943 and well-known images from Auschwitz and other extermination camps. Friedrich even declared openly, in several television interviews in winter 2002: “Churchill was the greatest child-slaughterer of all time. He slaughtered 76,000 children.” Yet Friedrich, formerly known as a serious historian, never devotes a single word to the 1.5 million murdered Jewish children.9

Lipstadt identifies another link between Holocaust equivalence and deniers. The latter may admit that “the Nazis had concentration camps, which were terrible places, but then assert that nobody was murdered there. One can then ‘balance’ this by mentioning that the Americans had camps for Americans citizens of Japanese descent.”10

Postwar Equivalence

The core element of what a variety of perpetrators of postwar Holocaust equivalence allege is that certain actions or attitudes of others since the end of World War II are equivalent to those of the Germans during the war. Holocaust psychologist Nathan Durst observes: “When one calls everything Auschwitz, you deny the Holocaust. As everything becomes terrible, there is no absolute evil anymore. This is a great relief for the heirs of guilt.”11

Postwar Holocaust equivalence, however, often has different motivations from the two equivalence subcategories mentioned earlier. Many of those who practice it do not particularly care about either Germans or Jews. They are looking for the strongest possible metaphors to illustrate the evil character of those they condemn.

Nazism has become the contemporary symbol of absolute evil. Thus when wanting to demonize others in the strongest way possible, the comparison with the Nazis or their actions is often used. The comparisons are usually very brief without any attempt to provide a detailed analogy.

Such manifestations of postwar Holocaust equivalence include comparisons of living persons with Hitler or other Nazis. Another manifestation is the comparison of acts of governments or others with those of Germany under Hitler’s rule. Often there is little or no proof to support these remarks.

Comparing Communism to Nazism

One of the most sophisticated types of postwar Holocaust equivalence is to present the victimization of people by communism in the same way as that of the Holocaust. The Baltic countries and in particular Lithuania are in the forefront of this effort.

Zuroff wrote that

the theory of the “double genocide” or the symmetry between Nazi and Communist crimes was particularly strong in Lithuania, where it became prominent in the wake of the revelations by the Simon Wiesenthal Center in 1991 that the Lithuanian government had granted rehabilitation to numerous local Nazi collaborators.

Part of the response to these accusations was to emphasize the role of Jewish Communists as a participant in Soviet crimes committed in Lithuania as a counterbalance and/or as justification for the participation of Lithuanians in Holocaust crimes, a tendency that remains strong in Lithuania.

Along the same lines, in the wake of the apology for the crimes of the Shoah proffered by President Brazauskas in Israel, numerous Lithuanians countered by pointing to Jewish participation in Communist crimes, asking, “Who will apologize to the Lithuanian nation?”12

Zuroff recounts that in the early 1990s he met in Vilnius with Vytautas Landsbergis, the then Lithuanian head of state. When Zuroff gave him a volume on Holocaust research, Landsbergis in turn gave him a book on the mass deportations of Lithuanians to Siberia and referred to that as “our Holocaust.”13

Concerning Estonia, Zuroff says the decision “to observe a memorial day for the victims of the Holocaust aroused considerable controversy and was singularly unpopular.”14 For example, typical of the local reactions to the decision was this question posed to an official of the Simon Wiesenthal Center who had lobbied the government to choose a special day to commemorate the Holocaust:

“You’re demanding that all the peoples of the world including Estonia introduce the Jewish Holocaust memorial day. I’m wondering when will the memorial day for [the] Estonian mass deportations of 1941 and 1949 be introduced in Israel. Do you think that the war sufferings of one nation should be put above others and the suffering of other nations are nothing to speak of?”15

Zuroff also reports about a reunion of Waffen SS veterans in summer 2009:

Estonia hosted its annual reunion of Waffen-SS veterans at Sinimäe, the site of one of the fiercest battles fought by the 20th Waffen-SS Grenadier Division (also known as the First Estonian Division) against the Soviets in the latter stages of World War II. SS veterans from other European countries, in which such gatherings are illegal, were only too happy to join in the festivities in a country where their service on behalf of the Third Reich is considered by many to be worthy, rather than denigrated.

The existence of such a reunion, however, is only part of the story. The attitude of the local authorities to the SS veterans and their supporters on the one hand and to those opposed to such gatherings on the others [sic], is indicative of the distorted view on history currently prevalent in Tallinn. Thus, for example, foreign SS veterans who came to the reunion, as well as younger persons sympathetic to them, were welcome guests in Estonia. Foreign and even local anti-fascists who sought to demonstrate against the reunion, on the other hand, were treated very harshly in a manner totally unbecoming a country which is a member of NATO and the European Union.16

About Latvia, Zuroff writes:

Another example of equating Communist crimes with those of the Holocaust occurred at the very highest level in Latvia.17 In January 2004, at a conference sponsored by the Task Force for International Cooperation on Holocaust Education Remembrance and Research, Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga emphasized two major points: that Communist crimes were just as terrible as those of the Holocaust and that the measures taken by the Communists in Latvia constituted genocide. Despite the relevance of the Holocaust in this context, the Latvian president only mentioned it once in passing, with nary a word about Latvian complicity in Shoah crimes.18 When an official of the Simon Wiesenthal Center explained in an op-ed that the president’s presentation did not accurately reflect the historical events19 there were calls for his murder, as well as various anti-Semitic comments on a prominent Latvian news website.20

Creating a System of Equivalence

Zuroff has analyzed the various elements of the system by which  Baltic leaders create postwar Holocaust equivalence. One is the almost total failure to prosecute local Nazi war criminals. Another is the efforts to falsely blame Germans and Austrians almost exclusively for the murder of Lithuanian Jews, much of which was carried out by locals. A third element is the establishment of genocide or occupation museums. These ignore local Holocaust crimes and Nazi collaboration.

The next step in this process occurred when the Baltic countries increased their efforts to create official symmetry between communism and Nazism. Zuroff writes:

Their first major success was the 3 June 2008 “Prague Declaration on Euro- pean Conscience and Communism” signed by Vaclev Havel and numerous members of the European Parliament, which called for the establishment of 23 August as an official day of remembrance for Nazi and communist victims “in the same way Europe remembers the victims of the Holocaust on 27 January,” as well as an “Institute of European Memory and Conscience” to serve as a museum, research, and educational center on these crimes. The rationale presented for these steps points to the “substantial similarities between Nazism and communism” and warns that “Europe will not be unit- ed unless it is able to reunite its history [and] recognize communism and Nazism as a common legacy.”21

The following step occurred on 23 September 2008 when more than four hundred members of the European Parliament signed a declaration supporting the establishment of 23 August as the European Day of Remembrance of Stalinism and Nazism. Then, on 2 April 2009, a resolution was adopted in the European Parliament that was similar to the Prague Declaration. Five hundred thirty-three members voted in favor, forty-four voted against, and thirty-three abstained.22

Zuroff sees a risk that in a number of years Holocaust Memorial Day will be abandoned and 23 August will become the joint memorial day for all victims of Nazism and communism.

A Communist Application

Some communists applied this type of Holocaust equivalence early, aiming at Jews. In 1953, the Soviet Union’s daily Pravda published alleged information about a conspiracy of mainly Jewish doctors to kill communist leaders through wrong diagnoses and sabotage in treatment.23

Israeli anti-Semitism scholar Simcha Epstein noted:

French communist intellectuals organized a major solidarity rally in Paris in support of the official Soviet position on the “doctors’” plot.

The message of the speakers was frightening. Many explained that it was normal to suspect doctors of poisoning people: one only had to look at Mengele’s role in Auschwitz. If he was capable of what he did, why should other physicians not use poison? A Jewish physician was among those who publicly took such a stand. As a medical doctor, he bore witness that the charge was not absurd. He also based his position on the misconduct of German physicians during the Second World War, stating that it could not be definitely excluded that Jews or Zionists decided to poison Soviet personalities.24

Nazi Imagery in American Political Discourse

In recent years Nazi imagery has crept into American congressional debates. Foxman said, after a number of incidents: “This kind of language makes no sense. America’s elected officials must refrain from invoking Hitler, the Nazis and the Holocaust, which have no place in our nation’s political discourse.”25

Foxman made these remarks after Republican Senator Rick Santorum had in 2005 compared the Democrats’ use of the filibuster to oppose judicial nominees with “the equivalent of Adolf Hitler in 1942.” Santorum later apologized, saying the reference “was meant to dramatize the principle of an argument, not to characterize my Democratic colleagues.… Nevertheless, it was a mistake and I meant no offense.”26

Earlier that year West Virginia Democratic Senator Robert Byrd had compared a Senate ruling on discontinuing a debate on judicial nominations with Hitler’s use of constitutional means to get legislation adopted quickly in the German Reichstag at the beginning of the Nazis’ rule.27

Political Discourse Elsewhere

Similar examples can be brought from many other countries. Irish president Mary McAleese, on the occasion of the sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, said that the Nazis “gave to their children an irrational hatred of Jews in the same way that people in Northern Ireland transmitted to their children an irrational hatred, for example, of Catholics, in the same way that people give to their children an outrageous and irrational hatred of those who are of different colour and all of those things.” These remarks led to a furor and she apologized, saying that she had not intended to make a connection between Protestantism and Nazism. She added: “I was trying to make a point and I made it very clumsily indeed.”28

At the beginning of 2008, former Quebec premier Bernard Landry of the Parti Quebecois said in a lecture to students that, on the occasion of the 1982 constitutional changes, the then Canadian premier Pierre Elliott Trudeau had stated that “this Constitution will last 1,000 years.” Landry added: “He drew inspiration, I am afraid, from one of the most horrible people of Western history and I don’t need to say his name.”29

Eddie Goldenberg, chief of staff of former Canadian prime minister Jean Chretien, said of Landry in reaction: “When he used a quote from Trudeau to compare him with Adolf Hitler, I found that absolutely disgusting and I wish he would apologize to the Trudeau family.” This led to a further heated exchange of words, and Landry said that blaming Trudeau “for a poor expression is not comparing him to one of the most despicable people in history.”30

Already early in Obama’s presidency a Nazi comparison came up. At a “tea party” of the Republican Party in Duval County, Florida, some participants carried signs with slogans relating to the Holocaust. Two of them showed Obama in Nazi garb. 31

Sometimes comparisons have a little bit more depth and have been thought through to some extent. At the end of 2008, for instance, British defense secretary John Hutton compared Taliban fighters in Afghanistan with Nazis, calling the battle against them “a vital national security mission” like that against Hitler. He added that “it is a struggle against fanatics that may not challenge our borders but challenges our way of life in the same way the Nazis did.” 32


In Germany the mention of Holocaust equivalence often touches a particularly sensitive nerve. In September 2002, Social Democratic justice minister Herta Daübler-Gmelin said President George W. Bush was exploiting the possibility of a war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in order to diminish his domestic problems. She added that such diversionary tactics had been regularly used since Hitler. She later explained that she was comparing Hitler’s methods with those of Bush, without equating the persons. After her statement, Chancellor Gerhard Schröder did not include her in the new cabinet that he formed a few weeks later.33

In 2008, Hans-Werner Sinn, head of the Munich IFO Institute for Economic Research, compared the criticism of German managers after the autumn economic crisis with the persecution of the Jews. This led to very sharp reactions from politicians, representatives of churches, and of the Jewish community. For instance, government spokesman Ulrich Wilhelm said that “in view of German history this [comparison] was inadmissible and false.”

Sebastian Edathy, chairman of the Interior Committee of the parliament, said that “in view of such statements one has the impression that Mr. Sinn is not mentally sane.”34 The Central Council of Jews in Germany called on Sinn to apologize immediately.35 In view of the criticism, Sinn then asked forgiveness in a letter to Charlotte Knobloch, head of the Central Council. She accepted it and said that such events must not be repeated.36

A Frequent Phenomenon

There are an almost unlimited number of contemporary expressions of postwar Holocaust equivalence. In recent years there were frequent comparisons of Bush with Hitler, or of the actions of the United States and its allies in Iraq and Afghanistan with those of Nazi Germany. Many, but far from all, perpetrators are from the extreme Left.

Mike Godwin, an American lawyer, concluded that the longer a discussion continues on the Internet, the more probable it becomes that a comparison with Nazis will be made. He added that those who make the comparison lose the argument. Whether his judgment is valid remains to be seen over the coming years.37

Many examples thus indicate how, in a fragmented world, World War II and particularly the Holocaust have become instruments for insults.

Holocaust inversion is an even more perverse category of Holocaust equivalence. It says that Jews and Israel behave like Nazis. This Nazifying of Israel is discussed in the following chapter. Holocaust trivialization is yet another category of postwar Holocaust equivalence. It metaphorically compares phenomena strongly opposed by the perpetrators of this distortion with the industrial-scale destruction of the Jews in World War II by Germans, Austrians, and their allies. This abuse of Holocaust memory is also discussed in a separate chapter.


  1. Manfred Gerstenfeld, “Denial of the Holocaust and Immoral Equivalence,” an interview with Deborah Lipstadt, Post-Holocaust and Anti-Semitism, 11, 1 August 2003.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ernst Nolte, “Between Myth and Revisionism,” in W. Koch, ed., Aspects of the Third Reich (London: Macmillan, 1985), 36.
  4. Jürgen Habermas, “Eine Art Schadenabwicklung: Die apologetischen Tendenzen in der deutschen Zeitgeschichtsschreibung,” Die Zeit, 18 July 1986 [German].
  5. Michael Shermer and Alex Grobman, Denying History: Who Says the Holocaust Never Happened and Why Do They Say It? (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2000), 105.
  6. Jörg Friedrich, Der Deutschland im Bombenkrieg (Berlin: Propyläen Verlag, 2002). [German]
  7. Susanne Urban, “Anti-Semitism in Germany Today: Its Roots and Tendencies,” Jewish Political Studies Review, Vol. 16, Nos. 3–4 (Fall 2004): 124.
  8. Jörg Friedrich, Brandstätten (Berlin: Propyläen Verlag, 2003). [German]
  9. Urban, “Anti-Semitism,” 124.
  10. Gerstenfeld, interview with Lipstadt.
  11. Manfred Gerstenfeld, “Europe: From Guilt Feelings to Repackaging Anti-Semitism,” an interview with Nathan Durst, in Europe’s Crumbling Myths (Jerusalem: Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, 2003), 135.
  12. Efraim Zuroff, “Eastern Europe: Anti-Semitism in the Wake of Holocaust-Related Issues,” Jewish Political Studies Review, V 17, Nos. 1–2 (Spring 2005): 71.
  13. Efraim Zuroff, “A Combined Day of Commemoration for the Victims of Nazism and Communism?” Jerusalem Post, 12 July 2009.
  14. Zuroff, “Eastern Europe,” 67–68.
  15. “Efraim Zuroff Online: Answers in English,” Eesti Paevaleht, 8 August 2002, 6.
  16. Efraim Zuroff, “Rewriting Shoah History in Estonia,” Jerusalem Post, 22 August 2009.
  17. Zuroff, “Eastern Europe,” 71.
  18. Address by E. Vaira Vike-Freiberga, president of the Republic of Latvia at the “International Forum on Preventing Genocide: Threats and Responsibilities,” Stockholm, 26 January 2004.
  19. Efraim Zuroff, “Misleading Comparisons of 20thCentury Tragedies,” Baltic Times, 19– 25 February 2004.
  20. Among the comments on were the following: (1) “To the wall [to be shot] this person and finish [him off]” (20 February 2004, 9:31); (2) “Zuroff thinks the only nation that suffered in world history are the zhids [derogatory term for Jews], All the other people are their butchers…. Jews were always successful in trade and usury” (20 February 2004, 9:33); (3) “It is written in the Bible that Zhids are an experimental mistake. G-d himself wanted to annihilate them because the nation is wicked, without honor and virtue. All their history is war, killings, and treachery. We must state clearly: Zuroff and the zhid government in Israel are criminals” (20 February 2004, 16:27).
  21. Zuroff, “A Combined Day.”
  22. Ibid.
  23. Georg von Rauch, A History of Soviet Russia, 6th (New York: Praeger, 1972), 424.
  24. Manfred Gerstenfeld, “Fifty Years of French Intellectual Bias against Israel,” an interview with Simon Epstein, Post-Holocaust and Anti-Semitism, 4, 1 January 2003.
  25. ADL, “After Santorum Apologizes, ADL Reiterates Concern about Use of Nazi Imagery in Filibuster Debate,” Press Release, 20 May 2005.
  26. Ibid.
  27. ADL, “Senator’s Hitler Comparison on Judicial Nominees ‘Offensive and Insensitive,’” Press Release, 2 March 2005.
  28. “McAleese ‘Sorry’ over Nazi Remarks,” BBC News, 29 January
  29. Marianne White, “Former Liberal Aide Accuses One-Time PQ Premier of Comparing Trudeau to Hitler,” com, 20 January 2008.
  30. Ibid.
  31. Lisa Derrick, “Republicans Claim Free Speech Re: Hitler/Obama Comparisons,”, viewed 19 July 2009.
  32. Aislinn Simpson, “Defense Secretary John Hutton: Taliban in Afghanistan ‘Like the Nazis,’” Daily Telegraph, 20 December 2008
  33. Kate Connolly, “Bush Suffers Nazi Jibe from Germans,” The Guardian, 20 September 2002
  34. In German this is a pun on the name of
  35. “Ifo-Chef Sinn hat seinen Ruf ramponiert,” Die Welt, 27 December 2008 [German]
  36. “Knobloch akzeptiert Sinns Entschuldigung,” FAZ, 27 October 2008 [German]
  37. Derk Walters, “Na een tijdje duiken vergelijkingen met nazis op,” NRC Handelsblad, 8 October 2005 [Dutch]

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