When should we invoke the spectre of the Nazis?

The Nazis are the totemic example of fascism and evil. And for this reason they are wheeled-out as an analogy or descriptor in order to condemn regimes or dictators in the strongest possible terms.

This was the case with the recent UN report exposing the horrifying extent of human rights abuses perpetrated in North Korea. Indeed, the phrase “human rights abuses” sounds hollow, euphemistic and dishonest; an appallingly insufficient description of the sadism and cruelty described in a series of testimonies that make up part of this report. Michael Kirby, who led the inquiry, has noted the similarity of the desperate plight of North Koreans to the experiences of the victims of the Nazis. The analogy seems apt for once: the labour camps, the mass starvation, the fetishisation of racial purity and the cult-like veneration of a psychopathic autocrat.

But the comparison suffers a loss of potency due to its promiscuous usage. It is, of course, deployed most frequently in relation to Israel. Now, I am not trying to imply any parity between the UN and a musician turned “activist”, but recently Roger Waters – formerly a member of Pink Floyd – gave an interview to Counter Punch magazine in which he thoughtfully pointed out that “the parallels with what went on in Germany in the ‘30s are… crushingly obvious”. Mr. Waters might claim that he was referring to the merely discriminatory, rather than genocidal practices of the Nazis – since by the early thirties the most grisly phase in the Nazis assault on European Jewry had not yet begun – but that would be casuistry. When somebody invokes the Third Reich we think of the gas chambers and the great piles of broken, grey bodies.

It is not only tedious rock stars that have expressed this opinion though. Material drawing a direct parallel between the Holocaust and contemporary Israel’s treatment of Palestinians was recently found on a Belgian website run by the government’s education department. Perhaps comparisons of this kind are useless; perhaps each case should simply be described in its own terms. But they are used and they are powerful. The glib, sinister view that the Jews of Israel are meting out the same treatment that they were victims of last century has led to Israel being the most obsessively reviled state in the world by a substantial section of the “Left”.

Israel has been the target of more UN resolutions than any other country since 2003; incidentally the same year that a vicious genocide began in Darfur. It is generally agreed that hundreds of thousands of people have died as a result and millions have been displaced or forced into refugee camps. True, the comparison might ignore certain details like the possible illegitimacy of Israeli settlements and the blockade of Gaza. But if the UN is not responsible for the prevention  and punishment of genocide then it is not clear what it is for. The reasons for the pathological preoccupation with Israel should be examined and the suggestion that Israeli policy mirrors that of Nazi Germany must be countered wherever it is found. If the comparison must be used, it should be reserved for the most sadistic, inhumane regimes in the world; misuse it and throw it around and we will be lost for words when confronted with the extremes of true human cruelty.