Comment: Supporters of refugees need to stop comparing their opponents to Hitler

By Tim Finch

How should someone who wants refugees to be treated more generously and humanely respond to some of the incidents of recent weeks? What is the appropriate reaction when it's revealed that the front doors of asylum seekers have all been painted red or they've been required to wear red wristbands? What do you say when the Danish parliament passes a law allowing for the seizure of some refugee assets to offset the rising welfare costs that the refugee influx is causing? How do you respond to the divisive and provocative outbursts of Donald Trump?

Dismay, even anger is surely in order. But the reaction in some quarters has gone further than that. In particular, it has become increasingly common to compare aspects of the West's response to the refugee crisis to the actions of Hitler and the Nazis.

Now, there have been instances where the moral authority of the person making such remarks cannot be questioned. You listen with alarm, and take serious note, when Eva Schloss, an Auschwitz survivor, the step sister of Anne Frank and a life-long campaigner to ensure we don't forget the Holocaust says that Donald Trump "is acting like another Hitler"

But then, in another of her remarks in a Newsweek interview, Schoss goes on to suggest the whole response of the West to the refugee crisis "is worse than it was under Hitler" – an observation that surely tips into hyperbole. For while many of us think Western governments (with some noble exceptions) should be doing much more to provide places of safety to Syrians and others, it is simply not true, as Schloss also says, that "we haven't really learnt anything" since the Nazi era. The 1951 Refugee Convention, a direct response to the Holocaust, may be under strain and not being honoured as fully as it should be, but it is shaping a global response to this refugee crisis, alongside the work of UNHCR. That is a marked improvement on the situation in the 1930s and 1940s.

Of more concern, however, are some of the more glib Nazi gibes that have been flung about on social media and elsewhere. For example, the comedian David Schneider surely should have been more careful than to tweet to his 240,000 followers "Because yellow stars are SO 1940s…" in response to the red wristbands and red doors stories.  Of course, distinguishing a group of people in a way that could make them targets of hostility is wrong. But does anyone seriously believe that the providers of services to asylum seekers in Wales and Middlesbrough deliberately set out to brand them in the way the Nazis did to the Jews with the yellow star? The actions of G4S and others were deplorable, but they were not downright evil in the way the tweet clearly implied.

The same is true of Steve Bell's cartoon in last Thursday's Guardian which drew an even stronger comparison between a contemporary response to the refugee crisis and the actions of the Nazis. It depicted the Danish prime minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen as Hitler, saying: "It's offensive to compare us to the Nazis." The clear implication, of course, is that it wasn't.

Rasmussen, his party and the other Danish MPs who supported the seizure of refugee assets deserve little sympathy. Their action is ill-conceived and mean-spirited, and they should have realised that it was redolent of the Nazi treatment of the Jews and other minorities. But there is a way of pointing that out (I just have done) without willfully overdoing the equivalence with Nazi atrocity. In the latter case, victims were robbed of all of their property before being murdered. Modern Denmark, even after the passing of this law, will remain a place where many tens of thousands of refugees are given a safe haven and a chance to build a new life.

And while the response of many Western governments to the refugee crisis may be inadequate, it is not these governments which are directly causing the genocidal and oppressive conditions which have forced refugees to flee their home countries.

If there are direct equivalents to Hitler and the Nazis today then they are not asylum service providers in Britain, or the Danish government, or even Trump or Putin. They are Assad and Isis. We really need to remember that, even if we believe the West shares some culpability for creating the conditions in which these murderous tyrants rose to power.

But why does it matter that some people have gone over the top in expressing their anger at recent events? Some would say my own response is itself an over-reaction. Cartoonists, satirists and columnists trade in exaggeration and social media is a forum for hot-headed emotion. Aren't there more important things to be worried about?

My concern is that if those arguing for better treatment of refugees engage in an escalation of outrage, we end up weakening our own position. If we respond to David Cameron calling men, women and children living in terrible conditions in Calais "a bunch of migrants" with a storm of personal abuse and cheap insult, we descend to his level. If we start labelling people who've done stupid, even deplorable, things as Nazis we repel many moderate people who would otherwise have supported our views

The refugee crisis is a complex issue. There are no simple solutions. People are going to take different views on how to respond to it. So if we are to fashion a decent and sustainable response there needs to be space for reasoned debate and disagreement. Resorting to insult and slurs closes down that space in a dangerous way.

As the recent Holocaust Memorial Day reminded us, we need to be constantly on guard against the possibility of Nazism or something similar rising again. And there are real fascists and racists in our midst, in some places growing in power and influence. But if we overuse the Nazi label, flippantly attaching it to actions or comments that may be wrong but are not equivalent to those of the Nazis, we diminish our power to highlight and marginalise the truly evil political forces that threaten us. 

Tim Finch is coordinator of the National Refugees Welcome Board and the author of The House of Journalists. Follow him on Twitter.

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