The Corner

Politics & Policy

Sean Spicer Steps in a Hitler Mess

If you resort to Hitler comparisons in political speaking and writing, there are multiple good reasons why you are likely to regret it. Sean Spicer, one of the least successful White House Press Secretaries in the history of a job with no upside, stepped in it today:

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer came under fire Tuesday after saying that Adolf Hitler “didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons” against his own people like Syrian strongman Bashar Al-Assad.

Spicer, speaking from the White House podium at the daily press briefing, said that Hitler, whom he called “despicable,” did not use “the gas on his own people the same way Assad used them.”

Now, if you parse Spicer’s statement carefully enough, there’s both a strictly literally defensible position and a grain of general truth there. It’s true that chemical weapons were banned by common agreement after World War I. It’s true that the combatants in World War II, Nazi Germany included, generally adhered to that ban. It’s true that large-scale chemical attacks on civilian targets have been been deployed freely by the Assad regime, in ways that have no direct parallel even in the cornucopia of atrocities that was the Second World War in Europe. Spicer, after several botched efforts to clean up this wholly unnecessary rhetorical mess (some of which came off as if Spicer was suggesting that German Jews were not Hitler’s “own people”), apologized.

Spicer’s statement was bad for two obvious reasons. One, it comes off as ham-handedly insensitive, given the promiscuous use the Nazis made of poison gas in the gas chambers of the Holocaust. Technically, when we think of chemical weapon attacks, we think of gas on the battlefield or against areas where civilians live and/or work, not against people already imprisoned and marked for death. But if you’re explaining the Holocaust, you’re losing. Don’t go there unless you have an extraordinarily good reason and vastly better preparation on the facts than this White House typically has.

Second, it’s not even factually accurate: according to most accounts, the Germans used chemical weapons against Soviet troops in the tunnels at the siege of Kerch in the Crimea in 1942 (Churchill threatened retaliation in kind at the time). Other combatants in the war did, too: the Italians used mustard gas in Ethiopia, and the Japanese used chemical weapons so widely in China that they were still cleaning them up as of earlier this year. Then again, none of the Axis powers used chemical weapons against the Americans or the British, perhaps fearing retaliation – the exact reason for this Administration’s decision to punish Assad for breaking the taboo, and why the Obama Administration wanted to as well. But let’s be honest: the taboo against chemical weapons mostly held in World War II primarily because such weapons were inefficient (they tended to kill your own troops as often as not) and unsuited to a war of mobile armored columns, amphibious assaults, aerial bombardment, jungle warfare, and other offensives of maneuver rather than trench-clearing. Combatants (particularly the United States) who didn’t use chemical weapons were unsparing in their use of flamethrowers on the battlefield and incendiary bombs against civilians, and it’s not really any better to be burned to death rather than gassed.

Spicer deserves all the mockery he is getting for stepping into yet another unforced error, but overreaching Democrats like Nancy Pelosi seem intent on rescuing him:

Washington, D.C. – Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi released the following statement on White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s statements regarding the Holocaust:

“While Jewish families across America celebrate Passover, the chief spokesman of this White House is downplaying the horror of the Holocaust.

“Sean Spicer must be fired, and the President must immediately disavow his spokesman’s statements.  Either he is speaking for the President, or the President should have known better than to hire him.”

C’mon. To suggest that Spicer is some sort of Holocaust denier is giving him, paradoxically, way too much credit for knowing what he’s doing. Spicer was not exactly the Edwin Moses of clearing rhetorical hurdles before this. He made a stupid analogy because he didn’t think through what he was saying, and didn’t have the basic grounding in history to wade into this area – a chronic condition for Trump spokespeople. Treating this as an opportunity for disingenuous OUTRAGE rather than mockery is the mark of a fool who doesn’t understand that when your adversary is in a hole, you get out of their way.





Dan McLaughlin is an attorney practicing securities and commercial litigation in New York City, and a contributing columnist at National Review Online.

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