Fairness and Responsibility: Drawing Parallels to Nazi Germany

By Connor Radnovich

It’s easy to see, in retrospect, that the Holocaust didn’t begin with concentration camps; it began with words. The connection is clear looking back through an 80-year lens. But things are rarely so obvious in the moment. This is an inherent ethical challenge for reporters in daily journalism: telling a story as it unfolds, connecting the dots to give readers a complete understanding of the world around them without unintentionally misrepresenting the current reality or dismissing what may turn out to be true. Knowing how a story ends changes how journalists tell it. In the same way, writing about events as they happen can lead to undervaluing or ignoring history-changing moments.  

Journalists are not soothsayers, nor should they strive to be. But journalists can and must look at the present and find echoes with the past, informing their reporting with context about what led to the “news of the day” and how that may fit into a historical narrative. When the roadmap a story follows has led to calamity before, journalists have a moral and professional responsibility to inform the public about that potential outcome, even at the risk of highlighting parallels that may, in the long-term, prove wrong.

The world does not lack genocidal blueprints, and journalists today have greater access to those precedents than their forerunners did. But what to do with that knowledge presents its own challenges. Engaging in a discussion about possible parallels between Nazi Germany and the United States in 2018 is a tacit acceptance of that position having some validity. Because of what that implies about the U.S. government’s actions, acknowledging those parallels could be considered unfair to the government, running afoul of a central tenet of journalism. But echoes of 1930s Germany have been noted with increasing frequency by activists, historians, lawyers, and journalists in the past couple years, making it irresponsible for members of the press to ignore discussions about potential similarities. 

For critics, the resemblances began with rhetoric. The president kicked off his campaign calling Mexican immigrants criminals and rapists. Similar comments continued when he came into office: for example, his quoted complaint that the United States admits immigrants from “shithole countries” like Haiti and El Salvador. At the same time, violence against immigrants and people of color rose. FBI statistics show hate crimes up nationwide in 2015 and 2016, and recent data out of California shows a third consecutive year of increases in that state. In some instances, perpetrators used slogans coined by the president, and researchers have found a correlation between his Tweets and occurrences of hate crimes.  Finally, rising to national attention in early June, the tactics employed by federal immigration officers at the border with Mexico drew condemnation as cruel, hurtful, and similar to those implemented at concentration camps during the 1940s.

It was the discovery of those tactics by lawyers and journalists that has placed, for me and some other FASPE fellows, the question of what to do with these historical parallels front and center. Evidence of children wailing for their parents as immigration agents joked nearby; of hastily constructed detention centers for hundreds of children; of agents ripping children from mothers without letting either say goodbye or lying to parents that the children were only being taken away for a bath; of racist and abusive comments by guards; of children being returned to parents covered in lice; of pregnant women having miscarriages while in ICE custody; of absurd immigration court proceedings with children barely old enough to talk; of no plan from the federal government to reunite parents and children; and of deportations of parents while their children are still in the United States, effectively orphaning the children. This has all been documented.

Journalists cannot look at these events in a vacuum. The Holocaust began with words, but at some point it moved beyond that. Had the German press still been free in the mid- to-late 1930s, would they have noted the connection between widespread violence and the history of hateful comments coming from the country’s highest office? Several decades from now, will historians wonder the same thing about our time?

At issue here isn’t the idea that reporters should take an activist approach in attempting to pre-empt wrongdoing. A journalist’s job isn’t to foretell or to direct intervention. Instead, it is to write stories that include rich context and explain historical precedent to give readers more information so they can make informed decisions. It is critical that journalists not just inform our fellow citizens about what is happening in the world, but that they act as analysts and historians. This is something we already do, but when it comes to the treatment of the people targeted by these policies and outbursts, it should be in every story. In times where the future seems to be replaying the past, the most important question journalists can answer is: “What does this mean?” A critical corollary of that question is: “Where could we be heading?”




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