Shouldn’t The Holocaust Museum Disturb Us?

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The historian Timothy Snyder has come out swinging against the U.S. Holocaust Museum after its implicit rebuke of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s use of the words “concentration camps” to describe conditions in U.S. border patrol facilities. Snyder writes,

A federally funded museum is telling Americans not to think. On June 24, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum instructed the public not to consider the relationship between its subject, other historical events, and the present, implicitly reprimanding Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for calling American detention centers “concentration camps.” In doing so, it has made nonsense of the slogan “never again” and provided moral cover for ongoing and oppressive American policies.

The Holocaust matters to Americans as the source of moral lessons. The choice we face is whether the lesson is that we are always right or whether the lesson is that we should judge ourselves critically in light of the past. At first glance, the museum’s rejection of “analogies between the Holocaust and other events” might seem like a laudable attempt to affirm the unprecedented character of the mass murder of the Jews of Europe. In fact, it makes conveying the weight of that atrocity impossible, and it releases us from any obligation, as a nation, to self-criticism.

Analogizing is not some mysterious operation: It is how we think. Every time someone asks you for advice about a situation beyond your personal experience, or every time you are faced with an unfamiliar choice, your mind makes analogies with what you do know. Then you ask questions that allow you to clarify similarities and differences. At some point, you have understood and can act. “Never again” is nothing other than an invocation of that process. We start from what we know about the present and make our way back to the 1930s and 1940s. Once we understand something about the history of the Holocaust, we make our way forward again, seeing patterns we would have missed. If we notice a dangerous one, we should act. Without this effort, though, “never again” becomes its own opposite: “It can’t happen here.”

I encourage you to read the whole thing. It’s quite good.

This is all even more interesting to me than it ordinarily would be because I’ve just returned from visiting—for the first time—the U.S. Holocaust Museum. While there, I witnessed a family taking away precisely this lesson—“It can’t happen here.”

While watching videos of Nazi atrocities, a young boy, I would guess about 9-10 years of age, looked to his father for reassurance. The images were disturbing, their possible implications more so. “Dad,” he said, “are Americans doing that?” His father replied, “No, of course not.” The son needed reassurance about something more troubling. “Would Americans ever do that?” he asked. “No,” his father replied, “Americans never do anything like that.”

A museum is not responsible for how people react to it. But I found that overheard exchange emblematic of what this museum encourages its viewers to conclude. It doesn’t challenge Americans. It reassures us. It can’t happen here.

I was really quite surprised that the museum did not attempt to place the Holocaust in a broader historical context of some kind. The varied methods of dehumanization across time and cultures, for example, or the particular violence of genocide, of which this event is the prototype; indeed, it barely even placed it in the context of historic anti-semitism!

I suppose that the intent is to emphasize the singular horror of the Holocaust. But instead of that singularity driving home for an American audience the weight of the event and why it matters, the viewer is left instead with a story appearing almost at random and saying, “this confusing thing happened.” The guys in the MAGA hats didn’t seem perturbed at all.

This is all the more odd when you think about the fact that it is a United States Holocaust museum, and it possesses little in the way of physical artifacts. This is unsurprising given that the locations of the Holocaust are on another continent. This being so, one might think the museum would lean into its location, exploring the Holocaust from an American angle. But with few exceptions, it is extraordinarily resistant to doing so. Only the most attentive viewers would catch a glimpse of the connections between Nazi ideology and American racism, between the Holocaust and the genocide of Native Americans.

A Holocaust museum, of all places, ought to aim to make any human being feel uncomfortable, implicated, introspective. Perhaps the museum supposes that telling the story will lead viewers to ask the questions and implicate themselves. I wish it would work that way but I don’t think it does.