Yes, we can make historical analogies

Yesterday, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum released a statement whose first sentence is stunning in its historical ignorance: The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum unequivocally rejects efforts to create analogies between the Holocaust and other events, whether historical or contemporary. The museum’s leadership is wrong. To put it bluntly, if we are never allowed to draw historical analogies, we remove one of the most important reasons to learn history. There are no exact parallels or repeats in history, but there are patterns, and a significant part of our job as people (let alone my job as an historian) is to learn those patterns and watch for them where we know they’re dangerous.

There is a defensible statement within the misguided claim of the museum’s leadership, but it’s restricted: there is no useful point in comparing the horribleness of genocides. The Shoah is incomparable. So was the slave trade. So was the genocide of indigenous peoples on multiple continents.

But we don’t have to rank-order the horrors of history to learn from them. One can learn from them as singular events, as you would in a seminar class — and Peter Hayes taught such a class on the Holocaust at Northwestern for years (his new book Why: Explaining the Holocaust reflects that focus). One can also learn from putting them into broader context, learning from or teaching about genocides and intolerance more broadly. You learn different things from studying an isolated event from an event in context, and both are valuable.

But you don’t go around telling people not to learn broader lessons from the Holocaust, and that’s what the museum leadership is attempting to do. And that’s just plain wrong for history and for citizenship.

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