Beyond Compare

Jo Glanville

Since Gary Lineker compared the way the British government talks about asylum seekers to the antisemitic language of the Nazis in the 1930s, guardians of Holocaust history have been lining up to criticise anyone who dares to make such comparisons. Last Sunday, the actor Tracy-Ann Oberman asked people to ‘stop using … false comparables’.

Karen Pollock, the head of the Holocaust Educational Trust, wrote in the Times earlier this month that ‘comparing … current concerns with the unimaginable horrors of the Nazi period is wrong.’ When the journalist Rachel Shabi disagreed with Pollock, she was called an ‘asshole’ by the Twitter account of the Board of Deputies of British Jews. They apologised the next day for the ‘inappropriate language’ in a ‘tweet issued in error’.

But why can’t we make comparisons? Like Tracy-Ann Oberman, or the people in whose name she’s speaking, I have family who were murdered in the Holocaust, though I don’t think it’s necessary to be connected with the history to speak up in this argument.

The view seems to be, first, that any comparison diminishes the enormity of the Holocaust: the scale of the genocide, the means of the genocide and the nature of the Nazi regime that orchestrated it. Second, that any comparison exaggerates the contemporary evil with which the Holocaust is being compared. And, third, that it is careless to suggest that a democracy is acting like a fascist regime, much as it’s careless to call someone a fascist just because you disagree with them.

But hyperbole can be effective. The UK is not a fascist regime, but denying a group of people their human rights is both in breach of international law and morally indefensible. For the Nazis, denying Jews their civil rights was one of the first steps to expelling them from German society and eventually murdering them. If the Nazi comparison is shocking, then that’s useful – because this is a shocking policy and we need to be reminded of that.

What’s more, if we are never allowed to compare the Holocaust to other events or to place it in historical context then we cannot learn the lessons we’re supposed to learn. It will remain a singular event of horrifying proportions which we can never make sense of.

In Exterminate All the Brutes, Sven Lindqvist traced the origins of the Holocaust back to the crimes of European colonialism, the systematic dehumanisation and mass murder that took place in the Congo and elsewhere. The Holocaust is part of the history of dehumanisation, like slavery or other genocides, and I think we should be able to invoke it whenever we see any instance of people being treated as less than human, which includes the way the British government treats asylum seekers. There doesn’t have to be a direct equivalence: a shadow of similarity should be sufficient to chill the blood, and make us think about the path we’re on.


  • 24 March 2023 at 1:12pm
    Graucho says:
    Is there a word in the English language to describe a pathological desire to be offended? We appear to need one in this day and age.

  • 24 March 2023 at 3:15pm
    Robert Sharpe says:
    The word is already there, Graucho.
    It is 'snowflake'.

    • 24 March 2023 at 5:36pm
      Graucho says: @ Robert Sharpe
      Thank you.

  • 24 March 2023 at 5:59pm
    adamppatch says:
    "You can't compare x and y" is a common refrain in contemporary debate, as if it's only reasonable to compare things that are identical in quality and scale. At which point, comparison becomes practically pointless in many instances. Comparison is most useful when there are both similarities and differences.

    On the other hand, Lineker, a household name and still an idol to many, was sure to make a splash by making a strident criticism of the government's cruelty. He didn't need to rely on a comparison to 1930s Germany and doing so was a mistake. The confected outrage of the Tory party ensured that most discussion in the following days was about Lineker and the BBC, and not about the government's extreme cruelty toward refugees. This was predictable.

    This wasn't a case of Braverman being a snowflake, feigning offence allowed the Tories to shift focus away from their policies and onto those rotters at the BBC.

  • 24 March 2023 at 8:25pm
    stettiner says:
    In Exterminate All the Brutes, Sven Lindqvist called Holocaust " a dispute over land". Germans wanted Lebensraum and Jews happened to live there. It could be any other ethnic group...

    • 25 March 2023 at 9:23am
      steve kay says: @ stettiner
      So when a certain group wish to occupy land, and some others happen to live there, what do we call it?

    • 25 March 2023 at 4:50pm
      stettiner says: @ steve kay
      Do you mean the islamic conquest of MENA? Well, what about imperialism?

    • 25 March 2023 at 5:53pm
      Podge says: @ steve kay
      Naqba? Settler colonialism?

    • 30 March 2023 at 2:35pm
      Solipsissimus says: @ stettiner
      They certainly wanted Lebensraum but it was very much about race. Why else bother to exterminate German Jews living on land Germany already had? Why did they not also exterminate the French, the Poles and all the others occupying the land they wanted.

    • 30 March 2023 at 8:20pm
      stettiner says: @ Solipsissimus
      You are absolutely right. And Sven Lindqvist was absolutely wrong, so invoking him in this context is not very wise.

  • 25 March 2023 at 9:46am
    Peterson_the man with no name says:
    "There doesn’t have to be a direct equivalence: a shadow of similarity should be sufficient to chill the blood, and make us think about the path we’re on."

    In theory, yes; but who wants to think nowadays? Don't you get the feeling that there's just no point anymore?

    No one who talks politics on social media wants to discuss anything; if they did, they wouldn't be using platforms deliberately designed to make intelligent discussion impossible. They get you either way. If you don't engage in wild hyperbole, no one will even hear you; if you do, you will start a debate, not over the substance of what you said but over whether it's OK for you to say it.

    You can't defeat bad arguments on social media; that's not what it's made for. All you can do is shout them down or moderate them out of existence, so that's what the discussion – such as it is – ends up being about.

    As for influencing the wider public, well, quite rightly, they don't care about the opinions of people who do nothing except sit around having opinions about things. At best they will roll their eyes briefly at both sides, and move on.

    None of which matters because the whole thing is just a device to enable people to kid themselves that they are participating in democratic debate, without the slightest risk of ever hearing anything that might change their minds.

  • 29 March 2023 at 7:50pm
    John Amantea says:
    Psychrophilic will do, I think, Graucho.

  • 30 March 2023 at 1:45pm
    Patrick Cotter says:
    Arguably, the Holocaust happened in the 1940s, not the 1930s. What are we to do? Ignore the warning signs now presenting themselves as they did in the 1930s? Wait for another Shoah before feeling justified in our comparisons? History repeats, as the saying goes, but never exactly the same way. We don't need Zyclon B for a second catastrophe.

    • 30 March 2023 at 3:09pm
      XopherO says: @ Patrick Cotter
      However, I believe IG Farben still exists with offices from which it pursues legal claims! Or did, but I cannot find a reference to its complete demise. Bayer and BASF were spun off the original creators of Zyclon B who ran their own concentration camp, using the inmates as production slaves. Personally I think Lineker's comparison was valid. I immediately thought of that period of Hitler's rise and seizure of power, 1930 - 35, not the period of the Final Solution. But as has been observed, one thing leads to another.

  • 30 March 2023 at 2:16pm
    Solipsissimus says:
    I agree you should be able to make such comparisons where justified. Whether it is wise to is another matter as there is a danger the resulting predictable outcry will divert attention from the real point. So you get more talk about the holocaust than the government’s pernicious policies.
    The comparison would perhaps have been better to refer to the 1920s as by the 1930s the Nazi persecution was moving way beyond anything current. But that was what the 1920s led to.

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