Following the failed fascist pro-Trump insurrection last Wednesday, social media and internet service providers have, belatedly, begun to close their platforms to those spreading dangerous conspiracy theories and instigating violence.
The far right, of course, claims they are being persecuted. More than that, they offensively, but predictably, claim they are being treated the way that Jews were treated in Nazi Germany. The reversal is ridiculous. It’s also a reminder of just what many on the right think of Jewish people.
Disgraced former Iowa GOP Representative Steve King complained on Twitter: "I have lost 8,000 followers on this twitter account in one day. Apple, Google, Facebook, & others have cancelled many conservatives. Last night was cyber god’s Kristallnacht!"
Fox commentator Jeanine Pirro, known for pushing racist conspiracy theories, responded similarly after the right wing social network Parler which ostentatiously refuses to censor threats of violence, was forced off the internet. "What we’re seeing," Pirro insisted, "is a kind of censorship that is akin to a Kristallnacht, where they decide what we can communicate about."
Kristallnacht, of course, is not in fact a reference to a famously brutal instance of Nazi social media censorship.
As Ben Barkow of London’s Wiener Library explained in a Haaretz oped (How the Nazi Pogrom of Kristallnacht Became Just Another Political Meme), Kristallnacht was a 1938 "state-sanctioned riot" in which Jews across Germany and Austria were targeted for violence by state troops. It is estimated that hundreds of Jews were killed; 30,000 Jewish men were rounded up and sent to concentration camps, more than 7500 Jewish stores were vandalized and looted, and Jewish cemeteries were defaced.
Plenty of neighbors and civilians joined in, out of antisemitism and/or because it was a chance to loot and steal with impunity. The event helped normalize violence against Jewish people, and signaled to Nazi officials that further violence could garner popular support. It was an important milestone on the way to the Holocaust.
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Barkow noted that the term "Kristallnacht" has been picked up with unfortunate enthusiasm by people across the political spectrum.
Many found the analogy compelling — both Kristallnacht and the insurrection were fascist riots with surreptitious state support. But other commenters were uncomfortable with the comparison, noting that Kristallnacht resulted in far more destruction and death.
Schwarzenegger was certainly well-intentioned, and did not intend to minimize Jewish suffering. The same cannot necessarily be said when far-right figures like Pirro or Steve King use the comparison.
King has been connected with numerous antisemitic figures.
He retweeted a message from self-described Nazi sympathizer Mark Collett, endorsed antisemitic white nationalist Faith Goldy for mayor of Toronto, and in August 2018, having just visited Auschwitz with a Holocaust education group, he met with members of a far-right Austrian party with Nazi ties. He’s also pushed conspiracy theories about George Soros, a Jewish billionaire who is probably the most important target for right antisemitism.
Along similar lines, Parler, which Pirro was defending, is notorious for refusing to censor Nazis, with the result that it is filled with conspiracy theories about "Luciferian Globalists" and Holocaust denial.
When Pirro and King complain that the far right is being victimized, therefore, they are aware that their audience includes a lot of individuals on the far right who are, at best, fascist-curious. They know they have fans who are comfortable reading about antisemitic conspiracy theories and associating with antisemitic conspiracy theories.
If many of their followers dislike Jewish people so intensely, why do King and Pirro compare themselves to Jews when describing their own grievances?
The answer is that right-wing conspiracy theories and propaganda depends on projection and reversal. Hitler claimed that Jews were engaged in a global conspiracy to destroy the Aryan people. This was the precise opposite of the truth; it was Hitler who was plotting to murder every Jewish person on earth.
Switching victim and victimizer in this way justified the Nazis’ every excess. Jewish people, they claimed, were coming for them. The only defense was to destroy the Jews first, in a preemptive apocalypse.
Kristallnacht itself was justified in this way. It was framed as a legitimate response after a Polish Jewish teenager, Herschel Grynszpan, shot and killed German diplomat Ernst Eduard vom Rath. Grynszpan’s actions were taken as a sign of a nationwide Jewish conspiracy, necessitating sweeping reprisals. The false accusation of a Jewish plot against Germans became the pretext for a very real Nazi plot against the Jews.
When Pirro and King say "Kristallnacht" to an audience which includes a lot of antisemites, then, they are not just presenting themselves as victims. They are, not so subtly, reminding their audience that the far right is always the real victim, and that Jewish people have usurped that role for nefarious purposes.
At least some Parler users and Steve King readers are going to hear, "Kristallnacht," and understand it to mean not just that Pirro and King are victims LIKE Jewish people, but that they are victimized BY Jewish people.
When the far right uses Jewish trauma to describe their own supposed victimization, they are in part trying to legitimize or dramatize their own plight. But they are also, consciously or otherwise, catering to many in their audience who want to delegitimize Jewish people.
King and Pirro know, or should know, that many of the people they are addressing will read any reference to "Kristallnacht" as ironic, or funny, or even, horribly, as an evocation of a righteous purging worth repeating.
Given that, King and Pirro’s ugly misuse of Jewish history should be a reminder that the far right is never in fact the real victim. When they say they are, they are not just putting forward a complaint. They are issuing a threat.
Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer. He lives in Chicago. Twitter: @nberlat