Monday, January 27, is International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which commemorates the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp during WWII. This year is the 75th anniversary of the liberation. In honor of the anniversary, the Cohen Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies hosted a lecture entitled “Comparing Systemic Racism in the United States and Nazi Germany” led by the Center’s Coordinator for Educational Outreach Tom White in Norma Walker Hall.
Dean of Mason Library and Interim Co-Director of the Cohen Center Celia Rabinowitz gave the opening remarks for the event.
“It is estimated 1.3 million people were deported to the Auschwitz concentration camp between 1940 and 1945. Of these deportees, approximately 1.1 million were murdered. On January 27, the Soviet Army liberated more than 6,000 survivors. American immigration policies, eugenics policies, and the history of our treatment of Native Americans all provided examples for the Nazis,” Rabinowitz said. “On this 75th anniversary, we are facing an increase in acts of anti-Semtisim, islamophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment. [Tom White’s] energy and work are important and we thought it was important for those of us closer to home to hear him speak.”
White began his lecture by honoring a woman who was in attendance who was a survivor of the Holocaust, whose father died while in Auschwitz. White showed two photos, one of a vandalized confederate monument in Nashville, and one of the 67,000 stumbling stones that represent the Holocaust victims that is on display in Berlin.
“How do we look at historical memorialization symbols? Can you celebrate inspiring history and also confront shameful history as well? Who is it we want to be, as Americans, as human beings, as citizens of this planet?” White asked.
White challenged the bias of the audience by showing 12 photos of different people associated with the Holocaust. He asked the audience to identify the people as either a perpetrator, a bystander, a rescuer or a victim. This revealed some people’s visceral reactions to how some of those pictured looked. In fact, all the people pictured turned out to be rescuers.
This exercise was used as a way to explain why some remember history in a way that is skewed from reality.
“We process by reducing information so we can approach it. Implicit bias offers shortcuts and filters, a lot of them are subconscious; we don’t notice them. We are programmed for survival and decide what is a threat to us and what is not. When you combine implicit bias and survival, you start to develop ideas of prejudice and behavior that might surprise you,” White said. “Un/subconscious bias isn’t random, it’s very cultural and has a lot to do with our implicit bias. We then assign attributes only after we’ve acted, if only to justify our actions. Memory is a social construct of the past and is constructed in ways that allows us to form as a community.”
White described the Confederacy and Nazi Germany as “cultures of defeat.” This means that both groups had a sense of shock and shame and were completely destroyed, but both societies focused on their own suffering while ignoring the destruction they had caused. One of White’s slides read: “Both societies viewed themselves as guardians of old codes of honor against change and modernity.”
In fact, according to White, the Confederacy viewed the Civil War not as a defeat but as a “lost cause.” He explained the way in which the Confederacy remembered their part in the Civil War.
“The Civil War was not a war for slavery, but a fight for freedom from the unified South. The Civil War was not a defeat, in fact we won by the stride of our spirit to keep ourselves in tact. Noble Southern warriors versus ruthless Northern forces,” White said. “The reduction here is General Lee versus General Grant. As you play with that myth in your mind; more troops abandoned Lee’s army than Grant’s. More soldiers died under Lee’s command; in fact, Lee is the bloodiest general in U.S. history.”
White also gave examples of how Nazi Germany used America as an example for many of their practices. According to White, Hitler was interested in U.S. models, specifically the eugenics movement. The Nazis studied the Human Betterment Foundation of California to learn how to move politically, medically, scientifically and through propaganda. It was discovered in the unpublished second volume of “Mein Kampf” that Hitler also looked at America’s 1921 and 1924 immigration acts as examples. After Nazi Germany implemented their first sterilization law on “preventing ill progeny,” which used California laws as a precedent, it was reported in U.S. newspapers as a “huge success” toward preventing crime.
“Can we compare and contrast Nazi Germany to the American south? To compare also means to contrast. If one only compares, you really risk diffusing responsibility. Contrasting allows us more room to raise questions,” White said.
One attendee at the event, Keene resident Anna Behrens, said that this event helped her learn more about the connections between Nazi Germany and the American south.
“It was very compelling to hear how much Nazi Germany took from the United States and how they used it and how they at least have come to terms with what they’ve done and they’re honoring the victims, whereas the U.S. has not yet really done that,” Behrens said.
White concluded the lecture by showing a different type of connection between the two societies: a photo of the U.S. National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, which was inspired by Germany’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin.
“The past isn’t at stake, what’s at stake is the future,” White said.
Rachel Vitello can be contacted at