Ben Fields: Best to avoid Hitler comparisons (Opinion)

Ben Fields

Ben Fields

I have no idea why former West Virginia Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation instructor Karrie Byrd thought it was flattering for her trainees to flash the Nazi “Sieg Heil” salute in reference to her toughness. According to a state investigation, she encouraged it.

Byrd and 36 others have been given the ax after a photo surfaced showing a class of trainees giving the Nazi salute for their official photo, along with text that read “Hail Byrd!”

When my younger brother was in middle school, he got a lot of chores loaded on him by my mother one day in a bit of a brusque fashion. He responded with said salute, a “Ya vol!” and started goosestepping around the house. The only defense I can offer up is that he was probably going off of something he had seen on “Fawlty Towers” and that he was only 11 or so. It’s also quite possible I had done something similarly numbskulled at some point, and he had witnessed it. In any case, my mother certainly wasn’t flattered, and it was quickly conveyed to all of us that such a response was verboten.

Adolf Hitler, Nazi Germany and the Holocaust are all touchy subjects, and rightfully so. It’s not that we can never talk about what happened in Europe as Germany swarmed the continent during World War II, rounding up Jews and minorities and exterminating them in camps. It’s a pretty potent reminder of what can happen when such evil goes unchecked and becomes normalized by a particular culture. But we do have to be careful when treading that ground for modern applicability.

If an authoritarian leader is rounding up or purging minorities and trying to keep them out of their particular country, the Hitler or Nazi comparison is certainly in play — especially if citizens are being passive about the leader’s actions or passionately endorsing them. In a recent column, I accused Trump advisor Stephen Miller of endorsing Nazi ideals, partly because a trove of emails showed he harbored white supremacy doctrine, and partly because Miller has been behind some of the administration’s most cruel and blatantly xenophobic immigration policies.

Some didn’t like the comparison, saying Miller, coming from a Jewish family, was disqualified from such an analogy. To that, I point them to the African American who threw up the “Sieg Heil” in the Corrections photo, and, according to the state’s report, tried to convince others it was OK by saying “Look at me. I am black and I am doing it.” People are capable of holding paradoxical views. That’s one of the reasons authoritarianism should trouble everyone when they see it.

Likewise, there are plenty of examples of when it’s not a good idea to draw such comparisons. Recall John Raese, running for U.S. Senate in West Virginia in 2012, remarking at a speaking engagement that having to post “Smoke Free Environment” signs in business windows was similar enough to Nazis requiring Jews in Germany to wear yellow stars on their clothing, marking their religion and ethnicity. You can see where having to turn away smokers and literally putting a stamp on an entire people, six million of whom would be killed by those who so branded them, are not the same. Not surprisingly, Raese’s remarks drew harsh criticism.

As for wanting to be compared to Hitler, well, those are deep, dark waters. In the most positive light, it is seeking admiration for strictness while somehow being unaware of everything that was put in motion as a result of that dogmatic fanaticism. This isn’t a good thing, but every other connotation is considerably worse.

This entire incident surrounding Corrections has certainly made me revisit my conviction that, universally, Nazis are loathed. There have always been Nazi sympathizers and Holocaust deniers, even shortly after World War II. It just feels like we’re seeing a lot more of it lately. No doubt these groups, who I still believe represent the views of a substantial minority in this country, have been emboldened over the past few years.

Perhaps something positive can come from the realization that these things are happening. The state’s no-nonsense response to the incident is encouraging. May all such displays of hate, however misconstrued or confused they might be, meet with similar disdain and rejection.

Ben Fields is the Gazette Mail opinion editor. Reach him at 304-348-5129, or follow

@BenFieldsWV on Twitter.