What Sean Spicer Got (a little) Right and (very) Wrong About the Holocaust

During Tuesday’s daily briefing White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer justified the administration’s use of targeted airstrikes last week against a Syrian military base by comparing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to Adolf Hitler, saying “Hitler…didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons.” Spicer further said that Hitler did not use “the gas on his own people in the same way that Assad is doing.” While these statements are narrowly factually correct, Spicer’s assertions lack a broader and nuanced understanding of Holocaust and World War II history.

Chemical weapons were first deployed offensively during World War I when Fritz Haber, a Nobel Prize winning German chemist hoped that chlorine gas would break the stalemate of trench warfare on the western front, positioning his poison gas as a merciful way to produce a quick end to the war. Instead of bringing the allies to their knees poison gas became a trench of its own, with both sides creating gas masks and new formulations to deploy on one another. Germany may have been the first user of poison gas, but it was quickly used on them. In October 1918 Corporal Adolf Hitler of the German Army was temporarily blinded after a British mustard gas attack in Belgium.

Twenty years later the same combatants met on the same battlefields, but this time with new weapons. Both sides feared and expected gas warfare to be deployed once again, but the bloody European battlefields of World War II were spared from that one inhumanity (the Imperial Japanese Army would deploy chemical weapons against Chinese forces). Mr. Spicer is correct when he says that Hitler did not deploy chemical weapons on the battlefields of Europe, but his argument is far from historically complete.

Comparing Hitler to Assad, or comparing Hitler to anyone for that matter, is historically pointless. No killing is worse than any other. No life is more valuable than any other. Somehow asserting that Assad is worse than Hitler also seems like an odd stance to take since our response to Hitler was deploying millions of American troops to Europe, while Assad has thus far only warranted 59 cruise missiles. If Assad is so much worse, shouldn’t our response be so much greater? And why does using chemical weapons make Assad so much worse than Hitler in the eyes of the Administration? The victims of the Holocaust died in many, many, many ways, just as Assad’s victims are suffering and dying in many ways. Millions of Holocaust victims died after being shot in the back of the head, others from starvation, exposure, beatings, disease, medical experimentation, immolation, and yes, poison gas. The crimes of the Holocaust are not horrific because of how the victims were killed, but because they were victimized.

What if there were no gas chambers at Auschwitz? What if all of the horrors and indignities and inhumanities of the Holocaust occurred just as they did, but without the gas chambers? Would it still not be one of the largest crimes in human history? What if the victims of the Holocaust were dragged from their homes, herded onto cattle cars, lost all of their possessions, forced to live in disease-ridden concentration camps, suffered beatings, watched neighbors and children tortured in front of them for no reason other than their religion or political beliefs but…no gas chambers? Would that somehow make the Holocaust less awful?

Setting military intervention strategy based solely on how victims are killed diminishes the humanity of the victims, and is symptomatic of a moral bankruptcy on the part of the intervener. Tuesday’s gas attack is estimated to have resulted in the deaths of around 70 civilians. Since the start of the civil war in Syria the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimates that over 300,000 people have been killed. Did these last 70 tip some invisible moral scale, now compelling the western world to intervene? Were the first 300,000 victims only worthy of our thoughts and prayers, but these last 70 worthy of 59 cruise missiles (nearly one for every victim)?

Fritz Haber deflected criticism that called poison gas immoral by saying death was death. Why is poison gas morally beyond the pale, but bullets are fine? Where is the line that turns killing into something worse then murder? Hand-to-hand combat? Knives? Flamethrowers? Haber is right: death is death, and life is life. If life is worth preserving and protecting we must not place greater value on deaths caused by chemical weapons than deaths caused by machetes or starvation. To value one death over another is to value one life over another, and that actually is worthy of comparing to Hitler.

Samuel J. Aronson is an Assistant Dean in the Georgetown University Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service in Washington, DC. He studies the role science and technology played in the Holocaust.