I don’t usually begin a commentary this way, but – as a queer person and as a Jew who lost multiple family members to murder during the German Holocaust, I feel so furious that I am having difficulty finding the words. What I saw and heard far exceeds mere hypocrisy, but reaches into the inner depths of disgust, outrage, and contempt.
Vice President Mike Pence standing with the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, at a joint press conference at the European Council in Brussels, Monday, February 20, began his statements by relating how very moved he was on his recent trip (and obvious photo op) with his wife and daughter as they visited the first Nazi concentration camp, Dachau, constructed in 1933.
They walked under the gate with the heinous words “Arbeit macht frei,” (“Work sets you free”) and were joined by Abba Naor, a survivor of the camps, along with other officials. The Pences laid a wreath beneath the International Memorial at the camp, and witnessed the prisons’ barracks and the ovens inside the camp’s crematorium.
In Dachau alone, Nazis imprisoned and enslaved more than 200,000 and ultimately murdered approximately 40,000 people, and millions more throughout the Nazi realm that they defined as enemies of the state, race polluters, abject (cast off) “othered” bodies, those unworthy of life, many under the category of “inferior people” (Untermenschen): Jews, Slavs, non-Aryan emigrants, peoples of color, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Roma, Communists, people with disabilities, labor trade unionists, unemployed people (the “work shy”), people who performed abortions, and others.
I wonder whether Pence truly understands the events in Germany that led to the mass incarcerations and the genocide: the stereotyping of entire groups of people whom the Nazis scapegoated for causing the problems of the state.
I wonder whether Pence understands how his own administration, indeed, the Republican Party writ large has employed the tactics of stereotyping and scapegoating of the bodies of entire groups of people to use as stepping stones in their ascension to and maintenance of power: LGBTQ people, people of color, Muslims, immigrants, people with disabilities, feminists, pro-choice advocates, labor trade unionists who push for collective bargaining, those who understand the important role of government in health care and in maintaining a fundamental level of economic security, and yes, Jews.
Pence, as a member of Congress and later as Indiana Governor, has, first, not been a friend to labor unions. During the election, according to Brett Voorhies, president of the Indiana State AFL-CIO:
“Mike Pence has waged repeated attacks on working Hoosiers as governor and will without a doubt continue the attacks alongside his anti-worker running mate Donald Trump who is ‘100 percent right to work’ (anti-union and collective bargaining).’”
Trump figuratively spit in the faces of minoritized “racial” groups, in particular Mexican immigrants, during his off-scripted rambling announcement speech:
“The US has become a dumping ground for everyone else’s problems,” he said. “[Mexico is] sending people that have lots of problems, and they are bringing those problems to us. They are bringing drugs, and bringing crime, and they’re rapists.”
Trump eventually enlarged his dehumanizing representations to include people in all of Latin America and people in Muslim countries (except for those in which he has business interests).
Vice President Mike Pence, in his first congressional campaign in 2000, argued for public funding of so-called conversion therapy for LGBTQ people. On his website at the time, his disdain for same-sex attractions and sexuality stands out:
Congress should support the reauthorization of the Ryan White Care Act only after completion of an audit to ensure that federal dollars were no longer being given to organizations that celebrate and encourage the types of behaviors that facilitate the spreading of the HIV virus. Resources should be directed toward those institutions which provide assistance to those seeking to change their sexual behavior.
Pence opposes marriage equality and LGBTQ non-discrimination protections, and helped to pass the so-called Religious Freedom Restoration law allowing businesses to discriminate against LGBTQ people. The state was forced to amend the law after experiencing serious political pushback.
Let Us Not Repeat History
Though I rarely offer comparisons between events transpiring before and during the ascension to power of the German Third Reich with resemblances to contemporary United States – since to do so could result in trivializing one of the most horrific episodes in human history – nonetheless, I am haunted by certain parallels that demand attention.
I am troubled by multiple similarities between that time not so very long ago with the discourses expressed and events transpiring today. I want, therefore, to highlight, in particular, the parallels I see in Nazi portrayals and understandings of sex, sexuality, gender, and gender expression: a divisive and brutal program that was anti-feminist, anti-women’s equality, anti-women’s reproductive freedoms (anti-family planning, anti-contraception, anti-abortion), anti-lesbian, anti-gay, anti-bisexual, anti-transgender, anti-gender nonconforming, anti-sexuality education in schools.
For example, Alfred Rosenberg, one of the Nazi’s chief ideologues, directed his misogynist outrage by warning all women:
The emancipation of women from the women’s emancipation movement is the first demand of a female generation trying to rescue nation and race, the eternally unconscious, the foundation of all civilization, from decline…. [O]ne thing must be made clear: Only a man must be and remain judge, soldier, and politician.
The Nazis added Paragraph 218 of the German Penal Code to outlaw abortions and establish a national file on women who had undergone and doctors who had performed abortions.
In addition, the Nazis acted on and eventually extended Paragraph 175, the section of the German Penal Code dating back to 1871 with the unification of Germany:
Unnatural vice committed by two persons of the male sex or by people with animals is to be punished by imprisonment; the verdict may also include the loss of civil rights.
Nazi ideology rested on the assessment that homosexuals (males) lowered the German birth rate; they endangered, recruited, enticed, and corrupted youth; that a possible homosexual epidemic could spread; that homosexuals are “potential oppositionists” and enemies of respectable society; and that sexual relations between people of the same sex impairs their “sense of shame” and undermines morality, which inevitably will bring about the “decline of social community.”
While Nazi ideology and practice rejected lesbianism as well, they did not criminalize same-sex sexuality between women, as they had in Germany’s Paragraph 175 of the Penal Code, because they believed that so-called “Aryan” lesbians could produce Aryan children for the “New Germany.”
On the other hand, Heinrich Himmler, Gestapo head and chief architect of the Reich’s anti-homosexual campaign, justified his actions by arguing that male homosexuals were “like women” and therefore, could not fight in any German war effort. Subsequently, he conducted surveillance operations on an estimated 90,000 suspected homosexuals, arrested approximately 50,000, and transported somewhere between 10,000 and 15,000 to several concentration camps throughout the Nazi dominion. Very few survived.
Hitler also proposed eliminating all sexuality education from the German school system and encouraged parents to take on the primary responsibilities for sexuality instruction within the home.
The Nazi regime connected multiple forms of oppression when Heinrich Himmler reorganized the Reich Criminal Police Bureau to centralize operations by creating a national file on male homosexuals, transgender people (referred as “transvestites”), what they referred to as “wage abortionists” (women and their doctors), and to monitor the production and ban the use of contraceptives to “Aryan” women.
Within this Bureau, they established The Reich Office for Combatting Homosexuality and Abortion, which in the single year of 1938 alone, conducted 28,366 arrests for abortion, and 28, 882 arrests of male homosexuals.
The common thread running through Nazi ideology regarding sex, gender expression, and sexuality was their intense campaign to control individuals’ bodies and the bodies of members of entire communities in the attempt to control their minds.
Throughout history, examples abound of patriarchal domination over the rights and lives of women and LGBT people, whom they have been constructed as second-class and even third-class citizens not merely in Nazi Germany, but today as the current political climate indicates.
I wonder if Pence understands the irony, at best, in his journey through Dachau! If he sees the parallels of his own politics and the politics of the Republican Party, with those of the Nazis before they began their fanatical genocidal slaughter, then possibly something good may still come out of his visit.
Warren J. Blumenfeld is author of Warren’s Words: Smart Commentary on Social Justice (Purple Press); editor of Homophobia: How We All Pay the Price (Beacon Press), and co-editor of Readings for Diversity and Social Justice (Routledge) and Investigating Christian Privilege and Religious Oppression in the United States (Sense).