Yesterday, Sean Spicer made a Passover blunder that could end up costing him his position as White House Press Secretary. Spicer delivered a confused series of statements that have left the press in awe.
With respect to the recent U.S. cruise missile strike on a Syrian airfield, Spicer decided to reiterate the Trump administration’s stance on the Syrian situation, and specifically on the use of chemical weapons, eventually commenting, “someone as despicable as Hitler […] didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons.”
As far as can be determined from existing evidence, it is true that the German military did not use chemical weapons against active military targets during the Second World War. It is also true that several global military powers, including the United States, Germany, Imperial Japan, and the Soviet Union stockpiled tens of thousands of tons of these weapons during the war.
It could certainly be argued that both Allied and Axis powers were prepared and willing to deploy their chemical weapons in combat, although this did not occur. The United States and the Soviet Union continued to increase their stockpiles of chemical weapons after the war.
Initially, in the early war years, the Third Reich’s mass killing facilities were relatively primitive. They were sealed to outside air, and had ventilation systems hooked up to diesel engines. These engines would pump carbon monoxide into sealed rooms, causing the suffocation of all occupants.
Some programs, like the euthanasia program for the mentally and physically handicapped, used carbon monoxide almost exclusively as a method of execution. This was seen as more humane, and was deemed appropriate for the “mercy killing” of disabled persons.
Eventually, the cyanide-based pesticide, Zyklon-B, became widely used in pursuit of the Final Solution to the Jewish Question, and in other Nazi ethnic and genetic cleansing programs.
The poison existed as pellets, which, when exposed to air, would react to form a gas. Zyklon-B was originally tested on hundreds of Soviet prisoners of war as a method of mass execution. It was then determined to be more efficient than carbon monoxide.
The gas would become infamous as the cause of approximately one million deaths (a significant majority of them Jewish) at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and extermination camp in Poland, among others. It was with this in mind that some present at the White House Press briefing on Tuesday were shocked.
When asked by a reporter to clarify his statements, Spicer quickly proceeded to dig the hole deeper, “I think when you come to sarin gas, there was no, he [Hitler] was not using the gas on his own people the same way that Assad is doing […] There was clearly … I understand your point, thank you. There was not … He brought them into the Holocaust centres, I understand that.”
Representative Nancy Pelosi has called for Spicer to be fired, “While Jewish families across America celebrate Passover, the chief spokesman of this White House is downplaying the horror of the Holocaust […] Sean Spicer must be fired, and the President must immediately disavow his spokesman’s statements. Either he is speaking for the President, or the President should have known better than to hire him.”
The Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect has even accused Spicer of intentionally furthering the cause of Holocaust denial. It is unlikely that this was Spicer’s intent.
Fundamentally, Spicer comes off as uninformed on a highly sensitive historical topic. Had he not drawn the specific comparison that he did, he would have avoided the proliferation of this newfound controversy.
Furthermore, it is baffling that he was somehow unable to foresee the possibility of this type of reaction, especially with the bizarre wording used. It is mostly clear what he was trying to say if one ponders for more than a few moments. Problematic is the form in which he chose to express his and the administration’s distaste for the use of chemical weapons, against military targets or otherwise.
Many politicians and pundits have developed an argumentative fallback position that relies on the historical phenomenon of National Socialism. It can be quite rhetorically versatile, especially from the conservative perspective. I can also provide ammunition for critics.
For these individuals, reversion to that defensive position often becomes a reflex. This reactive tendency is evident in Sean Spicer’s comment, and in his later addition.
Spicer has since apologized and has called his statements “inappropriate,” and, “insensitive.” Despite this, it still remains to be seen whether he will be able to keep his job.