American News

When Auschwitz Loses Its Meaning

It boggles the mind that the US, which was instrumental in defeating Nazi Germany, is fomenting an ideology derived from the worst of German racist thinking.
Hans-Georg Betz, Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right, Robert Keith Packer Auschwitz, Robert Keith Packer Capitol, anti-Semitism US, attack on US Capitol, Nazi Germany, Holocaust Nazi Germany, Auschwitz Holocaust, Final Solution to the Jewish Question

Auschwitz, Poland, 1/27/2017 © Grabowski Foto / Shutterstock

February 05, 2021 12:15 EDT

Andy Warhol is credited for the bon mot that in the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes. Robert Keith Packer would probably agree. A nobody from Virginia, Packer made international news for the sweatshirt he wore during the recent assault on the US Capitol. Sweatshirts bear all kinds of imprints, such as the name of a university. The imprint on Packer’s sweatshirt was a little bit different. It read “Auschwitz Camp.” Below there was the claim that “Work Brings Freedom.” The back identified the wearer as “Staff.”

Will American Democracy Perish Like Rome’s?


It stands to reason that these days, wearing this kind of sweatshirt is not entirely politically correct. Unless, of course, you do it on purpose with the intent to send a strong message, to make a point. It doesn’t take an advanced degree in semiology, or history or cultural studies to interpret the meaning behind the message conveyed by Packer. Auschwitz has become the universal symbol of genocide in the service of safeguarding not only the purity and integrity of the race, but of its very survival. More on this later.

Work Makes Free

Arbeit macht frei” — “Work makes free” — the slogan that graced the entrance of Nazi concentration and extermination camps, from Dachau to Mauthausen, from Auschwitz to Flossenbürg, was a cynical notion that had nothing to do with reality. More often than not, “work” was used by the Nazis as a way to send their victims to death. For popular consumption, however, the Nazi narrative suggested that for the first time in their lives, Jews would be forced to perform “useful” labor rather than taking advantage of the hard work of their “hosts.” In 1938, after the Nazis incorporated Austria into the Third Reich, Jews were forced to clean Vienna’s streets with toothbrushes.

Embed from Getty Images

I don’t know whether or not Packer was aware of this. The fact is that within the context of Donald Trump’s promotion of white supremacy and his campaign’s characterization of his opponent as a dangerous socialist, the imprints on Packer’s sweatshirt convey a clear message: The only way to assure the survival of white America is to eradicate all those who threaten its supremacy. At the same time, politicians like Nancy Pelosi and Democrats in general should finally be forced to do useful work rather than living off hard-working, tax-paying (white) Americans.

I guess, many among the Confederate flag-waving mob, proudly displaying their allegiance to QAnon and other equally ludicrous conspiracy theories, fundamentally agreed with Packer’s message, even if they probably had no clue about what it entailed. As Thomas Edsall has recently put it in the pages of The New York Times, behind the conspiracy theory-inspired assault on the Capitol was the attempt “to engineer the installation in Washington of an ultraright, ethnonationalist crypto-fascist white supremacist political regime.”

As a German, I know a little bit about this kind of regime. I grew up in a small town in southern Bavaria, which was severely damaged by American and British bombers in the last months of the war. Not far from the town, in the forests, there were the ruins of huge bunker installations where slave laborers were working on assembling fighter planes. The workers came from a satellite camp that was part of the Dachau concentration camp, many of them Jews. Many of them died of exhaustion and malnutrition. Once dead, they were dumped into mass graves. Immediately after the war, my father was among the young men forced to dig up the corpses and rebury them in a proper cemetery. He never talked about the experience. I learned about it from my mother.

The Jewish Question

I doubt that the likes of Roger Keith Packer have ever bothered to get a sense of what Nazism really entailed. It seems to me that for him and his comrades in spirit, Auschwitz has become an empty signifier devoid of real-life meaning and, therefore, perfect as a vehicle for resentment. The fact, however, is that Auschwitz stands for something — namely a bureaucratically efficient, quasi-industrial annihilation of hundreds of thousands of human lives for no other reason than that they happened to belong to a “race” the Nazis deemed equivalent to a highly noxious bacillus. This was the core of Nazi ideology on race, most prominently espoused by Heinrich Himmler, the undisputed head of the SS.

Among the top echelons of German Nazis, Heinrich Himmler is among the most notorious. An unassuming agronomist with round spectacles, he was a far cry from the Aryan ideal official ideology espoused. And yet he was the most fervent promoter of the “Aryan race”: blond, blue-eyed, close to the soil, epitomized by the SS — a new order of quasi-medieval knights, ascetic, dedicated to their leader and prepared to give their lives for a greater cause. According to a contemporary urban legend, Himmler considered himself as an incarnation of Heinrich I, a medieval king who is credited with being the first to unite the disparate German “nations” under one flag.

Today, of course, Heinrich Himmler is almost exclusively known for his eminent role in promoting the destruction and extermination of Europe’s Jewish population — a “task” he considered his ultimate mission in the service of the German people. At the end would stand, or so he envisioned, the “final solution to the Jewish question,” the complete eradication of anything that might remind future generations of the presence of Jewish life in Europe.

Practice and Practitioners of Holocaust Denial


Heinrich Himmler was exceedingly proud of his ability to execute this “historical mission” of saving the German “race” from being destroyed from the inside by the Jewish “bacillus.” We know that because he himself said so, in his notorious speech to high-ranking members of the SS in Poznan, in occupied Poland, in October 1943. The speech is remarkable for its candor, a candor quite unusual for official references to the Holocaust.

Himmler not only acknowledged the “extermination of the Jewish people,” he also charged that Germans had “the moral right,” the “duty” to the German people “to kill these people who wanted to kill us.” In fact, he noted, “we have carried out this most difficult task out of love for our own people.” This, he continued, was “a chapter of glory in our history which has never been written, and which never shall be written.”

Anyone who reads or listens to Himmler’s speech understands that the physical liquidation of Jewish life in Europe was central to Nazism. Hitler himself had made that quite clear in a speech in 1939, commemorating his Machtergreifung, his seizure of power in 1933 — an event, he attributed to divine providence. It is in this vein that Hitler touted his prophetic clairvoyance, particularly with regard to what would happen to Europe’s Jews. If the “international finance Jewry inside and outside Europe,” he insisted, “should succeed in plunging the nations once more into a world war, the result will be not the Bolshevization of the earth and thereby the victory of Jewry, but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe.” Three years later, high SS officials in occupied Serbia proudly proclaimed that it was the first country where the “Jewish question” had been successfully solved.

Chapter of Glory

There can be no doubt that leading Nazis considered the liquidation of Jewish life in Europe the most significant accomplishment of the Nazi regime. In fact, toward the end of the war, at a time when German troops were under increasing pressure on the eastern front, Nazi authorities continued to divert vital resources such as trains to assure that the death machinery could continue unimpeded. After all, as Himmler had put it, the annihilation of Jewish life in Europe was a “chapter of glory” that would indelibly be associated with the Nazi regime.

Curiously enough, intellectual Nazi apologists such as David Irving and pedestrian neo-Nazis in Europe and the United States want nothing to do with the Holocaust. In fact, the most fervent champions of the National Socialist cause are adamant in their disavowal of what their heroes considered their greatest accomplishments. As Hitler put it in his last will, “I call upon the leadership of the nation … to fight mercilessly against the poisoners of all the peoples of the world, international Jewry.” Yet Hitler’s contemporary would-be acolytes don’t seem to be eager to embrace Hitler’s racist heritage — an instance of opportunism, hypocrisy, or both?

These days, genocide is no longer considered a Kavarliersdelikt — a cavalier’s delict. As a result, Packer’s sweatshirt has stood out and, for good reason, gained widespread media attention. It suggests that the physical elimination of fellow human beings is okay, perhaps even an honorable feat, as long as it is done in the name of the greater good — in this case, the defense of white supremacy. It boggles the mind that the United States, which after all was instrumental in defeating Nazi Germany, has been fomenting a type of ideology derived from the worst of German racist thinking. But then, after all, Donald Trump has always been proud of his German heritage.

 *[Fair Observer is a media partner of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Support Fair Observer

We rely on your support for our independence, diversity and quality.

For more than 10 years, Fair Observer has been free, fair and independent. No billionaire owns us, no advertisers control us. We are a reader-supported nonprofit. Unlike many other publications, we keep our content free for readers regardless of where they live or whether they can afford to pay. We have no paywalls and no ads.

In the post-truth era of fake news, echo chambers and filter bubbles, we publish a plurality of perspectives from around the world. Anyone can publish with us, but everyone goes through a rigorous editorial process. So, you get fact-checked, well-reasoned content instead of noise.

We publish 2,500+ voices from 90+ countries. We also conduct education and training programs on subjects ranging from digital media and journalism to writing and critical thinking. This doesn’t come cheap. Servers, editors, trainers and web developers cost money.
Please consider supporting us on a regular basis as a recurring donor or a sustaining member.

Will you support FO’s journalism?

We rely on your support for our independence, diversity and quality.

Donation Cycle

Donation Amount

The IRS recognizes Fair Observer as a section 501(c)(3) registered public charity (EIN: 46-4070943), enabling you to claim a tax deduction.

Make Sense of the World

Unique Insights from 2,500+ Contributors in 90+ Countries

Support Fair Observer

Support Fair Observer by becoming a sustaining member

Become a Member