It’s possible that at the beginning, Sean Spicer remembered a widely-circulated anecdote about how Hitler didn’t use nerve gas at Normandy.
Because this surprised Allied commanders, who knew he had nerve agents stockpiled nearby, all kinds of armchair psychologists have pontificated that Hitler’s restraint showed a distaste for gas attacks in a military setting.
This pontificating, for whatever reason, has held in the popular imagination, even though the Nazi army used chemical weapons plenty of other times, mostly on the Eastern front, and although Göring testified that they only held off at Normandy because the Nazi army was using horses to move equipment around and hadn’t figured out how to make a gas mask for a horse.
(Next time you write something with Nazis in it, I would appreciate it if you made “gas mask for a horse” their “build a better mousetrap.”)
This anecdote, I think, is what Spicer was drawing on.
Then, when somebody said “wait, the Holocaust,” he got super flustered and reflexively went into a defensive “it’s different.” The distinction that first leapt to mind is that concentration camps weren’t bombed – they had gas chambers. (See, it’s different! It’s an execution, not part of combat!)
However, he couldn’t remember the term “concentration camp” or for that matter “gas chamber,” although he remembered he was looking for a two-word phrase. He hit upon Holocaust center as a two-word phrase he has seen before that describes a place where Jews sometimes go and cry.
I don’t think he was trying to deny the existence of the Holocaust; I think the Holocaust and WWII are seperate simultaneous events in his mind and he wanted to talk about one and not the other, and got tangled up.
However, I also think this is something you can only do if you don’t empathize viscerally with the victims of the Holocaust, chiefly because if you identify viscerally with the victims of the Holocaust and somebody says “what about the Holocaust” you clutch your stomach or burst into tears and say “of course you’re right. How unspeakably terrible that was. Never again.”
Sonya says: I was just talking about this over the weekend (although not because of Sean Spicer, because I am not that precognitive) and elsewhere on the internet: I do think a lot of people in this country forget that chemical weapons were used in World War II, because they associate weapons with battlefields and the Nazis never used poison gas against the Western Allies and they don’t think of the Holocaust as a theater of war; they may know perfectly well about gas chambers, but they don’t classify them the same way as the gas-clouds choking the trenches of World War I. So I agree with you that I don’t think Spicer was demonstrating Holocaust denial. Some casual low-grade anti-Semitism, sure; I wouldn’t need much convincing of that. It’s been going around this administration from the start. But what he was demonstrating still blows my mind.
(He didn’t even have to go for the Hitler comparison. It’s not like Godwin’s Law hasn’t been getting a workout for months now. And people aren’t desensitized—if anything, all the recent dogwhistling has caused people to examine Nazi-referencing rhetoric even more closely than before. But he went for it because this administration speaks hyperbole as a first language and what did he think people were going to do, not remember?)
The gas-mask-for-a-horse problem is one of the things that reminds you just what an incredible collision of technologies WWII was.
Romie: Your comment about hyperbole is dead on: biggest inagural attendance instead of a normal one; biggest victory in the electoral college instead of a fairly slim one; jobs numbers like we’ve never seen before that of course we have. Now they’re engaging him, Assad has to be the worst villain to have ever lived. “Nobody’s ever done this” might be the slogan of the administration, but in a different way than I would mean it.
Kate L says: What’s so frustrating about the whole thing is Assad really is a horrifying piece of shit who should have been taken out years ago, and we should all be talking about him, but instead, we’re talking about how unspeakably stupid Sean Spicer is, and wondering if we can have any faith in any actions taken by an administration filled with people this unspeakably stupid.
Joseph says: Two other terms that may have been rattling around his frantic mind: population centers, what Assad targeted in battle, and the Anne Frank Center, which has been a very vocal opponent of the Trump Administration and a group Spicer could have expected a reply from even while he was searching for the right shovel to dig his way out of his worsening answer.