Sabo Fellow Rep. Frank Hornstein: The Use of Holocaust and Nazi Analogies in American Politics

Photo of Rep. Frank Hornstein (MN House District 61A)
Rep. Frank Hornstein (MN House District 61A)

When Frank Hornstein began serving as a representative for Minnesota House District 61A in 2002, he started to notice an unsettling phenomenon. From references to smoking bans to the conduct of teachers unions, Hornstein observed colleagues on the floor of the Minnesota House comparing a variety of issues to the Holocaust or to Nazi control. Nazi and Holocaust analogies, Hornstein found, were proliferating in wider American political discourse as well, with Nazi comparisons made in debates on issues such as abortion, climate change, and gun control.

These flippant and ahistorical analogical uses of Nazi and Holocaust terminology worried Hornstein. As survivors of the Holocaust die and there are no eye-witnesses left, what damage might casual use of Nazi analogies do to the historical memory and interpretation of the Holocaust? When we normalize the language of Nazism by using it in reference to a bill or political debate, do we lose sight of its horror—especially when Nazi symbols are being used today as genuine threats? What are the consequences for civil discourse when Nazi and Holocaust analogies are used, and when are they legitimately warranted? How might these references weaken democratic discourse?

Hornstein had an opportunity to explore these questions in-depth as a Sabo Fellow with the Sabo Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg College. Sabo Fellows are community-based leaders and scholars interested in exploring a question of public significance while engaging with students and the Augsburg community. In the past year, Hornstein’s time as a Sabo Fellow led to research, writing projects, and presentations about the use and misuse of Nazi and Holocaust comparisons in American politics, culminating with a public presentation and conversation at Augsburg College on Tuesday, November 29, from 2-3 p.m.

The presentation and discussion, entitled, “The Use of the Holocaust and Nazi Comparisons in Contemporary American Politics,” was moderated by Rep. Hornstein, and featured a presentation by Dr. Gavriel D. Rosenfeld, Professor of History and Director of the Undergraduate Program in Judaic Studies at Fairfield University. Dr. Rosenfeld’s scholarship focuses on the history and memory of the Holocaust and Nazi Germany in popular culture, and his scholarship provided a theoretical foundation for Hornstein’s exploration of Holocaust and Nazi analogies in the American political sphere.

In a fraught political climate in which Nazi analogies are on the rise, Hornstein’s research is timely and increasingly important for those who strive for a democratic society and institutions.

Missed joining us in-person or online? Watch the presentation and discussion from the event.