Few sacred cows are venerated like the Holocaust. It has become the icon of 20th century atrocities, a symbol of the evils men can do when they are only following orders. Holocaust memorials and museums can be found from Argentina to Uruguay and many points in between. The Diary of Anne Frank has been translated into 73 languages while Elie Weisel’s Night has been published in 30. Gas chambers, ovens, medical experiments, yellow stars: we know in painful detail the genocidal German campaign of World War II. And should we ask too many inconvenient questions about that narrative in the wrong country, we may find ourselves in a great deal of trouble.
Every icon inevitably becomes a cliché. Today each election brings grim warnings of a new Hitler ready to send your oppressed minority of choice off to the showers. Where once we were kept in line with visions of hellfire and damnation, now we are warned of genocidal madmen who will murder millions if we don’t vote the right ticket. The Holocaust has become the go-to example for pro-lifers and pro-choicers: in Eternal Treblinka Charles Patterson explored the commonalities between animal domestication and the death camps. We are not just familiar with the Holocaust, we have grown increasingly inured to it. But though it may inspire less pity and horror than it once did, the Holocaust retains the power to offend.
Sick humor has long been an important part of the child’s emotional toolkit. By laughing at their world’s atrocities they become bearable: the slowly dawning recognition of mortality is transmuted into dead baby jokes. They are impolite, certainly, but that is part of their point. Long before Freud children discovered acceptable rituals of grief and anger were not enough to assuage the emotions roiling within. By violating taboos they achieved a catharsis no stiff upper lip would ever provide. By making the evil naughty and the terrifying ridiculous, they defanged childhood fears.
After noting that philosophers are by and large a humorless lot, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy provides several historical and contemporary theories of why we laugh. Among them are a feeling of superiority; a release of built-up tensions; a recognition of incongruity; a play signal. While all might in various situations apply to our present subject, this quote from Lord Shaftesbury’s 1709 “An Essay on the Freedom of Wit and Humor” seems particularly apropos:
The natural free spirits of ingenious men, if imprisoned or controlled, will find out other ways of motion to relieve themselves in their constraint; and whether it be in burlesque, mimicry, or buffoonery, they will be glad at any rate to vent themselves, and be revenged upon their constrainers.
When guns are outlawed only outlaws will have guns. When jokes are outlawed soon the whole world is laughing at them. Censorship hurts memes the way felonies hurt an aspiring rapper’s career. And when powerful organizations try limiting discourse on controversial topics via censorship and intimidation, they soon discover every action has a swift counter-reaction.
In an era where you can pick and choose from “alternative facts” and dismiss unpleasant data as “fake news,” the details of an event are less important than its emotional payload and truth less important than truthiness. To that end many Holocaust memes focus on dubious Holocaust anecdotes. One of the more infamous of these appeared in a now-debunked 2003 memoir by Bernard Holstein, Stolen Soul.
One might rightly note that this fake testimony — like similar tall tales from Herman Rosenblat, Misha Defonseca and Binjamin Wilkomirski, among others — was exposed not by revisionists but by horrified Holocaust scholars. Alas, a lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth gets out of bed. Images of children herded into gas chambers are countered with uproarious tales of death fappers, pedal-powered brain bashers and Holocoasters of doom. Pathos becomes bathos and sympathy is replaced by mistrust. And because jokes are remembered long after sad stories are forgotten, a barrage of “oven memes” may have more influence than the most well-organized lesson plan.
Ritual taboo-breaking can become a cornerstone around which a community develops. By attacking your hated enemy you prove your loyalty to the tribe. (Compare and contrast this with the “calling out” culture so beloved of the Left). Mocking the Holocaust, like reading the Paternoster backwards, marks your break from the accepted order of things. You have made a public, if pseudonymous, affirmation of belief to others of a similar red-pilled bent. And given that declaring yourself a White Nationalist is likely to shock your parents more than shrieking “I HATE TRUMP,” it’s not surprising that many young gentlemen are seeking “lad points” through lampshade jokes.
Gas chamber humor can also be used to intimidate. When Julia Ioffe published an unflattering profile of Melania Trump in a 2016 GQ, she was targeted with images superimposing her face on concentration camp records. After being targeted for a “troll storm” by the Daily Stormer‘s Andrew Anglin, Tanya Gersh received hundreds of Holocaust-themed messages: her 12 year-old son received an email picture of an oven with the caption ” “PSsst kid there is a free X-box inside.” (In his response to Gersh’s subsequent lawsuit, Anglin attorney Marc Randazza claimed that Anglin intended no threat since he does not believe the Holocaust happened):
If Defendant is to be deemed responsible for the speech of third parties, that speech must be viewed through Defendant’s mindset. In that mindset, there are no gas chambers; there are no ovens; there are no mass killings of Jews. To the speaker, these are fictional metaphors, a ‘threat’ as true as a Star Wars fanatic sending Death Star-blowing-up-Vulcan imagery to a Star Trek fan. It may be hateful, but it is no true threat.
This is certainly disquieting, but it may be par for the course in today’s overheated political climate. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) has encouraged her supporters to harass members of Trump’s cabinet, saying “[If you see them] in a restaurant, in a department store, at a gasoline station, you get out and you create a crowd. And you push back on them. And you tell them they’re not welcome anymore, anywhere.” American anti-Fascists have promised “we can make racists afraid again” and “DOXXing” is a very real threat to anybody expressing pro-White (or even just pro-Trump) sympathies. When intimidation is normalized, each side feels justified in using it.
Today anybody old enough to remember the camps is well past retirement age: most of today’s survivors were children or infants during their internment. Like the Great War’s trenches and gas canisters — once an equally potent symbol of man’s inhumanity to man — the Holocaust is becoming a historical myth rather than an ever-present danger. I suspect this current trend of oven humor will peter out not because of ADL sanctions but because they will become passé. 20 years from now Holocaust memes will seem as dated as raccoon hair: those who posted them will be voting and even running for office. And they may see the Holocaust as a laughable fraud perpetrated by congenital liars long after the last of their hair dye has swirled down the drain.