How Sean Spicer Accidentally Became a Poster Boy for Holocaust Education

4-12-17 Sean Spicer
White House press secretary Sean Spicer arrives for a press briefing at the White House in Washington on April 11. During the briefing, while discussing Bashar al-Assad's use of sarin gas against his own people, he said that “you had someone as despicable as Hitler who didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons.” Joshua Roberts/Reuters

Four years ago, Rhonda Fink-Whitman visited the campuses of several colleges in her home state of Pennsylvania to find out what students knew about the Holocaust, World War II and genocide. Equipped with a camera, she stopped random students and asked them questions like “What was the Holocaust?” “Can you name a concentration camp?” “What country was Hitler the leader of?” or “What is genocide?”

The resulting footage—which she posted to YouTube in September 2013—is cringeworthy, as some of the students struggle with the most basic facts of one of the most horrifying events of the 20th century. “The Mandate Video,” as she calls it, garnered more than 400,000 views and a wave of press coverage that helped relaunch an effort to pass a bill in Pennsylvania to require schools to teach students about the Holocaust and genocide. Then-Governor Tom Corbett signed a version of the bill into law in June 2014, making Pennsylvania the sixth state with such a mandate. Michigan and Rhode Island soon followed.

Related: “Invaluable Lessons”: More states making Holocaust, genocide education a must

Now, White House press secretary Sean Spicer has inadvertently given Holocaust and genocide education advocates another video that argues for the urgency of their cause. While discussing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons at a press conference on Tuesday, Spicer said that “you had someone as despicable as Hitler who didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons.”

“I think when you come to sarin gas, there was no—he was not using the gas on his own people the same way that Assad is doing,” Spicer added when asked to clarify. “There was not—he brought them into the Holocaust center, I understand that. But I’m saying in the way that Assad used them, where he went into towns, dropped them down to innocent—into the middle of towns.”

The notion that Hitler and his regime didn’t use chemicals as weapons is absurd. As early as 1939, the Nazis “began experimenting with poison gas for the purpose of mass murder,” according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, using carbon monoxide to gas the mentally and physically disabled as part of their “euthanasia” program. The Einsatzgruppen, mobile killing units that operated on the eastern front, used sealed gas vans with the exhaust directed inside to kill hundreds of thousands of Jews, Roma and the mentally ill. Gas vans and stationary gas chambers using either carbon monoxide or Zyklon B became the means to achieve Hitler’s “Final Solution” at extermination and concentration camps, including Sobibor, Treblinka, Auschwitz and Sachsenhausen.

Spicer’s comments, which were made during the Jewish holiday of Passover, provoked audible gasps in the briefing room and widespread criticism, including from the New York–based Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect, Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, members of Congress and celebrities such as Barbra Streisand and Debra Messing. Some called for Spicer’s firing or resignation, while others accused him of anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial. Since his initial comment, Spicer has made multiple attempts to clarify and apologize.

“The profound mischaracterization...suggests that German Jews weren’t Germans,” says Amos Guiora, a law professor at the University of Utah and author of The Crime of Complicity: The Bystander in the Holocaust (April 2017) who has been working with a Utah legislator to introduce a Holocaust and genocide education bill in that state. That interpretation—that Spicer was indirectly excluding Jews and other victims of the Holocaust from the German population—applies if Spicer knew enough to be aware that Jews and others were killed in gas chambers. The other option is that it simply “shows an astounding depth of ignorance.” Either way, “he minimized the Holocaust. That’s egregious. If he’s profoundly ignorant, it’s inexcusable. If he’s an anti-Semite, it’s inexcusable. That’s why I don’t think his comments can be washed away by some apology.” Guiora found Spicer’s attempts to make amends “remarkably and overwhelmingly unconvincing.

“There’s no justification under any circumstance. Nothing will excuse his comments,” he adds. He agrees that Spicer should be fired and that the incident “shows the depth of the need to educate.” Guiora’s parents survived the Holocaust, and his grandparents perished. “My grandparents didn’t die in some Holocaust center. They were murdered at Auschwitz.”

Fink-Whitman, who works as the media and marketing coordinator for the Holocaust Awareness Museum and Education Center in Philadelphia, is the daughter of a Holocaust survivor and author of a novel based on her mother’s experiences (94 Maidens). She is now working with U.S. Representative Brendan Boyle, a Pennsylvania Democrat who proposed the original bill there when he was a state representative, to prepare a resolution that would encourage Holocaust education all over the country. The plan is to introduce the resolution—which is co-sponsored by fellow U.S. Representatives Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.)—in Congress on April 25, the first session day after Yom HaShoah.  

Such a requirement would help ensure no American ever makes a mistake like Spicer’s, which is “a dramatic example of what happens if you don’t educate children from a fairly early age about the Holocaust and other genocides,” says Susan Bitensky, a professor at Michigan State University’s College of Law who, after seeing Fink-Whitman’s video, worked with students to research and draft the Michigan bill. “This is like Rhonda’s video redux. It’s just a grownup in a very important position basically revealing the same appalling ignorance as the students,” she adds. Neither she nor Fink-Whitman believes Spicer should be fired for the incident, but “I think this incident has tremendous capacity in providing a teaching moment.”

One person who took advantage of this “teaching moment” was the executive director of the Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect. A tweeted statement from Steven Goldstein urging the Trump administration to fire Spicer has garnered roughly 26,000 likes and 20,000 retweets.

Goldstein refuses to chalk up Spicer’s comments entirely to ignorance. “You have to put it in a context,” he says. “This administration clearly has a Holocaust denial problem,” referencing the statement put out by the White House on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, a week after Trump’s inauguration, that did not mention Jews.

Still, Goldstein sees the incident as an indictment of the state of Holocaust and genocide education in the U.S. “What kind of schooling did Sean Spicer go through that allowed him to have such ignorance about the Holocaust, and what kind of social circles has he hung around as an adult where the Holocaust has never been mentioned?” he says. “He got so many basic facts wrong, that beyond my being appalled that this man could serve as press secretary...I wept at his ignorance and what it says about our country,” he adds, calling Spicer a “tragic symptom of the lack of Holocaust education in the United States of America.

“Teaching people about the Holocaust and genocide is just as important as reading, writing and arithmetic,” Goldstein says, and “knowing about the Holocaust and how to prevent genocide should be part of the moral fiber of our educational system in America.” The fact that fewer than one-fifth of U.S. states require these topics be taught is “pathetic” and a “disgrace,” he says. “The solution is nationally mandated Holocaust education. Let me make this clear: Not just Holocaust education but genocide education.” He believes there needs to be a binding law, and since education is under the purview of the states, that the goal should be accomplished by tying the requirement to federal aid. He can’t see such a mandate passing under the Trump administration, but “that’s the answer.”

The Spicer incident took Fink-Whitman back to the hours she spent interviewing students on Pennsylvania campuses. “When I made the video, I didn’t expect those answers from the students, let alone from someone twice their age and in power,” she says. “How did we get to the point in America when the U.S. president’s press secretary misspeaks about facts about the Holocaust?

“For me, the answer is simple: It is a lack of Holocaust education,” she continues. “I should thank Sean Spicer, because he perfectly demonstrated that for everybody to see, on television,” she adds. “Now, I can say, ‘Watch my video!’ and ‘Hey, did you see what Sean Spicer said?”