Critics responded with outrage after White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said on 11 April 2017 that Adolf Hitler “didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons.” Spicer made the comments while criticizing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s reported use of chemical weapons in an attack in northwestern Syria that killed at least 70 civilians.
Assad’s troops reportedly used sarin gas in an attack on the town of Khan Sheikhun, prompting President Donald Trump to order an air strike against an airfield allegedly used by the Syrian military for the 6 April 2017 attack.
When asked during a press briefing about the probability that Russia would stop supporting their longtime ally Syria, Spicer said:
We didn’t use chemical weapons in World War II. You had someone as despicable as Hitler, who didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons. You have to ask yourself if you’re Russia, is this a country and a regime you want to align yourself with? You have previously signed on to international agreements rightfully acknowledging that the use of chemical weapons should be out of bounds by every country.
By continuing to stand alongside Syria, Spicer argued, Russia risked being on “the wrong side of history in a really, really bad way.”
Sarin gas was developed under Hitler’s government and Nazi Gen. Hermann Ochsner, who led the German Army Weapons Office, called for it to be deployed via airstrikes, arguing: “There is no doubt that a city like London would be plunged into a state of unbearable turmoil that would bring enormous pressure to bear on the enemy government.” Nazis did not use chemical weapons against American and British troops in the field, though they reportedly employed them against Russian forces at various points.
And although German troops may not have used chemical weapons on the battlefield, they were wielded with abandon against German citizens (and numerous others) in prison camps. According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Hitler’s regime started using poisonous gases against Germans in 1939, with mental patients being the first people put to death through the use of carbon monoxide gas under a practice the Nazis referred to as “euthanasia.”
Starting in December 1941, this method of killing expanded through the use of “gas vans” employing engine exhaust as well as carbon monoxide and crystalline hydrogen cyanide (a.k.a. Zyklon B) in concentration camps such as Auschwitz-Birkenau, Belzec, and Treblinka, among others. The museum states on its website that “Under SS management, the Germans and their collaborators murdered more than three million Jews in the killing centers alone. Only a small fraction of those imprisoned in Nazi camps survived.”
Later in the briefing, Spicer sought to clarify his statement while also using a euphemism (“Holocaust centers”) to refer to Nazi concentration camps:
When it comes to Sarin gas, [Hitler] was not using the gas on his own people the same way that Assad is doing. I understand your point. Thank you. I appreciate that. He brought them into the Holocaust centers, I understand that. I was saying in the way that Assad used them where he went into town, dropped them into the middle of town. I appreciate the clarification. That was not the intent.
He later released a separate statement saying:
In no way was I trying to lessen the horrendous nature of the Holocaust, however, I was trying to draw a contrast of the tactic of using airplanes to drop chemical weapons on innocent people.
Hitler did indeed use “gas on his own people the same way that Assad is [allegedly] doing” in the sense of employing it to kill innocent civilians; the only difference (to which Spicer was referring) was the delivery method: herding people into prison chambers to be gassed versus dropping gas bombs on them from the air. Spicer may have been technically correct in that particular sense, but his words still left many listeners puzzled (if not outraged) about why that distinction was significant.
The Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect, which accused President Trump in February 2017 of not offering “a single proposal” to combat a wave of threats against Jewish community centers across the U.S., released a statement calling for Spicer to be fired:
On Passover no less, Sean Spicer has engaged in Holocaust denial, the most offensive form of fake news imaginable, by denying Hitler gassed millions of Jews to death. Spicer’s statement is the most evil slur upon a group of people we have ever heard from a White House press secretary. Sean Spicer now lacks the integrity to serve as White House press secretary, and President Trump must fire him at once.
Israeli minister of intelligence Yisrael Katz also demanded on Twitter that Spicer apologize or retire, saying, “There is a moral obligation that trumps policy.”
Two days before Spicer’s remarks, French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen was criticized in her country for trying to downplay the role of French citizens who collaborated with the Germans in the deportation of Jewish citizens to Nazi camps in 1942, saying: “I think that in general, more generally, if there were those responsible, it was those who were in power at the time. This is not France.”