From the IndyStar:
Corrections & clarifications: A previous version of this article misstated the title of Professor Günther Jikeli. He is the associate director of the Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism at Indiana University Bloomington.
On Monday evening, Dr. Matt Keefer, a candidate running for a seat on the Zionsville Community Schools Board of Trustees, posted a now-deleted comment to Facebook that said, “All Nazis weren’t ‘bad,’ as you specify,'” while going on to compare those who joined the Nazi Party to those who got vaccinated, wore masks and practiced social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The comments, including most of the replies, have since been deleted from Keefer’s campaign Facebook page. The page has also limited who can comment on posts.
“They did horrible things,” Keefer continued. “They were in a group frenzy in both cases you site (sic). Who is to say if we were both there in the same place and same time, that we wouldn’t have done the same thing.”
School board races this election season have gained a lot of attention across the nation.
The Zionsville Community Schools Board of Trustees has five seats, three of which are up for election, including one at-large position. Keefer is running against Sarah Esterline Sampson and Christy Wessel-Powell for that seat.
In at-large races, candidates can run regardless of where they live in the district, and everyone in the district can vote for the seat.
Keefer, who isn’t currently a school board member, started attending school board meetings last year to express his opinions against masking in schools.
He wrote the Monday comment on a post from Sept. 21 in response to a comment from a profile using the username Mike Harris, with whom Keefer was in a discussion about how to improve the schools in Zionsville’s district.
Harris’ profile says that they are not using their real name but that they are a “lifelong resident of Boone County.” IndyStar reached out to the Mike Harris profile for more information, but they did not immediately respond.
The Harris username asked Keefer for clarification on what would be considered “indoctrination” for teachers in the Zionsville Community Schools district, including teaching students that all Nazis are bad.
In response to Keefer’s comment, the Harris profile said, “You won’t even say all Nazis are bad? What the living hell is wrong with you? Sorry, you Nazi sympathizer, you lost my vote.”
‘Nobody was forced’ to join the Nazi Party
Keefer told IndyStar on Wednesday that he was “not a fan of Nazis.” The leaders of the Nazi Party were “definitely bad people, but that doesn’t mean the common folk that were required to join the party were all evil,” he said.
“When they say all Nazis were evil, they’re talking about anybody in Germany during that time, all of them were evil people,” he said. “My statement was … the entire population of Germany was not evil Nazis even though they joined the Nazi Party.”
Professor Günther Jikeli, associate director of the Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism at Indiana University Bloomington, said that it is not true that people were required to join the Nazi Party. Some joined because they believed in Nazi ideology, some joined because they thought it would be better for their careers, Jikeli said, but no one was compelled to join the party.
“Nobody was forced,” Jikeli said. “Nobody would go to prison if they would not turn up to the Nazi Party.”
An estimated 6 million Jewish people and millions of other people were killed by the Nazis in the Holocaust.
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s website, under a section of Frequently Asked Questions, said that “the German people were not brainwashed, nor were any of the Nazis’ collaborators.”
“Millions of ordinary people witnessed the crimes of the Holocaust — in the countryside and city squares, in stores and schools, in homes and workplaces,” the website said. “The Holocaust happened because of millions of individual choices.”
The museum’s information said “there was a great deal of pressure to conform,” and that hateful, antisemitic Nazi propaganda was spread and taught in schools.
“The government arrested political opponents or members of the press who criticized Hitler or the Nazi Party,” the FAQ said. “They were put in jails and concentration camps. Few people were brave enough to publicly speak out or to help Jews, especially when they could be arrested or killed for doing so.”
Comparisons should not be made to Nazism, experts say
Keefer, an anesthesiologist, went on to pose a comparison between people in the Nazi Party and people he perceived as being militantly in favor of strict COVID-19 restrictions.
“It’s judging people in the past by today’s standards.” Keefer continued in the same comment. “In 10 years, we may look at covid the same way. The people that hated the unvaxxed and hoped they died, the people that lost their jobs because they wouldn’t get vaccinated, the people who thought everyone should stay 6 feet apart, wear masks, and save some unknown 95 year old from dying by staying locked in their home.
“History should be taught, but remember the old saying. History is written by the victors.”
Keefer’s comments drew ire from other commenters, including Harris, on the post and online.
“The holocaust was GENOCIDE of a group of people simply based on the fact they were Jewish,” username Madalyn Stancik commented. “People having to get vaccinated for work is in no universe the same thing.”
Jikeli cautioned against comparing anything to the events of the Holocaust, and the atrocities perpetuated by the Nazis.
“There are few things that you can really compare to what happened and what Nazism was responsible for,” he said.
Keefer said, “there are similarities but I wouldn’t say it’s even close to exactly the same thing” when asked if he was trying to draw a comparison between Nazis and those who wore masks, got vaccinated and followed government recommendations during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The comparison I was trying to make is all those things that I said in the statement you read happened,” he said. “I saw people wishing ill health or no medical care for people that wouldn’t get vaccinated.”
The Holocaust Museum condemns comparing modern events to Nazism: “Comparing contemporary situations to Nazism is not only offensive to its victims, but it is also inaccurate and misrepresents both Holocaust history and the present. The Holocaust should be remembered, studied, and understood so that we can learn its lessons; it should not be exploited for opportunistic purposes.”
When asked how he would respond to a Jewish person seeing his comment regarding Nazis, Keefer said, “the Holocaust is one of the worst things in the history of the world.”
“I support Jewish people, especially those that had ancestors that had to go through that,” he said. “I am not any such person that denies reported history.”
Jikeli said that “there is a general lack of understanding about Nazism.”
“So many people think that only Hitler and a few crazy people were responsible for the atrocities in the name of Nazism,” he said. “But it’s not true. It was a mass movement and many people were implicated. That doesn’t mean that every party member did some action beyond being a party member, thereby supporting the party.”
Jikeli added that the Nazis were not shy about spreading their hateful and antisemitic beliefs. Even at the time, it was clear what the Nazi Party stood for, he said.
“They were clearly accusing Jews of all crimes, taking measures against them,” he said.
Debbie Ungar, who currently holds the at-large seat on the Zionsville Community Schools Board but is not running for re-election, mentioned Keefer’s comments in a Facebook post urging people to vote.
“Today one of these candidates actually posted that ‘All Nazis weren’t ‘bad,”” she said. “The level of educational success and quality teaching that we currently enjoy is not guaranteed and good teachers have many other opportunities.”
More education needed
Amber Maze, Holocaust and human rights associate for the Indianapolis Jewish Community Relations Council, said that though Indiana has a Holocaust education mandate, it’s not enough.
“It’s because of this lack of understanding, lack of awareness of what the Holocaust was about, what role ordinary German citizens played, what role Nazis played, that you get end up getting comments like this,” Maze said.
Another commenter, under username Brad Sullivan, wrote that on a visit to the concentration camp Dachau, they did not come away with the opinion that all Nazis weren’t bad.
“I came away with an awareness of what backward thinking, misunderstanding of science and authoritarian attitudes can ultimately bring to a society,” they wrote.
Keefer’s father served in World War II and fought on D-Day, which Keefer said impacted his perspective on history.
“He saw more than you did on your visit,” he said in a Facebook comment responding to Sullivan. “He didn’t hate all Nazis. There were certainly evil Nazis. There were also good people that had to be Nazis (or they would have been killed). Grouping all people as you are doing is a slippery slope. Have you ever heard the term Mass Formation Psychosis? Look it up and learn about it.”
“Mass formation psychosis” is a term that gained popularity when Dr. Robert Malone used it in an interview on “The Joe Rogan Experience” podcast, according to reporting from the Associated Press.
Malone used this term to cast doubt on the safety of COVID-19 vaccines and claimed that the so-called mass psychosis resulted in a “third of the population basically being hypnotized” into trusting the mainstream media and Dr. Anthony Fauci. He then went on to explain that the concept also explained the environment in Nazi Germany, the AP reported.
However, psychology experts told the Associated Press the term is not used in professional academic circles and is similar to other concepts like “mob mentality” that have been widely discredited by decades of research on group behavior. It does not appear in the American Psychological Association’s Dictionary of Psychology.