White House spokesman Sean Spicer triggered an uproar on social media on Tuesday by saying Adolf Hitler did not use chemical weapons, which critics said overlooked the fact that millions of Jews were killed in Nazi gas chambers.
Spicer made the comments at a daily news briefing, during a discussion about the April 4 chemical weapons attack in Syria that killed 87 people. Washington has blamed the attack on the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
“You had someone as despicable as Hitler who didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons,” Spicer said when asked about Russia’s alliance with the Syrian government.
The Nazis murdered six million Jews during World War Two. Many were killed in gas chambers in European concentration camps.
When a reporter asked Spicer if he wanted to clarify his comments, he said: “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’s comments, made during the Jewish holiday of Passover, sparked outrage on social media and from some Holocaust memorial groups who accused him of minimising Hitler’s crimes.
“Sean Spicer now lacks the integrity to serve as White House press secretary, and President Trump must fire him at once,” said Steven Goldstein, executive director of the Anne Frank Centre for Mutual Respect.
Spicer later emailed a statement to reporters who were asking for more explanation.
“In no way was I trying to lessen the horrendous nature of the Holocaust. I was trying to draw a distinction of the tactic of using airplanes to drop chemical weapons on population centres. Any attack on innocent people is reprehensible and inexcusable,” Spicer said.
The US Holocaust Museum did not mention Spicer’s comments directly, but sent out a tweet shortly after the briefing that showed graphic footage of dead bodies US forces found while liberating the Buchenwald concentration camp.
The video was retweeted more than a thousand times, with many Twitter users referencing Spicer’s comments.
It was not the first time the White House has had to answer questions about the Holocaust. Critics in January noted the administration’s statement marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which omitted any mention of Jewish victims.
At the time, Spicer defended that statement by saying it had been written in part by a Jewish staff member whose family members had survived the Holocaust.