By now, the story has been widely reported. A group of Princeton High School students in the fabled New Jersey university town shared a photo on Snapchat as they played beer pong. Silly high school students up to their usual pranks, right? Not by a long shot. This particular version of the popular drinking game was called “Jews vs. Nazis,” and these kids apparently are not alone in playing it. There are several versions touted on the Web and on social media, including “Holocaust Pong” and “Alcoholocaust.”
The basic game of beer pong is just about tossing table tennis balls into cups and drinking the beer inside them: silly and sophomoric, but nothing worse. As the “rules” posted on the Web for this one make clear, however, it’s rather more special: “Nazis vs. Jews is similar to most pong games except with special World War 2 themes translated into drinking game rules to enhance the fun.”
Special themes indeed. Some of the “special rules” suggested, in fact, include:
“NAZIS: Auschwitz: At any point during the game, they can send a player on the Jew team to Auschwitz (concentration camp), which means they cannot play until both members of the Jew team sink a ball. …
“JEWS: Anne Frank: Anytime throughout the game, hide a cup wherever you want in the room, as long as it remains makeable.”
The students from Princeton High were shown on social media pouring beer into cups arranged on a ping-pong table in the form of a Star of David and a swastika.
In doing so, no doubt unwittingly, they were inserting themselves into a broader debate about alleged parallels between the political situation in the United States today and Germany in the 1920s and early 1930s, the period when Hitler was rising to power.
Because I published a book, Hitlerland, looking at that period from the perspective of Americans who lived in Germany during the Nazi takeover, I’m often asked what similarities I see.
My response: Think long and hard before you make simplistic analogies. No, Donald Trump is not the same as Adolf Hitler. Trump may be an irresponsible demagogue, but to equate him or any other current political candidate with Hitler is to trivialize the horrors that the German tyrant unleashed on the world, especially the Holocaust. And trivialization is an evil in itself.
What, then, to make of the truly grotesque trivialization in a game like Holocaust Pong.
The most insidious aspect of this seemingly mindless juvenile display is that games matter. They help to form attitudes and opinions at a critical moment when kids are growing up. They deliver an overt or implicit message about what constitutes acceptable or even praiseworthy behavior. When such games are played, alarm bells really should go off.
In its way, the Princeton game was reminiscent of competitions described by Edgar Ansel Mowrer, the intrepid Chicago Daily News correspondent in Berlin during the 1920s and early 1930s. He vividly wrote about them in his book Germany Puts the Clock Back.
Mowrer told the story of a 13-year-old American boy, whom he identified only as Arthur. The boy was attending a Jesuit school in Berlin right before Hitler came to power in 1933. Despite efforts by the Jesuits to stop the politicization of their classrooms, the boys’ rough games reflected the larger battles swirling around them.
One of the most popular games, Arthur explained, was “chariot bumping.” Pretending to ride chariots like those in the 1925 silent movie Ben-Hur, the boys crashed into each other. At first, the opposing forces were labeled “Romans” and “Jews.” Then the labels switched to “Centrists” and “Nazis” and the battles became nastier, with boys clearly seeking to hurt their opponents.
The beer pong game in Princeton did not involve any physical violence, but the concept is not all that different.
The notion that political opponents must be battled, even silenced, is hardly new on American college campuses. And, yes, once again, this is particularly true when Jews are involved. At San Francisco State University recently, pro-Palestinian protesters did their best to shout down and intimidate Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat. Chanting “intifada,” they had no interest in debating his views; they simply wanted to deny Barkat the chance to address the students.
In my book The Nazi Hunters, which will be published next month, I write about the small group of men and women who refused to allow the horrendous deeds of Nazi war criminals to be forgotten. They were convinced that at least some of the perpetrators had to be brought to justice—or, at a minimum, that their crimes had to be documented for the entire world to see. More than 70 years after the end of World War II, that is why some of those trials are still going on today. Without such constant reminders, the Nazi hunters have argued, current and future generations will learn nothing from the past.
But when Auschwitz and Anne Frank are parodied as part of a drinking game, it is hard to know what is worse: forgetting such crimes or trivializing them. The effect of both is very similar. We can afford neither.