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On Mistakes, Inadvertence, and Impact

The biggest problem with the A’s Ryan Christenson making a Nazi salute isn’t the salute itself. It’s what he said afterwards.

Oakland Athletics Summer Workouts Photo by Michael Zagaris/Oakland Athletics/Getty Images

On Thursday night, Oakland Athletics coach Ryan Christenson was caught on camera making a Hitler salute. Christenson said he was trying to participate in the team’s post-victory “elbow bump” celebration ritual, and indeed, on the video, you can see closer Liam Hendriks correct Christenson. And then, Christenson pauses and does it again.

Christenson insists it was unintentional, and his teammates have backed him up.

“Obviously I wasn’t doing that intentionally,” Christenson told [reporter Susan] Slusser. “I just blacked out, my mind wasn’t there and I spaced out. I’m sure it looks terrible. I did it but it was not intentional. I don’t know what more to say.”

He’s also given this explanation for doing the Hitler salute a second time.

Christenson then briefly repeated the gesture as he moved toward the dugout.

“That was me turning and saying, ‘Oh yeah, that’s what I did, isn’t it?’” Christenson told The Chronicle. “I turned and said, ‘I see what you mean, oh no, that’s like Heil Hitler.’ I’m cringing inside picturing myself like that. Anyone should know better. It’s like standing there with my middle finger up.

No, Ryan, it’s actually not.

When Adolf Hitler was appointed chancellor of Germany in 1933, one of his first acts was to replace conventional greetings with one of his own choosing. The goal was simple: he wanted an act which would identify Germans with the state, whilst simultaneously excluding those he deemed undesirable. As with most of Hitler’s work, the result was derivative - he adopted the mythical Roman salute being used by his ally Benito Mussolini, and added the words “Heil Hitler” as a requirement. Jews, Roma, LGBTQ people, and people of color were prohibited from using what became known as the “Hitler Salute”, in an ominous sign of the genocide of the following decade. The salute was a sign of unwavering loyalty to the state and racial purity.

You probably know that Hitler killed over six million Jews in the Holocaust. Two-thirds of European Jews died in Hitler’s death camps. Over two-thirds of all Jews in Poland, Lithuania, Czechoslovakia, the Netherlands, Latvia, and Germany were killed. Over a third of all Russian Jews were killed. During one particularly brutal stretch, almost two million Jews were killed in three months. In short, by some estimates, the Holocaust killed almost half of all Jews in the world; the Jewish population didn’t reach pre-Holocaust levels until 2015, seventy years after the end of World War II.

Jews were the first targets of Hitler’s murderous reign, but by no means the last. In 1933, Hitler criminalized being LGBTQ, and imprisoned over a hundred thousand gay Germans. Several thousand gay men who refused to recant being gay were shipped to concentration camps for extermination, thousands of others were enslaved and worked to death. Lesbians were forced into conversion therapy, which consisted of being repeatedly raped by Nazis until they became pregnant.

After the Nuremberg laws were passed in 1935, stripping Jews of all rights and property, the dictator turned his attention to the 24,000 Black Germans living under Nazi rule. All Black people in Nazi Germany were designated “stateless Negroes” and barred from educational institutions or learning reading and writing. By 1937, every biracial person in Germany had been forcibly sterilized and enslaved without food in labor camps as “Rhineland bastards.” Eventually, they, too, ended up in concentration camps. People with two Black or Brown parents were slated for execution in the gas chambers along with Jews; between 25,000 and 50,000 Black people were gassed . The death toll among European Black people was lower than other groups only because of the smaller Black population in Europe and because the Nazis used so many Black and biracial people as the subjects of medical experimentation by “doctors” like the infamous Joseph Mengele. As a percentage of total population, Black Europeans suffered the greatest losses of all.

After Jews and Black people, Roma were next. In 1939, the Nazis passed edicts calling for the incarceration and deportation of all Roma as “racially inferior”. Shortly thereafter, the Nazis began exterminating Europe’s Roma en masse. Over 250,000 Roma were killed in Hitler’s gas chambers, and more than 19,000 Roma were gassed in Auschwitz alone. Thousands of Roma were intentionally exposed to smallpox and other diseases simply to see how quickly they would die, before the Nazis would kill the survivors and begin the “experiment” all over again.

Yes, this is a lot, but it’s important. Heiling Hitler isn’t “like standing there with my middle finger up[,]” as Christenson put it. It’s not like that at all. The Hitler Salute is the symbol for mass extermination of Jews and Roma, of forced enslavement of Black and Brown people, of forced sterilization and medical experimentation, of mass rape, of working people until they die because they do not fit within a conception of racial or sexual purity.

Did Christenson know the import of what he was doing? Only he knows. But this is where things become personal for me. I’m a queer Jewish woman. In Hitler’s Germany, I would be raped repeatedly and then sent to the gas chambers. My partner is a queer Black woman. In Hitler’s Germany, she would be raped repeatedly, then forcibly sterilized, and then used for medical experiments to see how long she could feel pain until she dies or worked to death. The problem is that there are still people today who think these are things that should happen.

So in the era of Black Lives Matter, this matters. The United States used the same Roman salute as Nazi Germany - until 1942. Called the “Bellamy Salute,” it accompanied the pledge of allegiance since 1892. After Hitler’s Germany began using pictures of the Bellamy Salute as propaganda to spread the idea that Americans supported the Nazis, the Roosevelt administration banned it. Almost immediately, white supremacist and neo-confederate groups began using it - and have done so continuously until this day.

The neo-Nazis who marched in Charlottesville, Virginia performed the Hitler salute en masse. Those people think Hitler’s Germany was a good thing - and their numbers are growing. Entire police departments are proudly photographed giving the Hitler salute. Black Americans see Hitler salutes directed at them in their everyday lives - like here and here and here. The Nazi salute is used to terrorize immigrants. What we are witnessing is the greatest increase in racist and anti-semitic hate crimes in decades.

Maybe Christenson’s intent was subjectively benign. But the message he sent to the world, intentionally or otherwise, was that he supports mass death, mass rape, mass slavery. Hitler’s Germany was defeated, but what he represented never ended - nor did he start it. There is an unbroken, continuous line from the Spanish Inquisition through colonization and slavery through genocide of Indigenous people through the antebellum American south, the Confederacy, segregation and Jim Crow - all led directly to Hitler’s Germany, and continued after his death. America’s white supremacist movement continues, alive and well, to this day.

And that’s why an apology isn’t enough. All of us are responsible not much for the intent behind our actions but for their impact as well. The Nazi salute is not merely offensive or insulting, because it is not analogous to being called a name. Christenson compared a sign associated with the nadir of human suffering and the height of human evil with flipping someone the proverbial bird. One is simply the result of being cut off in traffic. The other is a sign of believing that some human beings are inferior simply because of who they are. The Nazi salute is saying, in no uncertain terms, that unless you are Aryan you deserve to die. The Nazi salute means that you have no worth - that you are a thing to be experimented on, or used, and then thrown away. The Nazi salute says that you are not human.

What Ryan Christenson showed on Thursday, whether he meant to or not, was that he agrees. But what he said afterwards shows that he had no idea of why that’s a problem. And it takes more than an apology written by a team’s public relations department to set that right.

Sheryl Ring is a litigation attorney in the Chicago suburbs. You can reach her on twitter at @Ring_Sheryl. The opinions expressed here are solely the author’s. This post is intended for informational purposes only and is not intended as legal advice.