the whole story:
Other LM articles
James Heartfield balks at the fashion for accusing people of Holocaust
Hiding behind the holocaust
Say anything that falls out of the mainstream of acceptable opinion
these days, and it seems you risk being vilified as a neo-Nazi
Holocaust-denier. Question the government's safe sex campaign
and you can be accused of contributing to the 'Aids Holocaust'.
Question the persecution of Hutu refugees in Rwanda and Zaire
and you will be charged with denying the Rwandan genocide. Question
the Western media's reporting of the Bosnian war and you will
be accused of revising and sanitising the history of the Serb-run
The accusation of 'Holocaust denial' is the trump card in any
dispute. Pinning the charge of Holocaust denial on an opponent
is like catching them with indecent photographs of children -
it is the end of all doubts as to the rights and wrongs of the
case. The Holocaust, the Nazi extermination of six million Jews,
is an event that no good or sane person would want to deny. To
underscore the importance attached to the Holocaust, Tony Blair
has said that he will make Holocaust denial an offence (See Jenny
Bristow, 'Who's afraid of Holocaust denial', LM, February 1997).
The problem with making something into a moral touchstone is that
it can be rapidly debased. Once the word 'Holocaust' became a
generic term for evil, instead of the description of a singular
event, it was bound to be abused. The inflationary accumulation
of twentieth-century 'Holocausts' is an indication of how the
real meaning of Hitler's 'Final Solution' is being debased.
It is an indication of the limited moral resources of the time
that people feel the need to plunder such a terrible event to
lend gravitas to their own petty concerns. Like the teenager who
denounces his parents as fascists because they want him to clear
up his bedroom, today's determination to remember the Holocaust
often serves only to trivialise the killing of six million Jews.
In the nineties, radical minded journalists have discovered ever
newer Holocausts in far-off places. In Iraq, they imagined that
they had found Hitler's reincarnation in Saddam Hussein. In Bosnia,
one side in the civil war was volunteered for the role of genocidal
killers - the Serbs. In Rwanda, where conflict had broken out
between RPF guerillas based in Uganda and the government - leading
to a barbaric slaughter - journalists rushed to recast the conflict
as a clash between genocidal 'Hutu extremists' and their Tutsi
Each of these newly minted 'Holocausts' in the media serves to
mystify real events. These conflicts are horrific enough in their
own right - but they are in no way comparable to the Nazi extermination.
The Holocaust was not a civil war in an underdeveloped country.
It was a systematic slaughter of six million Jews by the one of
the most advanced, and supposedly civilised Western powers. It
was the dreadful culmination of the racial policies that were
prevalent in the West and an indictment of the assumption of racial
supremacy. To equate the holocaust with the bloody local wars
that have broken out in the Balkans, Africa and the Middle East
is to misunderstand and trivialise it.
And just as the discovery of new Holocausts trivialises the meaning
of Hitler's Final Solution, so too does it misunderstand these
newer conflicts. The desire to rediscover the Holocaust serves
to impose a ready-made schema of good and evil onto events that
resist such a black-and-white interpretation. Ironically, the
reinterpretation of these conflicts as Holocausts serves to make
a case for the military intervention of today's great powers against
relatively powerless adversaries.
In the reporting of Bosnia, complex events are re-played as if
they were a Hollywood war film. The Muslims are 'today's Jews'
explains John Keane in his book Reflections on Violence (1996).
The policy of the Serbs is a 'Muslimfrei' state according to Ed
Vulliamy, echoing the Nazi policy of a 'Judenfrei' (Jew-free)
state. But clearly that was not and is not the case. The Serbian
population living in Bosnia were opposed to the country's secession
from the Yugoslav federation. The civil war that followed the
Muslim president's declaration of independence was without doubt
a vicious conflict where many atrocities were committed on all
sides. But it was not a Holocaust.
Portraying the Bosnian war as if it were a Holocaust has an obvious
consequence: it becomes imperative to take sides with the Muslims
against the Serbs. Any atrocities committed against the Serbs,
as in Krajina, can be covered up because they do not fit the frame.
For some, it seems that any manipulation of the facts is justifiable
in pursuit of the 'Greater Truth' that Hitler has been reincarnated
yet again, this time as Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic.
By the same token, anyone that challenges the received wisdom
about the civil war, especially anyone who exposes the war propaganda
that passes for the news, must be guilty of 'revising' the Holocaust.
So journalist Ed Vulliamy equates LM with Holocaust revisionist
and far-right historian David Irving, because the magazine questioned
the famous ITN pictures of Bosnian Muslims behind barbed wire
at Trnopolje camp. The charge of 'Holocaust revisionism' serves
to prevent any debate. Anybody who questions the false equation
of the events in Bosnia with the Holocaust is deemed as guilty
as the apologists for the Nazis.
The myth of the Bosnian Holocaust has provided the moral justification
for Western military intervention. In fact behind these mystifications,
it is Western intervention itself that has stoked the conflict
in Bosnia by forcing the partition of Yugoslavia. As Dave Chandler
shows elsewhere in this magazine, the consensus that the Serbs
are Nazis has served to justify the establishment of a Western
dictatorship over the whole of Bosnia (see Reading Between the
Sadly, the charge of 'Holocaust revisionism' is one that springs
readily to the lips of loudmouths everywhere these days when they
are confronted with the truth. In 1995-96, LM exposed the one-sided
interpretation of the Rwandan civil war imposed by the United
Nations Tribunal on Genocide in Rwanda. The consensus that Hutu
extremists had been engaged in a systematic campaign of ethnic
genocide in Rwanda in 1994 had obscured the real causes and consequences
of the conflict. LM argued that this was not a conflict that could
be neatly fitted into boxes marked good and evil, and trying to
do so could only make matters worse.
The source of the conflict did not lay in tribal animosities,
as the pundits claimed. Rather a local dispute was turned into
a bloody slaughter by the West's own willingness to provoke the
conflict between the mainly-Tutsi RPF, who were armed and trained
by the USA, and the old Hutu-run Rwandan government which Belgium
and France continued to support. The prejudice that this was a
'genocide' only increased the authority of the West to intervene
more, further exacerbating the conflict - and also increased the
RPF government's moral authority to hunt down the 'Hutu extremists'
Not surprisingly, the apologists of the RPF regime were outraged.
Human rights campaigners and even the Simon Wiesenthal Centre
joined with the Rwandan Embassy in denouncing LM for 'denying'
the Rwandan genocide. All of the bluster about Holocaust denial
only served to hinder the discovery of the truth, by placing the
events in Rwanda - and especially the role of the West - beyond
real debate. (For the full story, see 'Rwanda: the great genocide
debate', LM, March 1996.)
Since then, LM's warnings about the likely outcome in Rwanda have
been fully justified. Government troops are reported to have committed
new atrocities against Hutus in Rwanda; the accused in the war
crimes trials have been denied access to defence lawyers and subjected
to summary justice; and more than 200 000 refugees are still hiding
in Zaire, having fled Rwanda in fear of their lives. But for the
self-appointed Holocaust commemorative committee the real suffering
of these people is of little account. Indeed these wretched refugees
are not even protected from the accusation that they are 'Hutu
extremists', biding their time for when they can return to the
killing fields. That is no way to remember the Holocaust.
Above: LM, March 1993
Above right: LM, March 1996
This article first appeared in LM 98