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James Heartfield balks at the fashion for accusing people of Holocaust denial

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 'concentration camps'.

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 victims.

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 Lines, p43).

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' without mercy.

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

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