Exploiting the Holocaust
This month I am not a free man, I am the Second Defendant (the First Defendant being Informinc (LM) Ltd, the company which publishes this magazine, while the Third is Helene Guldberg, co-publisher of LM).
On 28 February, after more than three years of excruciating and excruciatingly expensive delays, the libel case brought against LM by ITN is finally due to start at the High Court in London. If we were to lose, all three defendants could face the threat of bankruptcy. Libel law also extracts a heavy price in terms of press freedom.
The case centres on an article published in the February 1997 issue of LM, written by a German journalist, Thomas Deichmann, which investigated ITN's award-winning 1992 pictures of a skeletal Bosnian Muslim, filmed through barbed wire at a Bosnian Serb-run camp. The laws on contempt of court mean that, at this time, I cannot discuss the evidence that will feature in the libel trial. But I will say that, while we don't guarantee you an Al Fayed, it promises to be an interesting affair. Watch this space.
As we go to press, another libel trial is beginning, involving the right-wing historian David Irving and allegations of Holocaust denial. Coming hard on the heels of the deportation of an 86-year-old suspected Latvian war criminal, it raises once more an issue that has always concerned us at LM: society's unhealthy obsession with the Nazi Holocaust.
More than half a century after the end of the Second World War, the Holocaust has never been a bigger issue than it is today. In the 1950s and 60s, when the memories of Auschwitz and Belsen were still fresh, there was little or no discussion of the Final Solution. As a description of the Nazi destruction of the Jews, the term Holocaust had not even entered the English language. Barely 20 years ago, leading Jewish scholars were still complaining about the lack of awareness and discussion of the Holocaust in the West.
Now, by contrast, the Holocaust seems to feature everywhere from the courtroom to the classroom. In Britain it is taught in the national schools curriculum, universities offer degrees in Holocaust and genocide studies, the New Labour government is set to announce a national Holocaust Remembrance Day, and millions of pounds are being found for a Holocaust museum in Manchester and a major exhibition at the Imperial War Museum in London. In America, where the Holocaust has become the stuff of Hollywood blockbusters, things have gone further still. In the words of one Jewish American double act, cynical about the booming Holocaust industry, 'There's no business like Shoah business'.
One remarkable turnaround is the way that the demand to prosecute octogenarian Nazis has now become a big issue. There was little interest in Nazi hunting when it might have been practicable, after the war. Britain's War Crimes Act did not even become law until 1991. Yet the recent discovery of alleged war criminal Konrad Kalejs in a Midlands retirement home was greeted in some quarters with barely disguised glee. Here was another opportunity to make everybody relive the horror of the Holocaust, by having the media wade through the gory details of mass murder in Latvia, where Kalejs is said to have commanded a secret police force that helped the Nazis kill 30 000 people. The ensuing circus looked less like the genuine pursuit of justice for Jews in the Baltics than a pornographic peepshow for Nazi-obsessed Brits.
It seems that the more the Holocaust becomes history, the more it is in the news. The motives behind this fresh obsession with the Holocaust have to do with the present rather than the past. The Holocaust has been turned into a political resource, one that is being exploited in ways that raise some serious problems.
The Nazi Holocaust has acquired its elevated status as perhaps the last moral absolute in an uncertain world. Ours is a post-traditional society in which it seems ever-harder for those in authority to create a consensus about what is right and wrong on issues ranging from road building to child-rearing, from GM food to fertility treatment. How comforting, then, to be able to fall back on the Holocaust as one issue where all decent citizens can agree that there remains a clear line between Good and Evil. And how convenient to be able to draw on the moral authority of the victims of the Holocaust in order to boost the claims of your own pet cause, by claiming that 'another Holocaust' is being caused by the motor car, or by AIDS, or even by battery farming.
Investing in the Holocaust industry is largely an exercise in self-flattery for societies like Britain and the USA. Uncertain of what they stand for in the post-Cold War world, they have leapt anew at the chance to advertise their civilised virtues by contrasting them with Nazi barbarism. The recently opened Holocaust Museum in Washington highlights George Washington's assurance that the US government 'gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance'. And the New Labour government's proposal for a Holocaust Remembrance Day boasts that it will be a 'national focus for education', promoting our 'democratic and tolerant society, free of the evils of prejudice and racism'. The message is that we might not be too sure of who we are any more, but at least we know we're not Nazis.
Against this background, the recent enthusiasm for dragging elderly alleged war criminals blinking into the spotlight looks like a political rather than a legal exercise. Before the special police unit investigating alleged Nazi war criminals in Britain was wound up, it managed to establish just two cases fit for prosecution, with one conviction, out of 380 investigations. Home secretary Jack Straw may well be right to say that, with all the problems caused by the passing of time, there is insufficient evidence to bring a suspect like Konrad Kalejs to trial in the UK today. But giving such cases high-profile publicity can still serve an important purpose, allowing the authorities to parade the living dead of Nazism across the national stage in a morality play that prompts us to remind ourselves that Britain is not only Great, but Good.
The Holocaust has become perhaps the ultimate symbol of our victim culture. There is no higher moral status in society today than that of the victim. And in the hierarchy of victims, none occupies a higher status than Holocaust survivors - or even second- and third-generation survivors, as some of their children and grandchildren now style themselves. Many in search of an identity now seem to want a piece of the Holocaust for themselves, in order to endow them with the status of traumatised survivors and so boost their own claims for recognition by society. Campaigners claiming to represent other groups who suffered at the hands of the Nazis, such as gays or gypsies, have demanded their own Holocaust memorials, while those who have suffered oppression more recently are often compared with the Jewish victims of the Holocaust. As Frank Furedi argued in the last issue of LM, the Holocaust has become 'the icon of the new therapeutic history'.
Now, however, with the Nazi hunters running out of old Nazis, the search is on to find alternative faces of evil to take their place in the stocks. The trend today is to discover new Nazis and fresh Holocausts in faraway places. Regional conflicts around the world are now routinely equated with the Nazi experience, by appropriating the language of genocide. The most successful example of this so far has surely been the 'Nazification' of the Serbs in the eyes of Western society.
Nazifying the Serbs was how Tony Blair and his ministers legitimised NATO's war in Kosovo last year as a 'battle between good and evil'. The Serbs have been linked with the Nazis through accusations that they have committed genocide, first in Bosnia and then in Kosovo. A significant part of the responsibility for this Nazification campaign lies with those sections of the media that have been guilty of displaying an anti-Serb bias, which Nik Gowing, Channel 4 diplomatic editor at the time, described as 'a secret shame' of the journalism community during the Bosnian civil war.
From the start of the war against the Serbs over Kosovo, British government ministers and the media supporting them continually drew parallels with the Second World War and suggested that the Serbs were guilty of Nazi-style genocide. On 18 June, for example, the Mirror splashed a story about the Serbs burning hundreds of bodies of ethnic Albanians in the Trepca mine under the headline 'The Serb Auschwitz'. Four months later, when the International War Crimes Tribunal admitted that its investigation into the mine had turned up no evidence of any bodies, there was no sign of any banner headlines reporting that story.
LM has consistently criticised attempts to draw inappropriate parallels between the Holocaust and contemporary conflicts around the world. Our aim has been, not to make excuses for the atrocities that did happen in Bosnia and Kosovo as in all wars, but to argue that there is an unacceptably heavy price to pay for this exploitation of the Holocaust. It distorts our understanding of both the present and the past. For instance, once a people like the Serbs have been branded as the new Nazis, there is no need to understand the complexities of Balkan politics or the dangers of international intervention. By turning a political problem into a black and white moral issue, the Holocaust-mongers offer an easy cause for war based on ignorance.
Worse still, anything that suggests that the slaughter of six million Jews should be compared to today's local conflicts can only serve to belittle the unique horror of the Holocaust itself. Asked to justify NATO's bombing campaign, Labour MP Harry Cohen even declared that 'as we start a new century, we must try to halt the rise in Holocausts', as if he were talking about something as commonplace as an increase in interest rates.
There are two kinds of Holocaust revisionism today. There are a handful of morons who deny that the slaughter of six million ever happened, and who have about as much influence as the flat Earth society. These people should not be banned, but exposed to public ridicule. And then there are people in high places who, however worthy their intentions may be, are helping to rewrite the place of the Holocaust in history. By equating every civil war with the Holocaust, and by raising it in relation to every moral issue, they are in danger of rendering the barbarism of the Final Solution banal. It is high time their case was tried in the open court of public opinion.
Reproduced from LM issue 127, February 2000