Playing the Holocaust card
Daniel Nassim on the cynical ways in which different Western powers
are now manipulating the history of the Nazi Holocaust for their own ends
Britain is a country obsessed with the Second World War. It seems as if
almost every week there is another anniversary celebrated, a rerun of yet
another 'Boys Own' type war film, or a lurid documentary on German
atrocities. Much contemporary political debate is framed in the language
of the Second World War. For instance, Britain never 'appeases dictators':
whether it's Adolf Hitler, Saddam Hussein or Jacques Delors. And much of
the hysterical commentary on Bosnia of late has either implicitly or explicitly
likened Serbia to Nazi Germany.
At the centre of these discussions of the war is the debate on the Holocaust.
Even before the row about the Sunday Times publishing David Irving's
translation of the Goebbels diaries, the 'Final Solution' was a frequent
subject of discussion in the British media. The Holocaust has been framed
as the defining point which retrospectively justifies Britain's
role in the Second World War. The Nazi experience in general and the Holocaust
in particular are being made compulsory history subjects on the national
A similar trend is apparent in America. If anything, the USA is even more
preoccupied with the history of the Holocaust than Britain. It is also a
reference point for contemporary political discussion. Bill Clinton, for
example, the Democratic candidate in the US presidential elections, used
the Holocaust to urge president Bush to intervene against Serbia: 'If the
horrors of the Holocaust taught us anything, it is the high cost of remaining
silent and paralysed in the face of genocide.' (Independent, 6 August
1992). Bush replied in similar language about the lessons of the Holocaust.
The debate in Germany, meanwhile, is entirely different. Where Britain and
America want to play up the Holocaust, the Germans try to play it down.
Recently, for example, the German foreign office withdrew the funding
it had promised for a memorial to the philosopher Walter Benjamin, one of
the most famous Jewish victims of the Nazis. Earlier this year, a German
jury assigned to nominate a German film for an Oscar refused to put
forward the internationally acclaimed Europa, Europa, a film
about a Jewish boy who escaped the Holocaust by pretending to be a loyal
Nazi. One of the jurists was quoted by Der Spiegel as saying that
'we can't put that kind of junk before the Academy' (Time, 3 February
There are obvious explanations for this difference in perceptions; unfortunately,
they are wrong. It is not the case that the Holocaust is at the centre of
debate in Britain simply because the event was so horrific. Nor does
the mass of the German public feel guilty about the massacre of six million
Jews during the Second World War.
The discussions of the Holocaust in both Germany and Britain are reflections
of modern political realities. For the British establishment, the discussion
of the Holocaust is a way of reminding Europe that, despite its decline,
Britain is still morally superior to a resurgent Germany, and so better
qualified to take a lead in international affairs.
For the German establishment the problem is different. It needs to 'master
its past' if the unified German state is to have some legitimacy. At
present German history is still tainted by the experience of fascism and
defeat in the First and Second World Wars. By playing down the unsavoury
aspects of Germany's past, its rulers hope to win a consensus of popular
support in the present.
When and why
Let's look in more detail at the debate in Britain and America, first
of all. The striking thing here is how recently the Holocaust has become
a matter of concern. David Cesarani, a leading Anglo-Jewish authority on
the Holocaust, is perplexed by this discovery:
'It may be a paradox which defies easy understanding, but in the 1990s
awareness of the Holocaust is deeper and more pervasive than was the case
immediately after it ended. The notion that the free world reeled before
the revelations of what had occurred under the Nazis is myth. "The
Holocaust" was not an issue: in fact, it did not even exist as a historical
or cultural concept.' (Justice Delayed, Heinemann 1992, p162-3)
Cesarani notes that 'during the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s barely
more than a dozen books were published in English which tackled the fate
of the Jews' (p177). It is not really surprising that the British and Americans
were reluctant to remind the world of the fate of the Jews in the postwar
years, since both countries were implicated in the massacre in various ways.
Both Britain and the USA, for instance, imposed immigration controls which
stopped Jews from escaping Nazi Germany before the war. During the war neither
Britain nor America lifted a finger to save the Jews. Indeed anti-Semitism
was rife among the Allies. President Roosevelt of America and prime minister
Winston Churchill of Britain were each noted for anti-Semitic tirades which
echoed Hitler's warnings on the dangers of 'Judeo-Bolshevism'. Churchill,
in particular, was an ardent believer in British racial purity and an admirer
of Mussolini and Franco. Back in 1920 he had warned of Leon Trotsky's, 'schemes
of a world-wide communistic state under Jewish domination' (N Weinstock,
Zionism: False Messiah, p96).
Most informed commentators concede that interest in the Holocaust did not
really begin until the trial, in Jerusalem in 1961, of Adolf Eichmann, a
Nazi leader who had been kidnapped by the Israelis. But even this overstates
the response. Hannah Arendt, who wrote the definitive study of the
Eichmann trial, published in 1963, noted in the epilogue to a later edition
'the surprisingly small amount of post-trial literature' (Eichmann in
The US Library of Congress introduced a separate classification for
the term Holocaust only in 1968
--23 years after the killing had ended (see G Korman, 'The Holocaust in
American Historical Writing', Societas II (3), Summer 1972). Even
then, however, the Holocaust was only a matter of discussion among a relatively
small number of academics. It was not until the late 1970s that the idea
of the Holocaust was popularised.
A landmark was the American television mini-series Holocaust - a
kind of 'Holocaust goes to Hollywood', broadcast in the USA in 1978, in
Germany in 1979 and in many other countries. In the USA, the series was
watched by 120m people - half the population - the second largest audience
ever for entertainment programming (after Roots). The screening of
the series was accompanied by a huge amount of publicity and a major public
education programme in schools, colleges and churches. Since then the interest
in the Holocaust has steadily intensified.
So why has the Holocaust become a subject of such public concern so recently?
Some would try to put it down to the influence of the pro-Israeli 'Jewish
lobby' in the USA. It might be possible to link the initial interest in
the term Holocaust in the sixties with the consolidation of US support for
Israel after the 1967 Six Day War. But that explanation will not wash today,
when Anglo-American concern about the Holocaust seems to be increasing at
a time when the West's relations with Israel are cooling.
Yet the emergence of the 'Holocaust' as a concept and as a preoccupation
of the USA and Britain over the past 20 years does not really 'defy easy
understanding'. It is primarily the result of the re-emergence of Germany
as an economic power in the world since the seventies, at a time when the
USA and Britain have endured a relative decline. In these circumstances,
Washington and Whitehall are keen to use every opportunity to demonstrate
what they regard as their inherent superiority over the Germans. The Holocaust
card is the ace in their hand.
The cynical manipulation of the Holocaust to demonstrate Britain's moral
superiority over modern Germany seems set to go on as the rivalries among
the Western powers intensify. One British journalist captured the tone in
a forthright defence of the recent erection of a statue to Arthur 'Bomber'
Harris in London. He attacked those Germans who equate Harris' murderous
firebombing of Dresden, Cologne and Hamburg with the massacre of the
Jews for their 'Moral Equivalism', and complained of 'German schoolchildren
being taken around Belsen wearing Sony Walkmans and playing with frisbees,
oblivious of the great moral lesson being taught there.' (A Roberts, 'Why
this man's statue should be erected all over Germany', Evening Standard,
29 April 1992).
Once the Holocaust debate is cast in the light of current international
developments, it also becomes clear that Germany's very different attitude
to the issue is not shaped by guilt. It reflects the German state's
need to renew its authority and reputation at home and abroad.
Mainstream German historians are not yet in a position where they can deny
the Holocaust completely. The trend is much more towards relativising
the Final Solution, by relating it to other crimes - especially those carried
out by the Stalinists in the Soviet Union. This trend was already clear
in 1986 in what became known as the 'Historians' Quarrel' in Germany.
Back then, Ernst Nolte, a right-wing German historian, caused uproar by
arguing that the Nazi experience, and the Holocaust in particular, was simply
a reaction to the Russian Revolution and communism. At the time, liberal
academics rallied to defend the postwar consensus and the notion of 'collective
guilt' against Nolte and his followers. Today, however, the climate in the
new Germany is very different.
As Rob Knight notes in this issue of Living Marxism, the reunification
of Germany has presented the authorities with both new problems and fresh
opportunities. The discussion of German history and the Holocaust is one
example of this two-sided process. The end of the Cold War era presents
the political elite with the problem of developing a new national identity
for Germany. But it also provides an opening to try to rehabilitate German
nationalism, by using the Stalinist experience to justify Germany's own
The trend now is for more mainstream German commentators to shift the blame
for the war, and therefore the Holocaust, on to the Soviet Union and 'Eastern'
communism. If necessary, the blame can also be attached to others from the
East. This scapegoating reached an extreme level during the media's summer
offensive against the Serbs in Bosnia. One conservative German magazine
implied that, since the Serbs had sparked off the First World War by assassinating
Austrian Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo, and since the punitive measures
imposed on Germany at the end of that conflict had made the next war
inevitable, Serbia could be blamed for starting the Second World War! In
the new climate of opinion, responsibility for the Holocaust can effectively
be transferred from Berlin to Belgrade.
We can now see how the dominant views of the war in Britain, Germany and
the USA have diverged sharply since the seventies. From the forties to the
sixties, there was no concept of 'Holocaust' and little interest in the
fate of the Jews. With the emergence of Germany as a world power, a difference
of opinion became apparent. The concept of the Holocaust has been developed
in the USA and Britain, while Germany heads towards a more thorough-going
relativisation of the Final Solution.
This general pattern is complicated by the re-emergence of right-wing politics
in a more open form than at any time since the war. The right and its ideas
were discredited by the experience of fascism. Throughout the Cold War,
the liberal agenda dominated most political debate. With the collapse of
the Soviet bloc and the old order, the right is making a comeback.
Uses and abuses
Yet for many on the right, the Holocaust remains a problem. The experience
is still too closely associated with nationalist and racial politics. Right-wing
British politicians like Margaret Thatcher and historians such as Norman
Stone are caught in a bind. On the one hand, they want to relativise the
Holocaust almost as much as their German counterparts. So Thatcher can argue
that Serbia's 'ethnic cleansing' policy 'combines the barbarities of Hitler's
and Stalin's policies towards other nations' (Guardian, 7 August
1992). On the other hand, they are keen to use the history of the war to
promote anti-German chauvinism. The result is often an incoherence and uncertainty
in conservative views of the past.
What is certain is that neither side in the Holocaust debate
--German or Anglo-American - is any better than the other. Both are attempting
to use a nationalist crime from the past to justify their own nationalist
actions today. The use and abuse of the Holocaust is a good example of what
their New World Order means.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 47, September 1992