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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 school curriculum.

Reference point

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 1992).

Political realities

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).

Eichmann trial

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 Jerusalem, p353).

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.

Won't wash

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 past.

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.

70s take-off

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

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