Western comparisons between events in Bosnia and the Nazi extermination of the Jews have lead to a grotesque distortion of what was behind the real Holocaust, argues Daniel Nassim
From Newsweek to News at Ten the imagery of the Holocaust, the Nazi massacre of six million Jews during the Second World War, has become associated with the Yugoslav civil war. Omarska camp in Bosnia was dubbed 'Belsen 92' after the Nazi concentration camp. The accusations that the Serbs are pursuing a policy of 'ethnic cleansing' have evoked comparisons with the Nazis' aim of creating an area that was judenfrei (free of Jews).
Most mainstream commentators have accepted the analogy, and even those who didn't still used Holocaust imagery. The Economist observed that 'although it is not Belsen in Bosnia, and will probably never be, it is certainly beyond Kristallnacht' - the night when the Nazis launched a public pogrom against Jews in Germany (15 August).
The consequence of using Holocaust imagery in this way soon becomes clear. If the Serbs or anybody else are indeed committing Nazi-style atrocities in Bosnia, then the West has the supreme moral justification to intervene, whether by imposing sanctions, setting up war crimes trials or sending in troops. John Bolton, the US assistant secretary of state, used the TV images of Serbian prison camps to justify stepping up economic and political pressure on the Serbs: 'The international community took a vow when it realised what had been committed by Nazism in Europe during the Second World War: "Never again!".' (Guardian, 14 August 1992)
Such comparisons between the Serbs in 1992 and the Nazis during the Second World War turn reality upside down. The Holocaust did not come about as a result of a conflict between ethnic groups in Eastern Europe. Instead, it was the consequence of Western intervention in the East.
The Holocaust was the result of the invasion of Eastern Europe by a leading capitalist power, Germany. The vast majority of the Jews killed by the Nazis lived in the areas captured by Germany in the East. Between their seizure of power in 1933 and the end of 1940, the Nazis murdered fewer than 100 000 Jews. It was the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 that created the conditions in which the remainder of the six million would be massacred.
Despite that experience, Germany and the other Western powers are once again assuming the moral right to intervene in the East - and worse still, they are even using analogies with the Holocaust to justify their actions.
Many would object that the Holocaust was the result of some evil unique to Nazism, or even to Germany. But in reality there was little to distinguish the Nazis' underlying principles from those which informed the policies of other Western powers at the time. British and American leaders believed in national superiority, racial inferiority and empire as much as the Germans or the Italians. In this sense, the Holocaust can be seen as a product of the politics of Western imperialism.
The Nazis are notorious for their belief in the superiority of Aryans over other groups. The Holocaust is often seen, with justification, as an attempt by the Nazis to purge Europe of those they regarded as being genetically inferior. From this point of view, it was perfectly rational to kill Jews as well as gipsies and anybody else who didn't conform to the Aryan 'norm'. Those who were not killed were destined to become slaves for their Teutonic masters.
None of this was so very different from the view that prevailed in Britain before the Second World War. The British establishment certainly viewed itself as superior to its subjects in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. The assumption underpinning all of Britain's imperial diplomacy was that of the White Man's burden - civilised John Bull teaching Johnny Wog how to behave.
The theme of racial inferiority was clearly the mirror image of national superiority. If the Nazis considered Aryans to be inherently superior, it followed that Jews were naturally inferior. And if Britain was the 'mother country' then the colonial subjects were wayward children to be punished.
In the postwar years racism became associated with discrimination against black immigrants. But in classical capitalist thought, the politics of race has a far broader meaning than colour. Before the war race embodied the elitist idea of a natural hierarchy in society, where much of the population was considered part of the lower orders. In the first half of the century, this was the dominant view of the ruling classes not only in Germany, but elsewhere in Europe and in the USA.
Winston Churchill, the British prime minister during the Second World War, was a typical exponent of this form of racial thinking. Before the First World War, while Hitler was still working as a casual labourer in Vienna, Churchill was already Britain's home secretary. During this time, Churchill put forward a proposal to sterilise forcibly more than 100 000 people he regarded as 'mentally degenerate'. It was based on policies that were already implemented in several states of the USA.
Recently, Clive Ponting, who is writing a biography of Churchill, has unearthed papers which clearly illustrate Churchill's views on race. They are worth quoting to counter the view today that Churchill was a crusader against fascism and racial politics. In 1910, Churchill wrote to Herbert Asquith, the prime minister, calling for urgent government action to deal with the mental degenerates:
'The unnatural and increasingly rapid growth of the feeble-minded and insane classes, coupled as it is with a steady restriction among all the thrifty, energetic and superior stocks constitutes a national and race danger which it is impossible to exaggerate. I feel that the source from which the stream of madness is fed should be cut off and sealed up before another year has passed.'
(Quoted in the Guardian, 20 June 1992).
Apart from forced sterilisation, Churchill advocated that some 'mental degenerates' be detained in camps: 'As for tramps and wastrels, there ought to be proper labour colonies where they could be sent for considerable periods and made to realise their duty to the state.' Although Churchill's proposals were only accepted in a watered down form, his assumptions were commonplace for his time.
In discussion of the Holocaust, it is particularly important to note that anti-Semitism was a key component of racial politics right across the West. Churchill himself was an infamous Jew-baiter. After the First World War, he wrote to the prime minister, Lloyd George, about the problem of appointing three Jews as cabinet ministers. 'There is a point about Jews which occurs to me', said Churchill, 'you must not have too many of them'.
Similarly anti-Semitic views were shared by British and American statesmen. At the 1943 Casablanca conference, for example, American president Roosevelt told the French of his plans to 'eliminate the specific and understandable complaints which the Germans bore towards the Jews...the number of Jews engaged in the practice of the professions should be definitely limited'. Churchill thought there should not be too many Jews, Roosevelt wanted to limit their numbers. It is not hard to see how close such ideas about keeping the lower races in their place come to the racial thinking behind the Nazi Holocaust.
Alongside national superiority and racial inferiority, the third element common to the politics of the Western powers was empire. For the Nazis, building an empire primarily meant expanding eastward into Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. This was the meaning of Hitler's search for 'Lebensraum' (living space) to the east.
Britain, unlike Germany, already had a substantial empire in place before the war. In those days 'imperialist' was a label the right wore with pride rather than a term of abuse. Britain revelled in its ability to subjugate other peoples.
Every empire was built through the savage repression of the colonised. Britain, France and Belgium cut bloody swathes through Africa and Asia. What was different about Germany's empire-building was that it was done in Europe, and it was carried out with much more advanced military technology than that employed by the Victorians in India or South Africa. The peculiar horrors of the Holocaust were largely the result of these factors.
As a relatively late developing capitalist power, Germany emerged into a world that had already been carved up by the older imperialists such as Britain and France. The few overseas possessions Germany did collect were taken away after the end of the First World War. This left Germany no option but to expand to the east.
But Germany's expansion into Eastern Europe in the mid-twentieth century was far more difficult than Britain's earlier moves across Africa or Asia. Eastern Europe consisted of societies that were relatively advanced compared to the colonies. The only way that Germany could subjugate them was by the massive use of force, applied via a sophisticated killing machine. That is why 26m Soviet citizens were killed in the war between Nazi Germany and the USSR.
The Jews, in particular, were singled out for extermination. As Hitler's attack on the Soviet Union faltered, the Jews bore the brunt of the Nazis' wrath. Jews did not suffer the most in terms of absolute numbers killed. But more than any other people they were selected for a systematic policy of extermination - the Nazi production line of death.
The Holocaust was the politics of race and empire put into practice in the bloodiest way possible by an advanced industrial power. There have been many other acts of mass killing by Western imperialists since 1945; the American carpet-bombing of Indo-China, the French war against Algeria, Britain's numerous colonial wars, the killing of up to a quarter of a million Iraqis in the Gulf War last year. What distinguished the Holocaust was the degree of intensity and industriousness with which the extermination was carried out. But the political assumptions which legitimised such slaughter were not really peculiar to Germany.
Back to the future?
In a muted form, many of those assumptions are coming back towards the surface of Western politics today. The language is different, usually less crude, but the message is much the same. For example, the case for Western intervention in what was Yugoslavia has been based on the assumption that the Germans, Americans, French and British are in some way morally superior to the peoples of a place like Bosnia, and know what's best for them.
At the same time, the white inhabitants of Eastern Europe are being talked about in terms which, until recently, were reserved for people from the third world. The way in which Western commentators now discuss the problems of 'ethnic tribes' in Yugoslavia, or of 'Serb barbarians', demonstrates a drift back towards the traditional racial themes of elite politics. This represents an important step in the rehabilitation of overtly racial thinking.
The right internationally has cynically used the discussion of a Bosnian 'holocaust' to try to rehabilitate some of its old ideas which were discredited by the Nazi experience. Comparing pictures of unexceptional prison camps to images of the Holocaust has the effect both of playing down the horrors of the imperial past, and of making the point that the West today is morally superior to the savage peoples of the East. Of course, these arguments are now presented as a case for humanitarian action rather than genocide. But that does not alter the dangerous implications of assuming that the Western nations are a superior force for right.
It is a grotesque irony that the Holocaust, the event which discredited Western imperialism more than any other, should now be manipulated to justify Western intervention in the East once more. The real lesson of the Holocaust is that the politics of race and empire can only lead to disaster, again and again.
Auschwitz, Poland: most of the six million were killed in German occupied Eastern Europe
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 48, October 1992