Cleansing the Holocaust
Saddam Hussein is not just a dictator, he's 'the new Hitler'; Bosnia is not just suffering a civil war, but 'another Holocaust'. From the Gulf to the Balkans, images of the Second World War seem to dominate discussion of international affairs today. What lies behind this obsession with discovering the past in the present?
Frank Füredi, author of Mythical Past, Elusive Future, sees the ideologues of capitalism pursuing a secret agenda: to free themselves from the burden of past horrors by rewriting history, and so lend moral legitimacy to the West's New World Order
The stakes are high in the current climate of historical revisionism. Suddenly it seems that everything which happened in the past is being rewritten.
This surge of interest in the past is sometimes explained as a consequence of the discovery of some secret Stasi files in a German cellar, or the unearthing of the Goebbels diaries in the KGB archives. In reality, the rewriting of history is driven by the demand for an unproblematic vision of the world. To achieve that, it is necessary for the powers that be to sanitise every past experience which compromises capitalist politics.
Most of the great tragedies of this century - two world wars, colonial oppression, the Great Depression, fascism, the Holocaust - are too closely linked to capitalism for comfort. A careful inspection of any of these events exposes the failure of a system which has proved dependent upon mass destruction for its survival. That is why there is now a campaign either to blame these developments on some other party, or at least to minimise the gravity of the century's crises.
The rewriting of history takes different forms. In some cases it means literally substituting fiction for facts. For example, in some quarters it is now fashionable to absolve the Western powers, particularly Germany, from responsibility for initiating the two world wars. Some have even suggested that, since the First World War was sparked off by events in Sarajevo, and since that war led to the 1939-45 conflict, the Serbs should shoulder the blame for unleashing the mass slaughter. Cartoons in serious German newspapers now attempt to construct this myth of Serbian responsibility.
Other variants of such myth-making involve the argument that everything was fine until the 1917 Russian Revolution. From this perspective it is suggested that a golden age was somehow overturned by the monstrous machinations of the Bolsheviks. 'I wonder if there has ever been anything quite the equal of St Petersburg before 1914', asks the right-wing historian Norman Stone rhetorically. Stone's vision of pre-revolutionary Russia has no place for the grinding poverty and autocratic repression which have long been the dominant images of that society. Instead, the Russia of his imagination was a prosperous nation where the arts and sciences thrived, until it all went terribly wrong, both for Russia and the rest of the world.
In the prevailing intellectual climate, even the most outrageous distortion of human experience can gain currency. Very few will interrogate those who peddle the myths of a past golden age. If Russian society was so prosperous and exhilarating, why did it disintegrate so swiftly in 1917? If the Russian ancien regime was so wonderful, why was the fall of the Tsar celebrated so widely in Europe? Why did even the British monarchy distance itself from its Russian cousins, by not granting the deposed Tsar's request for safe haven? These questions are less and less likely to be posed by today's profoundly conservative media.
The rewriting of history means more than merely the revision of texts and the substitution of fiction for fact. This textual side of the revisionist project is the sphere where the apologists for the social order carry out their work of preparing arguments for the establishment. However, a flattering view of the capitalist order cannot be elaborated on the basis of books about the past.
To establish a viable world outlook, it is necessary to win the revisionist arguments in relation to contemporary targets. In practice this means cementing society against some individual or group or people, who can be portrayed as far worse than any of the skeletons in the capitalist cupboard. A few examples may help to illustrate how outwardly unconnected Western propaganda campaigns act as mutually reinforcing parts of the same project.
Take the depiction of Saddam Hussein as a Hitler character. The equation of the West's opponent in the Gulf War with Hitler is obviously designed to underline his brutal and negative qualities. In that sense it represents the straightforward vilification of the enemy. But it also means more than that. It continues the promiscuous use of the Hitler metaphor, through which any third world leader can be portrayed as the equivalent of the leader of the Nazi Party. The consequence of this is that the quality of evil attaches itself to the third world, rather than to Western imperialism.
The demonisation of the third world is now an accomplished fact. So the editor of one of Britain's foremost 'quality' Sunday newspapers can in all seriousness write this sort of thing:
'An ugly, evil spirit is abroad in the third world and it cannot be condoned; only crushed, as Carthage was crushed by the Romans.' (Sunday Telegraph, 3 February 1991)
Some liberal writers have reacted to this racist criminalisation of third world societies. But what has generally been overlooked is the other consequence of the West's propaganda campaign.
The repetitive use of the Hitler and Nazi labels to describe third world leaders ends up trivialising the devastating experience of fascism. If, these days, Hitlers are two a penny in the third world, then what is so special about the movement that nearly destroyed Europe? In other words, the systematic use of the Nazi metaphor minimises the historic significance of the fascist experience.
Since the break-up of Yugoslavia, the Serbs have become the new Nazis. This time around, the propaganda campaign has been even more extravagant than the previous one aimed at Iraq. The world's media has invented a veritable Holocaust in Bosnia, with concentration camps and all. It is surely only a matter of time before gas chambers are discovered in the car park of the agriculture ministry in Belgrade.
There is no space in this article to expose in detail the campaign of lies about Bosnia which seeks to equate the routine atrocities that characterise every war with the horror of the Nazi experience. It should just be noted in passing that different standards were applied in relation to Britain's concentration camps in Kenya, or to General Pinochet's prisons in Chile. What concerns us here is that the demonisation of the Serbs has helped to vindicate - or at least to neutralise - the fascist experience.
All of a sudden the Serbs emerge as the incarnation of evil, whom we are meant to half-suspect of starting the two world wars. Of course, by arguing that concentration camps and holocausts are such everyday phenomena in Eastern Europe today, the real Holocaust becomes one footnote among many in a chapter called 'Atrocities'.
The bombardment of Western society with anti-Serb propaganda is one of the most powerful means of rewriting history. Let us take one almost innocent example. In the run-up to August's London conference on Yugoslavia, German foreign minister Klaus Kinkel made a little request. It appears that, as a great humanitarian, Kinkel was concerned about Serbian atrocities. Consequently he indicated that Germany would be demanding that the London conference establish an international court to prosecute leading Serbs for crimes against humanity and genocide (see the Guardian, 20 August 1992).
Kinkel's demand for a war crimes trial could have been motivated by the most honourable intentions. However, the innocent onlooker might well ask, what is the precedent for an international war crimes trial? In fact, such trials are not very frequent. The last one, strangely enough, took place in Kinkel's own homeland, in a town called Nuremberg. A coincidence?
Whatever Kinkel's intentions, the demand for a war crimes trial against Serbs helps to revise our perception of the proceedings at Nuremberg. If a local Serbian militia leader is to be treated in a similar way to the Nazi hierarchy, then an embarrassing blot on the German past becomes relatively sanitised. The Holocaust becomes relativised, as every atrocity - large or small - is now treated as an act of genocide.
The primary aim of this campaign is not to nail the Serbs or any of the other selected targets. These are just convenient stepping-stones across which the Western right can pursue its broader aims. For example, when the media discover that the Croats too have got detention camps and have committed atrocities, it is not a problem. It merely reinforces the general trend; the more concentration camps, the better. The multiplication of the holocausts serves to rehabilitate the fascist past. It makes the Nazi experience ordinary, nothing special to write home about.
Abortion and rainforests
One of the more grotesque examples of this annihilation of the real Holocaust took place at the recent Republican Party convention in Houston. During the convention's formal invocation, a prayer compared abortion to the Jewish Holocaust. In today's mood of Holocaust-mongering, such offensive comparisons are considered in good taste in right-wing circles. But the climate of revising the past does not merely affect the hard right. Radical protestors against animal experimentation often write of a holocaust of species. Others use the term to describe the destruction of the rainforests. That the term 'holocaust' is now used so widely right across the ideological spectrum reflects the success of the campaign to rewrite the past.
It is the crisis of contemporary ideas and the lack of a vision for the future which has fuelled the explosion of interest in revising the past.
One way or another, all of the revisionist propaganda touches upon the experience of the Second World War. So the West's demonisation of its opponents today always resorts to the use of Second World War metaphors. The reason for this is that all of the capitalist powers - and not just the defeated nations of Germany and Japan - experience the Second World War as an indictment of their system.
The Second World War revealed the destructive capacity of the capitalist order. The elites of all the Western nations were for many years profoundly embarrassed by the public's awareness of their close connection with fascism. To this day, the intimate relationship between fascism and big business remains a touchy subject. In these circumstances, it is far better for them to treat fascism as the product of German culture than of an inherently self-destructive system.
The wrong stuff
One crucial consequence of the Nazi experience was that it compromised the political right. Everything which the right traditionally stood for - Western superiority, racism, the naturalness of inequality, the legitimacy of national expansionism, colonialism-- became undermined by 1945. The right itself could not project itself through its traditional vocabulary. During the next two or three decades it was forced to adopt the language of liberalism.
The liberal ideology of the postwar years represented a compromise by the establishment. But it was a compromise with which the Western elite felt less than comfortable. Like all compromises, it did not inspire confidence or strong loyalties. The moral uncertainties of the postwar years were the consequence of this ideological compromise by the capitalists. For example, instead of the old assumptions about the absolute national and racial superiority of the West, they felt obliged to pay lip service to multiculturalism and the equality of nations via the UN. The gradual weakening of social cohesion, culminating in the radical unrest of the late sixties and seventies, was the price that they had to pay.
During the Cold War years, the weakening social consensus was effectively limited by anti-communist propaganda. In a sense the anti-Soviet consensus served as a substitute for a popular vision of the common good. However, since the Cold War ended, the lack of cohesion in capitalist society has become more exposed - especially in circumstances of economic slump. The demonisation of the third world and the Serbs, and the rewriting of history, are all attempts to create an acceptable Western view of the world.
The central ideological project of capitalism today is to free itself from the burden of its past through the revision of history. The widely acclaimed attacks on liberalism in recent years spell the end of the postwar compromise. The next stage is to rehabilitate an undiluted right-wing perspective. But to achieve this objective, the links between capitalist politics and the horrors of the Second World War need to be severed. This can be done either by textual revision or by relativising the Holocaust. The shadows cast by Belsen can be best dealt with by trivialising the experience.
The 'vision thing'
However, cleansing the Holocaust out of existence is in itself an insufficient basis for the elaboration of a viable modern world view. The first tentative steps towards the formulation of this 'vision thing' are evident in the discussion around the so-called New World Order.
It would be wrong to dismiss the New World Order as so much claptrap. Of course, as Living Marxism has often argued, it has nothing to with the image of global harmony and prosperity conveyed by Western ideologues. In fact, the New World Order is not even a geopolitical concept. The controversy over what international institution to use in Bosnia - Nato, EC, UN, WEU, CSCE - indicates the total absence of a New World Order in any geopolitical sense.
The New World Order is not a geopolitical concept, but a moral one. It is an ideological attempt to compensate for the absence of any positive dynamic within Western capitalist societies by demonising others. So the main merit of the West is that it is not as bad as the third world or Eastern Europe. The New World Order endows the West with moral authority. It does so because in comparison to Somalia, Iraq or Serbia, it appears stable and prosperous. The evil abroad becomes the source of Western virtue.
The main consequence of the New World Order is not Western domination of the world. There is nothing new about that. Western domination of and intervention in other countries have a history which long predates the Cold War, never mind the post-Cold War era. The main consequence of the New World Order is that it legitimises the West's global domination and interference in the affairs of others. The ideology of the New World Order morally rearms Western imperialism around the world; and, through its intervention against those whom it has demonised, the Western elite can morally recharge itself.
History on its head
As a moral concept, the New World Order is working. This is shown most clearly by the fact that often it is the liberals who are demanding more Western intervention in Africa, Eastern Europe and the Middle East. The West is continually implored by ex-radicals to do something about Somalia or Yugoslavia. Ostensibly liberal voices like the Guardian in Britain, the Social Democrats in Germany and the Democratic Party in America have often been the loudest advocates of forceful action against the Serbs.
Today the West is being asked to intervene abroad in order to prevent a holocaust. This is the major achievement of the New World Order in morally rearming Western imperialism. It turns history on its head. Holocausts are now the creation of the powerless. Meanwhile those with power, who were responsible for the one true Holocaust, are now charged with the task of averting another one.
Blaming the Serbs for two world wars: Frankfurter Allemeine Zeitung, 11 August 1992
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 48, October 1992