The Magazine

Holocaust Hegemony

. . . and its moral pitfalls.

Jan 3, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 16 • By SAM SCHULMAN
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The falseness of this idea is not merely a matter of historical interest; it is false in a brilliantly focused way. Because in fact, quite apart from the unbroken continuity of Jewish life in Palestine since antiquity, and the recurring affirmation of the connection of the Diaspora to the land of Israel, the creation of Israel was an event that coincided with the creation of most of the modern states of the Middle East and Eastern Europe. The Jewish state in Palestine was created by those who fought and won the First World War, not the Second; and its raw material was the same as the raw material of the majority of the members of the EU and the Arab League: the broken territories of the great colonial powers, Germany, Russia, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire. The beneficiaries of this impulse were to create new states for Arabs and Arabic speakers throughout the Ottoman empire, for South Slavs, Czechs, Slovaks, Poles, Lithuanians, Jews, Armenians, Kurds, Estonians, Latvians, Ukrainians. Israel’s origin, then, is postcolonial, not imperialist. And those concerned with Israel’s survival should properly be concerned with the survival as free democracies of other postcolonial states on the periphery of tyranny elsewhere, such as Lebanon, Georgia, Ukraine, and even Lithuania and Poland.

It is fun to make sport of the naïveté of Gore, Blair, and Annan. But we need to be just as hard on ourselves now when we think about our own proud but sentimental attachment to the idea of the Holocaust and its lessons for humanity. We need to be smarter than they were about the political and moral costs to our own interests as Americans and sustainers of liberal democracy. We’re not.

Determined and skillful enemies of human freedom (and even Jewish existence) in Israel, in Eastern Europe, and elsewhere are making clever use of our fondness for clichés about the Holocaust and memory. Nor are these enemies of human freedom necessarily Holocaust-deniers or historical fabricators. They are simply playing on the historical anxieties of the Jews and other peoples who have emerged from a long history of religious or colonial domination.

Consider the postcolonial relations between Poland and its former Russian masters. Last month, the Russian Duma finally acknowledged Stalin’s responsibility for the 1940 Katyn massacre, in which 22,000 Polish officers, priests, professors, and other notables were murdered by the secret police, the NKVD. That Katyn was a Communist party crime has never been in doubt. So why should the Poles care about what the Duma says now? The Duma passed the resolution out of a desire to get the better of Poland. A leading deputy told the Moscow Times: “We have said this many times before, and now [the Poles] wanted to hear it again from us.” “In return,” he added, “Polish public opinion about Russia should improve.” And among modern Polish notables, so it did. Poland’s leaders are now more willing to pay high prices to Russia’s Gazprom for natural gas they could extract from their own shale reserves. Whether Polish conciliation of Russia’s ambitions is a good thing or not is for the Poles to judge​—​but clearly Russia can manipulate Polish opinion by a trivial gesture about a great and grave crime. Putin​—​an alumnus of the KGB with institutional descent from the NKVD mass murderers​—​could see how eager the Poles were for this acknowledgment, and how little it would cost him to satisfy them. A great deal for Gazprom is worth a meaningless concession to “history.”

Here is the plot: A tyrant with blood on his hands, interested in extending his power, makes an “okay” statement to an innocent about historical mass murder; innocent collapses in gratitude. Readers of Atlantic.com this summer saw such a mise-en-scène live-blogged from Havana. Our hero, the ingenuous Jeffrey Goldberg; the villain, unsportingly overmatching him, was Fidel Castro. Castro confessed, one gentleman to another, that the crude anti-Semitism of Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and the flamboyant Holocaust-denial of Iran’s Ahmadinejad were rather embarrassing to a man of the world like himself. This was enough to win the heart of Goldberg, who quickly dialed Haaretz to tell them how impressed he was that Castro felt “genuinely offended” by Holocaust-denial (a generation after Castro had removed the burden of their businesses and other property from Cuba’s own Jewish community).

Giddy with his discovery that Castro was salonfähig, Goldberg was willing to overlook a number of character faults far more consequential than Holocaust-denial to current Cuban dissidents, political prisoners, nonwhites, gays, and the rest of the long-suffering Cuban people. Castro’s fellow dictators, however, could take the hint. The Boston Globe reported the results: “Chávez has tolerated and even promoted virulent anti-Semitism in Venezuela. But a day after Castro’s condemnation of Ahmadinejad’s anti-Semitism, Chávez said he would meet with Jewish community leaders and declared: ‘We respect and love the Jewish people.’ ’’ A couple of years ago, Chávez called Jews “Christ-killers”; a couple of months ago Chávez issued the threat that if he were to lose the next election, he would call out the army to keep himself in power. Can he really think that by making the proper noises to American journalists, he can count on many happy years of dictatorship? Alas, Chávez is not as stupid as he looks. He has found that affirming the historic truth of the Holocaust to the right naïf may be the price of sustaining a present-day dictator in power. And Goldberg is no more naïve than any number of supporters of liberal democracy.

How far can Holocaust attachment take us into the moral swamp? If Holocaust-consciousness can ever be described as a fetish, then we must nominate Rabbi Abraham Cooper as its Sacher-Masoch. In January 2010 the good rabbi issued this thundering press release from his office at the Simon Wiesenthal Center: “Dropping International Holocaust Memorial Day Would Be World’s Final Insult to Survivors; Would Spur New Wave of Anti-Semitism.” The idea that the Holocaust-denial barnacle controls the anti-Semitic aircraft carrier is absurd​—​but it’s merely an extreme version of our attachment to the truth-value of the Holocaust. The result is that well-meaning liberals in the West have unintentionally given more power, not less, to Holocaust-deniers, sincere or cynical.

Of course Holocaust-denial is repellent. But how often is it sincere? Authentic Holocaust denial no doubt exists​—​and it is an excellent marker for anti-Semitism, madness, and really impressive bores. But consider a dangerous genocidaire-manqué like Ahmadinejad. His Holocaust-denial is too smart to be authentic. He understand that staging fetes for Western Holocaust deniers drives his enemies wild​—​and when his enemies are worrying about David Irving they are not thinking about how best to support Iranian student dissidents or to delay the deployment of his nuclear missiles. 

The truth about the Holocaust and anti-Semitism is this: Most anti-Semites are perfectly well-informed about the actuality of the Holocaust; so are most people who believe that the time has come for the state of Israel to be eliminated. Most anti-Semites authentically regret the destruction of European Jewry; they are also likely to openly regret that those European Jews who escaped the Nazis by fleeing to Palestine were not murdered as well. Tell them that their loathing of Zionism is a symptom of true Jew-hatred, and they will be shocked and hurt but they will happily explain to you the likeness between the IDF and the Einsatzgruppen. Holocaust education, however well its teachers are trained, will never pry such people loose from their defects of character and judgment​—​or from their underlying feelings about Jews as individuals and fellow-citizens.

A last example of the unintentional destructiveness of Holocaust education hegemony. This fall, the Yale historian Timothy Snyder published a well-regarded and beautifully written book called Bloodlands, telling the story of the Hitler-Stalin collaboration in the destruction of Poland and a good many of its citizens, Jewish, Polish, Ukrainian, and other minorities. Most reviewers praised it​—​for revealing a new dimension of the Good War: that Stalin and Hitler worked together on many ghastly projects and their collaboration in barbarism was synergistic (I think informed readers will learn far more from a disregarded book published this year, Alexander V. Prusin’s The Lands Between). Reviewers like Anne Applebaum foresaw the danger Snyder was tempting, and spent a lot of time explaining that Snyder was not equating the crimes of Stalin with the crimes of Hitler. But his reviewers didn’t save him, and the poor fellow had to defend himself in Britain’s Guardian on the charge of moral equivalence.

In the eyes of the Guardian leftists, Snyder is an unwitting abetter of the “double genocide”—the notion that Hitler’s crimes were one genocide, and the crimes of Stalin, though different in many respects, were another. Communists and fellow travelers are passionate adherents of the notion that the Jewish Holocaust is nonpareil. So is Efraim Zuroff, an admirable Nazi-hunter in the Israeli branch of the Wiesenthal Center, who says that the notion that the “Communist crimes were just as terrible as those of the Nazis” would “unjustly rob the Shoah of its universally accepted uniqueness and historical significance.” And so is Dovid Katz of the Litvak Studies Institute in Vilnius, who in the Tablet accuses those who call for a memorial of the European victims of communism, led by Vaclav Havel, of wanting to whitewash Nazi crimes and “delete the Holocaust.” Katz, Zuroff, and other well-meaning Jews who are familiar with the sometimes unpleasant politics of present-day Lithuania, are enthusiastic warriors, along with the Russians, the Communists, and various Trotskyist factions, in the struggle against the two-genocide theory. The leader of the British Communist party, for one, is outraged that Havel’s group asserts that “Lenin’s definition of revolution meant that it must take power through armed violence, deny democratic principles, and commit crimes against fellow citizens.” Think of it!

Consider again the former colonial power of Eastern Europe, Russia. Russia is now threatening a number of the small countries the USSR ruled by right of inheritance from the czar. It has waged hot war against Georgia, wars of assassination and intimidation against Ukraine, and threatens the internal politics of Poland, the Czech Republic, and the three Baltic states. All of them have dreadful historic memories of conquest and mass murder by successive waves of Russian and German imperial enterprises, first Czarist, then Wilhelmine, then Bolshevik, then Nazi. But the Russians are still around, and the left is renascent, in its latest postcolonial and postnationalist garb. Those who hold on to the uniqueness of the Holocaust and the Nazi “gold standard” of evil are unwittingly allying themselves with the hard-left activists who are leading the ideological war against Israel’s existence and against the ability of democratic states to maintain their identity and protect their citizens. Nazis no longer threaten western democracy or Jewish existence​—​the danger lies elsewhere. 

The left (which encompasses young Jennifer Peto and aging Communists) is entitled to its obsession with the Holocaust. As proud and programmatic minimizers of Communist mass murder, they should feign, if not feel, indignation at any attempt to compare the two savageries. This is not because they care about the Holocaust but because they want to put Socialism on the offensive again​—​in alliance with anti-Zionism when possible, with anti-Semitism if necessary, and, fervently, with any kind of anti-Americanism whatsoever, even to the extent of apologizing for terrorism. On the other hand, here are the rest of us, whose Holocaust education seems to have made so many uniquely gullible about the real enemies faced by Jews and liberal democracies today.

Sam Schulman wrote about the prosecution of Geert Wilders in our November 22 issue.

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