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Friday, December 24, 2004
 
Holocaust: Hype and Misrepresentations

This also could have been titled “Against All Ignorance” or “The Holocaust.” But I’m really not that pretentious.

I. Any decent person should know about the Holocaust.

At the risk of callously treating an extremely sensitive question, I ask "Why?" The supposed knowledge of the Holocaust that we educated have is oftentimes inaccurate re-tellings of Second World War history. I agree that Auschwitz represents many of the inchoate pathologies of some Western ideals and concepts. I do not believe, however, that the superficial, inaccurate, frustrating discourses and invocations concerning the Holocaust in any way add to a person's intellectual or moral well-being.

Most persons who profess opinions about the Holocaust oftentimes do so from the standpoint of moral superiority, whether that of a professional or lay person. In much of the armchair scholarship surrounding Holocaust studies, most narratives and hypotheses about why the Holocaust happened (it would be more accurate to say why the Nazis believed the mass extermination of many of peoples of Europe was strategically necessary and justified) begin from the standpoint of assuming that the Nazis, Germans, or Hitler wanted to annihilate every last Jew from the earth. (To be fair, there is a lot of literature, that I will quote here, that does not make this erroneous assumption.) This article of faith is a largely incorrect, if popular, assumption. I wish to correct these false beliefs and then propose an actual model for the remembrance of the Holocaust.

Jonah Goldhagen provides an excellent example of a problematic analysis of the Holocaust in his book suggestively titled Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust. Goldhagen, in analyzing the Holocaust in comparative perspective, often wrote of the German “willingness to kill” Jews during World War Two. For him, the preceding Holocaust scholarship’s inability to describe adequately why the Holocaust happened in Germany obscures the obvious and underlying German hatred of Jews. He begins: “[Other explanations of the Holocaust] ignore, deny, or radically minimize the importance of Nazi…ideology, moral values, and [their] conception of the victims for engendering” a basic desire to hate and kill Jews. (13) Goldhagen’s theory, in contrast, comments on the deep nature of German anti-Semitism to explain the Holocaust: “the perpetrators, ‘ordinary Germans’ were animated by anti-Semitism, by a particular type of anti-Semitism that led them to conclude the Jews ought to die.” (14, emphasis in the original) The German hatred of the Jews had become so great, and his opinions of the Jew so low, that the Holocaust was the only possible answer available to the German Jewish Question. “Simply put, the perpetrators, having consulted their own convictions and morality, and having judged the mass annihilation of the Jews to be right, did not want to say “no” [to genocide].” (19) Goldhagen puts much effort in trying to prove that the Germans were particularly anti-Semitic to the point of requiring the eradication of the Jewish race. For him, the conflict between German and Jews began in the early pre-school propaganda of children’s books, “The Devil is the father of the Jew”, and ended in the morbid oblivion of the abattoir. Moreover, even though “the Jews of Germany…wanted nothing more than to be good Germans” and the “Eastern European Jewry [was extremely] Germanophil[ic]”, in his mind it was not surprising, in retrospect, to have observed the Nazi mass slaughter because “the will for the comprehensive killing of Jews in all lands” was a result of the race hatred of divided German society. (414)

There are two problems with casting the Holocaust in this light. The first is that nearly 72% of Germany's Jews, through institutionalized discrimination and cultural intimidation, were forced to emigrate before the Germans initiated World War Two. (Browning, The Final Solution and the German Foreign Office, 14.) The second problems involves the curious little fact that the mass annihilation of European Jews, as opposed to merely German Jews, or, on the other hand, all Jews, did not begin until 1941.

The German government targeted Jews because it genuinely believed that the Jewish people, as a political-biological entity, posed an actual threat to the German national future in the form of Marxist-Communism, on the one hand, and as a degrader of that pure Aryan blood, on the other. Hitler warns in Mein Kampf : “If, with the help of his Marxist creed, the Jew is victorious over the other peoples of the world, his crown will be the funeral wreath of humanity and this planet will, as it did thousands of years ago, move through the ether devoid of men.” (300) With such rabid, delusional, and psychotic anti-Semitism—from which a large number of our European counterparts currently suffer to a lesser degree—it is quite logical to intuit how the Nazis could be responsible for the murder of so many Jews. Though logical, the mass murder of Jews was not the sole option for the Nazi. In fact, it was not even the first option.

The first option chosen by the rabidly anti-Semitic Third Reich was that of institutionalized legal and cultural discrimination. In order to protect those Germans from the Jews, the Reich abolished Jewish political and economic rights. Exclusion of Jews from service in the government, the practice of medicine, participation in the academy, and the holding of any positions of power and influence become commonplace in pre-war Germany. The ban on German-Jewish intermarriage flowed naturally from the aforementioned cases of discrimination. Forced emigration became the immediate aim of the German government after all the institutional discrimination was in place. The SS Security Service memorandum nicely summarizes early German Jewish policy: “the aim of Jewish policy must be the complete emigration of the Jews…[T]he life opportunities of the Jews have to be restricted, not only in economic terms. To them Germany must become a country without a future, in which the old generation may die off with what still remains for it, but in which the young generation should find it impossible to live, so that the incentive to emigrate is constantly in force.” (Friedlander, Nazi Germany and the Jews, 201) This policy was so successful that almost three-quarters of Germany’s Jewish population emigrated to safety from that totalitarian nightmare. By 1942, however, Germany began on a campaign to mass exterminate many of the Jews. Why? There are three pieces of evidence which I believe addressed my second question.

First, the success of the German blitzkrieg across Europe brought millions of Jews, enemy combatants in their eyes, under its control. The amount of energy needed to convince Germany’s relatively small number of Jews to emigrate would have been insufficient to have dealt with the millions now on their hands. The refusal of other European (and American) nations to accept more Jewish refugees, combined with the lack of places to which Germany could deport Jews, created many logistical problems for the Nazi bureaucracy. Himmler, the architect and guardian of Nazi deportation policies, drafted a statement in 1940 stating: “I hope to completely erase the concept of the Jews through the possibility of a great emigration of all Jews to a colony in Africa or elsewhere…[H]owever cruel and tragic…this method is still the mildest and best, if one rejects the Bolshevik method of physical extermination of people out of inner conviction as un-German and impossible.” (Browning, Nazi Resettlement Policy, 3-27, emphasis added.) A few months later Himmler clarified: “biological extermination…is undiginified for the German people as a civilized nation.” After the German victory, “we will impose the condition on the enemy powers that the holds of their ships be used to transport the Jews along with their belongings to Madagascar or elsewhere.” (Browning, Nazi Resettlement Policy. 16-17; Gotz Aly, Final Solution: Nazi Population Policy and the Murder of the European Jews, 3)

Mass extermination was “practical” for two reasons. First, the Germans were used to destroying entire civilian populations for logistical reasons. In France and some areas of Eastern Europe the Germans limited their killing to exterminating rivals and rebels whereas in the areas of Eastern Europe that had been designated Lebensraum entire populations were destroyed or depopulated. Accordingly, Nazi rule exposed “all of them to alien rule, and some to deportation, terror, and mass murder. Very, very few people wanted the Germans there, regardless of how they conducted themselves under occupation.” (Burleigh, The Third Reich: A New History ,426) Michael Burleigh further noted that the future German plans toward France and the western countries were extremely destructive. “Hitler was interested in German dominance of the continent, with a view to exploiting its resources for his great schemes in the East, not in some sort of amicable partnership….At the height of their power the Nazi leaders were contemplating the disappearance of some of Europe’s smaller states and the drastic attenuation of France herself, which they regarded as the hereditary foe, lynchpin of Versailles, and a source of democratic ideals which they had just comprehensively vanquished.” (Burleigh, 426) Second, the Germans had already effectively emptied Germany of the mentally ill and deformed. Adapting gas chambers and methods of extermination to the most recent problem was a small technocratic challenge, easily overcome by the German bureaucracy. By the end of 1942, Germany had already murdered about two-thirds of the Jews, roughly 3.8 million, that it was going to murder under the Final Solution. (We also still have to deal with the fact that a large number of Jews who died during the Holocaust, whom I included in this estimate anyway, did not die from shooting, hanging, phenol injection, or gassing but rather from sickness, disease, undernourishment, and hyperexplotation. If we were to speak of Jewish deaths in the same method by which we speak of aboriginal deaths in the Americans during the Spanish conquest, these would not count toward the Holocaust total.)

This knowledge about the historical events surrounding that infamous mass murder in no way benefits the average person. Why is it that we should remember the Holocaust and treat it so sacrosanct? There are many more relevant historical mass killings that the Brits, or anyone else for that matter, could look to for moral instruction. The genocides of the Native American tribes, the destruction of the aboriginal peoples of the Americas, the mass killing within the Yugoslavian civil wars of succession, that bloody episode in Rwanda, or, even more recently, that tired little conflict in the Sudan would all be appropriate topics about which to scold persons for their lack of knowledge. An episode in Germany that reduced the population of Europe by hardly 1% over the period of years 1939-1945, though polemicized, infamous, and an article of faith for many, isn’t really that relevant in the grand scheme of things.

II. The Comparison of The Intifadah to the policies of the Thrid Reich is wrong-headed, and, above that, stupid.

Arthur Chrenkoff opines: “Where does one even begin to tackle this sort of absurdity? That if there is "not much of a difference" between the Second World War and the Second Intifada, where are today's concentration camps, where is Auschwitz, where are the gas chambers and the crematoria, where are the mass graves, where are the Einsatzgruppen and the SS? Or maybe it's not that Germans don't know what the Israelis are doing to the Palestinians - maybe they don't know what their own grandfathers have done to the Jews? Maybe Germans think that the Holocaust consisted of Wehrmacht shooting a few Jewish kids throwing stones at the Panther tanks, or Luftwaffe taking out a Jewish Fighting Organisation leader in retaliation for a suicide attack on a Munich beerhall?”

I agree with Chrenkoff that the Israelis are not fighting a war of extermination against the Palestinian people. I, however, would like to ask Chrenkoff if drawing comparisons between “the Second World War and the Second Intifada” are as “absurd” as he would like them to be. For instance, the discrimination and disenfranchisement of Israeli Arabs in Israel’s 50 plus years of existence has been comparable to Nazi disenfranchisement of Jews before it starting killing them. The expulsion of Arabs in the Arab-Israeli wars, the encourage emigration that is still an official Israeli policy, and the confiscation of Arab possessions during this conflicts is not dissimilar from pre-war Nazi policies. The once active settler policies of various Israeli governments, both right and left until Sharon, after the 1967 Six Day War, is eerily similar to the German settler policies unleashed on Eastern and Western Europeans during the Second World War. Moreover, the explicit preference given to Jews worldwide, similar to the German preference given to Germans in all lands, smacks of the Nazi past.

Let me be clear here. I am not arguing, as it is fashionable to do these days, that the Jewish state will be setting up death camps anytime soon. I, however, see the almost mutually exclusive tensions generated by the two pillars of Israel: of being a democracy for the Jews. Almost as problematic as the conservative Christian notion of salvation for all persons (excepts prostitutes, liberals, Jews, gays, etc), the Zionist idea of a democratic state for Jews, built in land which, until recently has not had a Jewish majority for some millennia, suffers from the centrifugal forces of inclusion (democracy) and exclusion(ethnicity/religion). As a Zionist myself, I struggle with how Israel should keep its Jewish majority and remain democratic in the face of a demographic shift against its ideal. Lesser regimes would have engaged in mass killing in the face of organized para-military resistance and a population explosion of an “enemy nation.” Comparisons to the Nazi past are not only relevant, but necessary, that Israel may guard her heart against the seductive strategic logic of mass killing.

III. What exactly did we mean when we said "Never Again"?

The world made a pledge to “never again” let the Holocaust happen. “Never again” has turned into an almost universal expectation that every person should actively and consciously recall the gruesomeness of the Holocaust to prevent future genocides. In so far as the world has stood by time and time again when multiple mass killings explode around the globe since World War Two—in communist states starving their people to death between purges, in fundamentalist terror in the Middle East, in anti-colonial revolutionary struggles, in Western armed interventions into other states, in anti-communist liquidations, in counterguerrilla operations, and in ethnic conflicts—I am starting to believe that the promise was actually “Never again in 1942 will we allow Germany to kill Jews.”

Valentino proposes a solution to this mess: “Only by comparing the Holocaust to other episodes of mass killing can we asses its significance. Only by understanding its similarities and differences can we draw lessons from the Holocaust that might help us prevent or limit this kind of violence in the future. Indeed, the contribution that studying the Holocaust can make to the understanding of genocide and mass killing in general is one of the most important reasons why honor our obligation to never forget it.”

Elie Wiesel: “I have tried to keep memory alive, I have tried to fight those who would forget. Because if we forget, we are guilty, we are accomplices.” We should remember the Holocaust, then, in so far as it helps us to understand the mass terror that mass murder unleashes upon the world, whether by Western governments in poorly planned interventions and calculated hate, or by political instability. Jean Baudrillard: “Forgetting the extermination is part of the extermination itself.”