The "Holocaust industry" is driven by American and Israeli interests. But, says Samuel Brittan, no one can fully explain why it took so long to emergeby Samuel Brittan / November 20, 2000 / Leave a comment
The horror felt at the Nazi crime of killing 6m European Jews, simply because they were Jews, surely needs no explanation. The puzzling question is, in the words of Peter Novick, “Why now?” Why should so much more have been done to commemorate the Holocaust in the last 20 years than in the 35 years after the second world war when more of the survivors were still alive?
Norman Finkelstein is surely right to claim that commemoration has become an industry. A Holocaust museum was inaugurated in the US by President Carter and subsidised by federal funds. Local versions have sprouted in many parts of the US and a few in some other countries as well. Why do we not leave it to the genuine memorials on the spot? For instance, the Ninth Fort at the top of a green hill outside Kaunas, Lithuania? This was established by the Czars, but is now known as the place where the Nazis took tens of thousands of Jews and others to be shot. A modern memorial of three jagged metallic pieces stands bare against the skyline. It is intrinsically more moving than anything that American publicity efforts can invoke.
These two books have many themes in common. The authors often agree; and Finkelstein acknowledges his indebtedness to Novick’s research. Temperamentally, I was more drawn to Novick’s reflections than I was to Finkelstein’s two-fold indictment-of the state of Israel for using the Holocaust to drum up US support, and of Jewish organisations in the US and their advisers who have made a good living out of their efforts to secure compensation and restitution from Germany, Switzerland, Austria and other countries. He contrasts the $3,500 which his mother received in compensation just after the second world war with the big sums acquired by some of the leading figures in American Jewish organisations. But to discuss his angry accusations fairly, one would need to know more about the intricacies of those organisations. Further, one would have to have deep knowledge and strong views about the minutiae of the Arab-
Israeli conflict. On the latter I can only say that the Israeli “doves” who would make concessions to attain an honourable peace settlement are acting in the best interests of Israel as well as the wider international community.
Neither writer can really tell us “Why now?” Even if all of Finkelstein’s accusations are true, this does not explain why the exploitation of the Holocaust for political and personal gain did not take place 50 years ago. Indeed, although my own maternal grandmother and her family were killed by the Nazis, I do not remember the word Holocaust being used until several decades later.
Novick, as a good historian, knows that he cannot give a monocausal explanation of this. What he gives us is an illuminating partial history of organised Jewry in the US after the second world war, with attitudes to the Holocaust as its main focus. My own cynical view is that US presidents can now safely wax indignant because not only is the massacre of European Jews a long-distant event about which they are not called on to take action; but so are many of its immediate consequences, including the problem of the displaced persons who emerged from the camps.
Interestingly enough, Zionist leaders were initially very cautious about making too much of the problems of displaced persons, who found so many parts of the civilised world closed to them. The fear was that if the US, Britain or other western countries opened their doors wider, the displaced persons would be less inclined to go to what was then Palestine, and the case for establishing a state of Israel would be weakened.
Another factor-which perhaps both authors emphasise too much-is that the US chose not to dwell on Nazi crimes after the war because they wanted to enlist the German Federal Republic as an ally in the cold war. In my own precocious youth I remember opposing German rearmament-not because of the Holocaust, but because I thought it a sin to snuff out the anti-militarist reaction which had developed in Germany in order to secure a few extra divisions which would, in any case, be of no use against an all-out Soviet attack.
But in those early postwar years, Nato politics was not the only factor. Many survivors wanted to rebuild their lives without dwelling too much on the past. Moreover, the emphasis was on a more general Nazi barbarism which claimed millions of other victims. Indeed, in the second world war itself, American Jews were anxious to rebut the accusation that the war had been entered into on their behalf.
The only excuse for bombing German cities was that their rulers were responsible for barbarities extending far beyond any one ethnic group-as indeed they were. It was for vaguely articulated reasons of this kind-rather than for German persecution of Jews alone-that I felt reluctant to join other infants who fraternised with German prisoners of war who were used to repair bomb damage in the London suburbs.
In conversations both then and now, my Zionist friends have never ceased to emphasise how, for instance, German or Dutch Jews, who may have been remote from traditional observances and considered themselves solid citizens of their countries, were swept into the gas chambers. But as Novick points out, the only place in the world where Jews are not now secure is Israel.
According to Novick, the beginnings of the present focus on the Holocaust came during the Six-Day war of 1967. Although the Israelis won, there was at the outset the fear that they might lose and that a new Holocaust would be perpetrated in the middle east. The Yom Kippur war of 1973 was a shock of a different kind. Although the Israelis won again, the good showing of the Arab countries made American Jews realise just how vulnerable even a well-armed Israel was.
Subsequent events were not part of any coherent plot or story. The sensitivities of non-Jewish Americans were aroused by NBC’s four-part series Holocaust in 1978-seen by 100m people. After that came the films, including Schindler’s List. Events acquired a momentum of their own. In several US states the teaching of the Holocaust is now compulsory and there are, as Novick says, many university chairs in the subject.
The impact of more recent events in the former Yugoslavia, in Rwanda and, earlier, the Pol Pot killings in Cambodia, have pointed in two directions. They have kept the propensity of human beings to genocide in the headlines; but have weakened Jewish claims to be unique victims. Nevertheless, the focus on the Holocaust remains. One plausible explanation is the decay of religious belief, the growth of intermarriage and the fading of Zionism among American Jews. Holocaust memories have emerged as the best way to keep America’s Jews bound together.
Both authors find many aspects of the Holocaust industry distasteful. Novick gives his own views but does not pretend that they are “lessons of history.” He notes that the cultivation of sacred relics of suffering is far more in the Christian than in the Jewish tradition. Both writers condemn the tendency to play down the suffering of millions of other victims of Hitler-and of Stalin and Mao, for that matter. Yet those who query the uniqueness of Jewish suffering have been accused of being Holocaust deniers; and legal actions have been taken over the matter.
Even as I write this, Jack Straw has been investigating whether Holocaust denial should be an offence under British law. If it ever were to become an offence, there would soon be plausible demands by many other groups to make denial of their sufferings an equal offence. Before long the virtues of free speech and unimpaired historical enquiry would be cast aside in favour of the bogus virtue of the self-righteous, thus giving totalitarianism a posthumous victory.
The author’s website is at www.samuelbrittan.co.uk
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