The battle for the Holocaust legacy

In the travelling over the past fifteen years or so, I reckon I have visited several dozen memorials to Hitler’s destruction of the Jews. I have been to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem; to the Polish museums and memorials commemorating Auschwitz, Treblinka, and the Warsaw ghetto; to uncounted monuments and plaques, wrecked synagogues and wrecked Jewish cemeteries in other parts of Eastern Europe, Germany and the former Soviet Union, all testifying to the terrifying absence of a nation which once was a major part of European culture.

But although my family lives in Washington, DC and I go there frequently, I have never been to visit that city’s Holocaust museum. I know where it is: on the Mall, not far from the Capitol, the Lincoln Memorial, the Jefferson Memorial. I also know, from having read about it, that its exhibits are professionally presented, that its curators are first-rate.

Nevertheless, I’ve always thought it highly inappropriate for such a museum to be erected in such a place. The Holocaust was an Israeli tragedy, a German tragedy, a Polish tragedy. The Holocaust was not an American tragedy. Americans knew little about it while it was happening, did little to stop it at the time, felt little about it in the immediate aftermath.

And now it turns out that I am not the only one who has been quietly irritated by the museum’s existence. Norman Finkelstein, a professor at Columbia University in New York, has just published a book whose title reflects something a bit more robust than quiet irritation: The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering.

In it, Finkelstein argues not only that the Washington Holocaust museum is inappropriate, but that the majority of people who now claim to be Holocaust survivors are fakes; that the American Jewish institutions dedicated to squeezing compensation from European governments and industries are keeping most of the money for themselves; that David Irving is a nauseating man but a good historian; that the insistence on the Holocaust’s uniqueness has suppressed rational discussion of the history of the events themselves.

Nor is Finkelstein’s book the first to broach this subject. Peter Novick, another American academic, has also recently published a less abrasive book – The Holocaust in American Life – arguing that the legacy of the Holocaust has been deliberately manipulated in America and used for political ends, largely by American Jewish organisations.

And there are others: it turns out, in fact, that a growing number of people have been bothered not only by the air of self-righteousness and silence surrounding the memorialisation of the Holocaust, but by the crass commercialisation too. Not only can you contribute to Steven Spielberg’s bank account by going to see Schindler’s List, for the full experience you can now go on the Schindler’s List tour of Krakow – or a cookbook of recipes left by the women of the Terezin concentration camp; or, to put on your bedside table, a railway spike from Treblinka embedded in lucite. But judging from the generally positive reviews and excerpts, it is Finkelstein’s book which is going to start the debate about this subject in Britain, which is unfortunate. Although many of his charges are well-founded – he is right that the spectacle of American lawyers soaking the German and Swiss governments in recent years has been particularly egregious – Finkelstein’s tone borders on the hysterical and he is unnecessarily insulting: not everyone who has dedicated their life to preserving the memory of the Holocaust is motivated by personal interest and greed. Worse, he pins most of the blame on the Jewish community – the “Holocaust Industry” – virtually guaranteeing an angry, unthinking response; whereas I think the problem is, in fact, far more widespread.

The Holocaust is now not only the most important event in American Jewish memory, it is becoming the only significant foreign event that anyone in America can remember at all. Hollywood is obsessed, the shelves in most major bookstores groan with Holocaust books, the subject of “Holocaust studies” has its own separate department in many American universities. The only sure way to garner attention in America for any other tragedy, historical or contemporary, is to compare it to the Holocaust: this is how the war in Kosovo was justified, and this is how, in the grand battle for superior victim status, other ethnic groups draw attention to themselves too.

Why? My guess is that popular interest in the Holocaust reflects the fact that it is viewed as the most extreme example of racism.

Condemning it is not only morally easy, the very act of condemning it also helps, in an extremely undemanding way, to justify, and to glorify, America’s multi-cultural society: “It could never happen here,” we say, patting ourselves on the back, forgetting that plenty of other unpleasant things do happen here.

The anti-apartheid movement caught on in America for precisely the same reasons: it is far easier to denounce racism far away than it is to confront the modern reality of the American ghettoes, or the history of the slave trade, or the destruction of the native Indians. Neither of those two genuinely American tragedies, I would note (as does Finkelstein), yet have a museum of their own in Washington, near the Lincoln Memorial on the Mall.

In the way that these things have of floating across the Atlantic, in recent years Britain has picked up some of the same disease. Britain now has, for example, an official Holocaust Day. Why not a day dedicated, say, to the (British) destruction of the natives of Tasmania? Is it because that subject is a bit more ambiguous, a bit harder to digest? Peculiarly, the legal definition of “war crime” in Britain is limited to those committed by Nazis. What about former Stalinist, or Rwandan, or Serbian war criminals resident in Britain? Is it that we were not always quite on the side of the angels when Stalinist, Rwandan, or Serbian massacres were taking place?

The real tragedy, it seems to me, is that in our search for unambiguous “evil” to denounce, heroes to praise and villains to despise, our understanding of what actually happened in wartime Europe has slowly become distorted. To immerse yourself in any way in the history itself is to understand that while the morality of the Final Solution was not ambiguous, the societies constructed in Nazi-occupied Europe were among the most morally confusing ever to come into being. It is neither satisfying nor simple to contemplate the behaviour of the anti-Semitic Polish nun who considered it her duty to save Jewish children; or the Jewish policemen who organised the trains to Treblinka from the Warsaw ghetto; or the German officer who, having served Hitler loyally, then brought food and blankets to a Jew whom he accidentally discovered in hiding at the end of the war. In real life, even the sainted Oskar Schindler was motivated largely by the desire to make profits out of cheap Jewish labour.

By turning the memory of the Holocaust into an almost religious fetish, by refusing to debate its history or to compare it intelligently with other mass murders, by assigning blame to entire nations, we turn both the victims and the perpetrators into symbols, robbing them of their humanity. We also rob ourselves of the only real justification for the museums and memorials and university courses: the ability to understand how it actually happened, and how it could happen again.

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