Denying evil at the gates of hell

Auschwitz and After - Denying the Holocaust - The Holocaust in Historical Context - Jews for Sale? Nazi-Jewish Negotiations, 1933-1945
May 5, 1995

Deborah Lipstadt shows us that Holocaust deniers are not the harmless cranks they seem, but an organised and apparently well-funded movement, having clear and perhaps ultimately attainable political aims. They have less to do with the lunatic fringe of ufologists, phrenologists and the like than with Dr Goebbels, who knew very well how to go about creating a myth ex nihilo. Given enough time, a sufficiently elaborate pseudo-scholarly apparatus and enough people who confuse freedom of speech with the right to a credible forum, the deniers may eventually succeed in establishing themselves as a quasi-reputable "alternative" school of historical interpretation aiming to sanitise the Nazi past and make anti-Semitism respectable once more.

Lipstadt's book is an invaluable Baedeker to the demi-monde of the deniers: she exposes their political connections, their spurious research methods, their institutions and their tactics, and systematically refutes their claims. She also provides a clearly articulated position as to how to respond to the deniers. Should one engage them in debate? No; it is a waste of time and will only provide them with a platform. Should they be censored? Equally no; it will let them pose as martyrs. Should they be allowed to publish their views in mainstream publications? Again no; their work fails all normal tests of scholarly merit. With the denial movement doubtless destined to gain strength and these questions therefore ever more pressing, Lipstadt has done a useful service.

She is less successful, however, in dealing with the deeper issues of ideology, epistemology, and historical truth which the denial movement raises. In describing Holocaust denial as an "assault on history, memory, and truth", she assumes that historical truth is a fortress to be defended rather than the continually evolving product of research and debate. Too often, she verges on an intellectual absolutism that would altogether exclude certain questions or approaches from historical discussion. She opposes "permissiveness toward questioning the meaning of historical events" and deplores a "skeptical approach" which makes it "hard . . . to assert that there (is) anything 'off limits"' to historical inquiry. She is disturbed that her students have sometimes posed the question: how do we know that the gas chambers existed?

But this is a legitimate and perhaps essential question. It deserves, and has received, a serious answer. What puts the deniers "off limits" is not that they ask forbidden questions - there are no forbidden questions, nor that they hold forbidden ideas - there are no forbidden ideas - but that they will not accept reasonable answers or yield to rational demonstration. Much as they like to pose as sceptics and iconoclasts, it is they who are defenders of an irrational orthodoxy. It is best not to respond in kind.

Steven T. Katz, presently director of the US Holocaust Museum in Washington, has given us a vast study that is in many ways the opposite of Lipstadt's: calm where Lipstadt is passionate, scholarly where she is populist, always rigorous where she sometimes goes off the rails. In the first of three projected volumes, Katz proposes to compare the Holocaust with every other major historical instance of mass murder, and to show that the Holocaust stands alone (as most Holocaust scholars believe but cannot rigorously prove).

It is of course a truism that every historical event is unique; but something more than this is meant here. The Holocaust is in the first place an expression of anti-Semitism, which in important ways is different from other forms of ethnic prejudice. Unlike the quarrel between the Croats and the Serbs, say, anti-Semitism is not a local affair but is found to some degree everywhere - even in Japan where Jews have never lived. And it is a curious and contradictory mixture of contempt and envy: the Jews are despised as pariahs, yet suspected of secretly ruling the world. Lastly, no other form of ethnic prejudice has justified itself by means of such an elaborate and deeply-rooted ideology, largely the work of the Christian churches. Christianity in its triumphant age attached eschatological significance to the very existence of the Jews. According to Augustinian doctrine, the Second Coming was to be heralded by the conversion of the Jews: the Christian utopia, like the Nazi one, was to be judenrein.

But the Christian anti-Jewish stance, though it resulted in persecutions of various kinds and sporadically in physical violence, was never genocidal. Only with the advent of Nazism - another historical novum - with its uniquely poisonous blend of racism, anti-Semitism, aggressive nationalism and technocratic amorality, did a genocidal undertaking become conceivable. For Hitler himself, anti-Semitism was obsessive and central: as Eberhard Jaeckel has shown, Hitler's only consistent policy objectives were the construction of a Teutonic empire and the elimination of the Jews. But for millions of people, of every European nationality, who were prepared to follow Hitler, his hatred of Jews was, at the least, no obstacle. The result, according to Katz, was the first true genocide in history: the first deliberate attempt to murder, not merely a large number of people, but an entire gens.

In arguing for the singularity of the Holocaust, Katz is careful to avoid the traps into which many other authors have fallen. The Holocaust was not the largest mass killing in history. Fifty-five millions were killed in the second world war; and even considering only Nazi atrocities against civilian populations, non-Jewish victims outnumbered Jewish ones. Although Jews formed the largest single category of victims, the Gypsies suffered greater losses in proportion to their numbers. Nor, Katz argues, was the killing of the Jews morally worse than the killing of non-Jewish populations. But it was a new kind of crime. The Nazis would not have built the gas chambers for the Gypsies, whom they regarded as a nuisance not a threat. But once the facilities for mass killing existed, they could be used to get rid of nuisances too.

Another radical claim made by many writers is that the Holocaust - symbolised rather unfortunately by the word "Auschwitz" - represents nothing less than a fundamental historical rupture, so that one can speak of a world "before Auschwitz" and a quite different world "after Auschwitz". This is the theme explored in Lawrence D. Kritzman's fine collection of essays by French writers and American commentators on French affairs.

Jean-Francois Lyotard is here for the post-modernists, in a characteristically impenetrable essay. He maintains, inter alia, that "Auschwitz" is so far outside normal experience that its meaning cannot be explained: it is therefore an "anonym", a kind of true but unreachable theorem, a la Godel. Thus "Auschwitz", like Godel's theorem, reveals a fundamental limitation of language.

Psychoanalyst Ora Avni, on the other hand, sees the rupture as being in the relationship of the individual to "history". The survivor of Auschwitz is abnormal and in need of healing; but healing cannot be accomplished through adjustment to a "normality" which is itself abnormal since it produced Auschwitz. A world in which an Auschwitz can exist (the genie cannot be put back into the bottle) is a world in which the therapeutic disjunction normal/abnormal has also become an "anonym".

Emmanuel Levinas writes here not as a post-modernist but as a traditionalist Jew, and takes up what might be called an anti-rupture position: Auschwitz or no, the Torah is eternal; everything that man is, was, or could be is revealed in it.

There is much philosophy and little history in this volume, perhaps because the abstracting universalism of French thought coexists uneasily with the concrete particularity of Auschwitz (as distinct from "Auschwitz"), and perhaps even more because of the role of the Vichy government in sending 76,000 Jews there and because of the manifest indifference of French society to this role. The only French historical essay, by Pierre Vidal-Naquet, mentions Vichy only briefly; while Claude Lantzmann's film Shoah, cited by Vidal-Naquet as "the only great French historical work on the massacre", mentions Vichy not at all. The American contributors are left to comment: Geoffrey Hartman's "The Voice of Vichy" remarks on the persistent strength of the Holocaust denial movement in France, while Nelly Furman's perceptive essay, "The Languages of Pain in Shoah", points out that French is heard in Lantzmann's film only as the language of accusation, witnessing, and judgement. Lantzmann put no French defendants in the dock, and shot no footage in France.

Throughout the Nazi period, negotiations took place periodically whose aim was to ransom groups of Jews from the Nazis. Had these negotiations met with greater success, some thousands of lives, at the minimum, might have been saved; and, just possibly, the right offer at the right time might have deflected the Nazis from genocide altogether. Such is the provocative speculation of the noted Israeli historian Yehuda Bauer in Jews for Sale.

Most historians think that the Nazis did not settle on a policy of extermination until some time in the spring or summer of 1941: before that, they favoured emigration or deportation, or concentration of the Jews in a reservation somewhere (Madagascar and Poland were proposed). And as Bauer shows, they - Himmler, in particular - were willing to consider other options even after the decision for genocide had been taken.

In 1943, Himmler began to be increasingly worried about the state of the war and the prospects of an Allied victory. He worried especially about the threatened war-crimes trials. He was probably aware of the officers' plot against Hitler while it was still in its early stages, and he was concerned to preserve his options in case political realities changed. He engaged in secret negotiations towards a separate peace, and was well aware that his reputation as a Jew-killer did him no good abroad. He therefore began accumulating potential Jewish hostages (mostly at Theresienstadt), and he obtained Hitler's verbal permission to see if he could sell Jews for hard currency. Two separate sets of negotiations were carried out in 1943 and 1944. The first, the "Europa plan" proposed by Slovakian rabbi Dov Weissmandel, would have stopped the deportations of Jews to death camps across Europe in return for a bribe of $2-3 million; the second, known as the Joel Brand mission, would have exchanged one million Jews for 10,000 laden trucks, to be supplied by the western Allies and to be used only on the eastern front.

Both of these plans fell through, in part because of the difficulties of arranging international transfers of funds in wartime, and also because of suspicions about Nazi intentions, probably well-founded ones. If the negotiations had succeeded, might not a substantial number of lives have been saved? Probably not, Bauer is obliged to conclude wistfully; but he leaves the question open.

What would more likely have saved significant numbers of Jews - and persuaded the Nazis to change their plans - would have been a significantly more generous refugee policy pre-war. In 1938, the growing flood of Jewish refugees from Germany prompted the United States to sponsor the Evian Conference, and it was probably Evian - "naive" spelt backwards - that represented the last, best hope of the European Jews.

But the democracies were able neither to grasp the nature of Nazi racial policy, nor to transcend their own economic concerns. "The West and the Nazis stared at each other . . . quite uncomprehendingly" at the conference, writes Bauer. "The Nazis saw in the Jewish 'problem' a central world political issue whose solution was a sine qua non for any permanent solution of global problems generally. The West saw in the Jews another persecuted religious minority . . ." And so nothing was done. The Nazis, convinced that the world's protestations on behalf of the Jews were merely hot air, and that their own approach to the "Jewish question" represented everyone's secret wishes, embarked on the path to genocide. Had the democracies been either less cynical or less naive at Evian, the Holocaust might - just possibly - have been averted.

Steve Paulsson is lecturer in Jewish history and Holocaust studies, University of Leicester.

Auschwitz and After: Race, Culture and

Editor - Lawrence D. Kritzman
ISBN - 0 415 90441 2 and 90440 4
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £40.00 and £14.99
Pages - 335

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