Different Shades of Denial: are the White House and the German far right relativizing the Holocaust?

Auschwitz II-Birkenau, November 2016. Picture by Marieke Zoodsma
Auschwitz II-Birkenau, November 2016. Picture by Marieke Zoodsma

Auschwitz II-Birkenau, November 2016. Picture by Marieke Zoodsma

By Marieke Zoodsma

 

January is an important month for those involved in Holocaust remembrance; the 27th of January, the day that Auschwitz concentration camp was liberated by the Red Army, is International Holocaust Remembrance Day. It is a month in which events are organised that involve Holocaust remembrance or topics related to the crimes of the Nazi regime, such as the Nooit Meer Auschwitz lecture in Amsterdam. It is also a month in which politicians engage in public statements regarding (the commemoration of) the Holocaust and the Second World War. However, it is also in the realm of politics where genocide, be it the Holocaust or any other, can become a dangerously fluid, unclear and undefined concept. Lobbyists, activists, and politicians from all different sides of the political spectrum use the term for their own agenda, thereby often (wilfully?) misinterpreting the facts. I will point out two examples.


At a speech in Dresden
on the 17th of January, Björn Höcke, a politician from the German right-wing Alternative for Germany party (AfD), labelled the Berlin Holocaust memorial a ‘monument of shame’. Höcke, a former history teacher, said; “Until now, our mental state continues to be that of a totally defeated people. We Germans are the only people in the world that have planted a monument of shame in the heart of their capital.”. General outrage from within as well as outside Germany followed as Höcke was being condemned for his statement as being anti-Semitic and a demagogue. One way or another, it is highly questionable if a political figure should engage in such inflammatory comments on (the remembrance of) a not-so-long-ago history. Perhaps his political agenda guided him otherwise.


The United States White House commemorated International Holocaust Remembrance Day with a statement. The statement reads: “It is with a heavy heart and somber mind that we remember and honor the victims, survivors, heroes of the Holocaust. It is impossible to fully fathom the depravity and horror inflicted on innocent people by Nazi terror.”. Here too the statement was followed by astonishment since it did not include Jews, Judaism or antisemitism. Jonathan Freedlander commented in The Guardian: “The Nazis were broad in their hatred, targeting Roma, gay people and disabled people, as well as socialists, communists and many others. But any full account of that period begins with the recognition that Jews were singled out for total eradication.”. According to professor Deborah Lipstadt, whose story on Holocaust denial is intriguingly depicted in the film Denial, it is a form of classic “softcore denial” of the Holocaust. According to Lipstadt, the statement is not necessarily denying the facts but it minimizes them; arguing that the Jews as a group were not particularly targeted for destruction. This way, the Holocaust is de-Judaized.


Denial comes in many shapes and forms. The deaths in a genocide can for instance be rationalized as a result of an ‘age old conflict’ (as the Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadžić did during the Bosnian war), or the statistics can be questioned or minimized. A common form of denial, especially among lawyers and politicians, is the claim that what is going on is not genocide. It is a definitional argument of which the United States State Department employees were fully aware when they drafted a memo in May 1994 (during the Rwandan genocide) saying; “Be careful … Genocide finding could commit U.S.G. to actually ‘do something’”. Different actors can deny certain things from having happened, from individual politicians to states – such as Turkey denying the Armenian genocide.


In the described statements, Holocaust denial or not, politicians are venturing out onto a slippery slope. Where the German politician Höcke can be said to trivialize the remembrance of the Holocaust, the United States government is minimizing the suffering of the Jews in the Holocaust. As with many historical events – and perhaps especially commemorations – the Holocaust is being used for political agendas. Höcke, in the face of the refugee crisis and the recent terrorist attack in Berlin, might want to construct the image of a unified glorious German people to build on a better and brighter future instead of a defeated people with a shameful past. The motives for the United States might be focussed on combating the Jews “special pleading” over the Holocaust.


The sociologist Stanley Cohen offers an interesting perspective in his influential work States of Denial (2001). Trying to answer the question “how could people simultaneously know and not know about certain matters?”, Cohen argues that there seem to be “states of mind, or even whole cultures, in which we know and we don’t know at the same time”. The language that was being used during the extermination process is hereby an important aspect. The euphemisms, or language rules, that were deployed in the extermination process made it possible to deny what was actually happening; “the victims of Nazi atrocities were ‘deported’ to ‘work camps’ for ‘special actions’”. The meaning of the Holocaust is hereby simultaneously literally denied and one can thus claim it did not happen – during but also afterwards the genocide itself.


These language rules that are being used to literally deny and thereby reject the actual meaning of the Holocaust sound awkwardly reminiscent to the “alternative facts” (“falsehoods”, or in other words: denying the truth) of the new Trump administration. And we venture out further on that slippery slope…

 

Srebrenica Remembered: 21 Years Later

Family members mourning in the compound at the Potocari Memorial Centre. Photo by: Marieke Zoodsma

 

Family members mourning in the compound at the Potocari Memorial Centre. Photo by: Marieke Zoodsma

Family members mourning in the compound at the Potocari Memorial Centre, July 2015. Photo by: Marieke Zoodsma

By Marieke Zoodsma

Yesterday, the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina and others all over the world remembered the genocide that took place in Srebrenica – a small town in Eastern Bosnia – in July 1995. As much as Srebrenica used to be famous for its thermal spa resorts in Yugoslav times, it is now known to the world as the place where one of the worst atrocities after the Second World War in the European mainland has taken place. During those dreadful days, approximately 8.000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were systematically killed by Bosnian Serb forces in the days following the fall of Srebrenica. Under the auspices of an UN peace-force, which was there to protect the large Bosnian Muslim population that sought refuge in and around town, the troops of Ratko Mladić carefully sorted out the men from the women – the men to be executed in the nearby fields or warehouses and the women to be bussed to the Bosnian Muslim safe area around Tuzla.

 

Of the estimated 8.000 victims of the genocide, so far only 6.615 bodies have been identified and buried at the Potočari Memorial Centre. Each year new mass graves are found from which the bodies are exhumed and identified. In case of a positive identification, these victims are traditionally buried by their families during the mass funeral that is part of the commemoration on the 11th of July. This year 127 victims were brought to their final resting place. The fact that this process of searching the lost is already taking over twenty years is not only because of the time-consuming task the exhumation and identification of bodies from mass graves take, but also because many mass graves simply have not been localised yet. As I wrote before, the mass graves are a testament to the genocide that was committed in Bosnia, as well as to the failure of the authorities of the Republika Srpska, as part of their genocide denial, to reveal their location.

 

Last year, WHN-colleague Koen Kluessien and I visited the commemoration in Srebrenica – during its 20th “anniversary”.  Srebrenica and its surroundings were for a couple of days the stage of an international media circus, with the coffins of the victims and the tears of their families as perfect attributes for clean shots. During last year’s ceremony, Serbia’s Prime Minister Aleksander Vučić was chased away by a stone-throwing crowd because he – as well as many other Serbian officials – refused to acknowledge the massacre as genocide. This year, families of the victims demanded that those who deny the nature of the crime were not to be invited at the ceremony. As a result, no official from Belgrade or the Serbian part of Bosnia (Republika Srpska) came. Quarrels such as these turn the ceremony each year into a political game.

 

The events that happened in Srebrenica do not only keep a large part of the former Yugoslavia busy, but also those countries that were back then closely involved. Commemorations are being held in the United States, memorial sites are set up in the United Kingdom, law suits are started in the Netherlands against those that are deemed co-responsible, and investigations are conducted to shed more light on those crucial days in July. In March this year, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) sentenced ‘big fish’ Radovan Karadzić to forty years’ imprisonment in Europe’s biggest war crime trial since Nuremberg. The judgement clearly states Karadzić’s direct involvement in the killings:

 

“As the President of the RS [Republika Srpska, MZ] and Supreme Commander of the VRS [Army of the Republika Srpska, MZ], the Accused was the sole person within the RS with the power to intervene to prevent the Bosnian Muslim males from being killed. Yet far from intervening to prevent the killings from taking place at all, the Accused himself ordered that the Bosnian Muslim male detainees who were then being held in Bratunac be transferred elsewhere to be killed; they were then taken to Zvornik and killed.”
Karadzić’ Judgement Summary, 24 March 2016, p. 13

 

Karadzić’s appeal is currently under the jurisdiction of the Mechanism for International Tribunals, the follow-up of both the Yugoslav and the Rwandan tribunals.

 

For the people of Srebrenica, life goes on as a divided town under poor economic and social conditions (Bosnia has one of the highest unemployment rates in the world: 42%), with many abandoned skeletons of houses of those who didn’t return. Last year, I asked a restaurant owner – who earned his year income only during the commemoration – about his thoughts on the turmoil, media circus and political games that were being played. He told me: “We can turn Srebrenica into a museum which will only be opened around the 11th of July, that’s fine. But then we have to decide that that is the course we want to take”. That is what is happening now in Srebrenica.