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…

 

The Age of Apology: What Brandt’s Genuflection Can Tell About the Potential of Our Apologies

05_10_kniefall_brandt

 

Willy Brandt’s Kniefall. © ullstein bild/ Sven Simon

By Renate Vink (guest writer) – 

 

We are all sometimes waiting for a ‘sorry’. In our world of conflicts, historical wounds and complexities, it seems hard to overcome the legacies of conflict from our past. How to break these spirals of revenge, anger, and shame over past injustices? Authentic, spontaneous, well-prepared or not; in our current so-called age of apology it appears that apologies or reparations are increasingly becoming the norm for addressing historical injustices. Although political apologies are nothing new, their use in Western politics seems to have increased over the last few decades. Northern Ireland, Australia, Canada; throughout all levels of politics – be it in local, national or international politics – we can find the use of apologies or reparations to address the black pages in history in order to move on.

However the potential for these apologies, what value can they really hold in the tough environment of (the aftermath of) conflict? Can states, as an entity, actually practice forgiveness? Although the direct effect of an apology is very hard to measure, symbolically it can be a very powerful tool. But could it indeed provide a way to ‘solve’ the past – and prepare for reconciliation to take place? Or should we look at it with cynicism and dismiss its potential? As only time can teach us, we can learn a lot from one of the earliest examples of a public apology in our age, as shown by the German Chancellor Willy Brandt in Warsaw, 1970. As Brandt spontaneously fell to his knees in front of the Holocaust memorial, his Warschauer Kniefall marked the beginning of the current ‘wave of apologies’ sweeping over (international) politics.

 

Der Kanzler hat gekniet

On his knees, Chancellor Willy Brandt showed the world in 1970 what forgiveness and facing the past could look like. The almost Christ-like image of Brandt on his knees in front of a memorial for the Jewish Uprising in 1943 was never planned and Brandt himself left only few words on his motivation. ‘Unter der Last der jungsten Geschichte tat ich, was Menschen tun, wenn die Worte versagen. So gedachte ich Millionen Ermordete.’ (Under the weight of recent history, I did what people do when words fall short. This is how I remembered the millions of victims.)

Brandt had come to Warsaw as part of his Ostpolitik, which aimed at normalizing relations with Poland and signing the Treaty of Warsaw – and as a first official German visit since the war. When Brandt suddenly knelt down and in silence asked forgiveness for the wrongs of his nation – he set the tone for a Germany ‘which required that Nazism be remembered rather than forgotten’, according to historian Tony Judt. In other words, one of the first German steps towards facing its past.

It was the raw and uncomfortable version of what would later become a highly popular and much praised symbol of German Vergangenheitsbewältigung and provided an image of how Germany collectively faced its past. Der Spiegel reports after the event; ‘Dann bekent er sich zu einer Schuld, an der er selber nicht zu tragen hat, und bittet um eine Vergebung, derer er selber nicht bedarf. Dann kniet er da fuer Deutschland.’ (Then he commits himself to a debt, which he himself is not carrying, and asks for forgiveness, which he himself does not need. Then he kneels down for Germany.)

Although Brandt’s gesture today is literally set in stone, the response to his ‘silent apology’ has not always been positive. Apart from a few voices saying otherwise – the majority of Germans in 1970 found the Warschauer Kniefall exaggerated. Phrases such as ‘Wir liefern uns den Kommunisten aus’ (We are handing ourselves over to the communists) and listing Brandt as a ‘Verraeter’ (traitor) were no exception in the German press after December 10th, 1970. This is, however, not completely surprising, since Brandt’s Ostpolitik was heavily criticized in his homeland. In general, relatively little attention has been given to the Kniefall in the German press around 1970 – as it happened in the shadow of the signing of the Treaty of Warsaw, which was controversial enough in Germany at the time in light of the fate of millions of German Heimatvertriebenen.

‘Er kniete auch fuer uns’, headlines Die Zeit in December 2010, when the 40th anniversary of the Warschauer Kniefall is celebrated in the German press. A few decades after the event the critical tone is completely gone and hardly a single negative comment is written on Brandt’s Kniefall. Headlines such as ‘Eine Kniefall macht Geschichte’ (the gesture that made history) and ‘Willy Brandt’s Kniefall ist zur Ikone geworden’ (the gesture that became an icon) underline this dramatic change and stress the sense of uniqueness that comes with the image of the gesture nowadays. ‘Die Kraft der Demut’ is another title illustrating the change in the media from the Kniefall being a humiliating gesture on enemy ground into a symbol that stands for power and courage, an icon within 20th century German political history even speaking of a collective nation on its knees. One could say it is the childlike simplicity of the image, the complex history it was able to summarize in one picture and the room for interpretation it left that added to the popularity of the image in the media over the years.

The radical change in meaning and interpretation of the Warschauer Kniefall over 40 years can be explained by a combination of two factors. Firstly, the German unification and the end of the Cold War allowed for a different way of looking at historical events without the context and influence of uneasy East-West relations. Secondly, new developments of facing the role and place of the Holocaust as part of German history had taken place over the years, leading from a place of collective ignorance and amnesia towards acceptance and memorialization, almost at mass scale - read more about post-war ignorance of the Nazi atrocities in this article by Laurien Vastenhout and Marieke Zoodsma. A renewed and more glorified interpretation of the Kniefall as the result.

Certainly these developments help us understand the process of image iconization, and how it allowed for the German public to reconsider its initial interpretation of their leader on his knees. However, perhaps most relevant within today’s age of apology is to look at the growing popularity of the Kniefall through the lens of politics of redress – a form of politics focused on making amends as a way of dealing with our dark past. This is often practiced through public apologies and showing remorse for the past, but also through making financial or material reparations.

Examples of recent apologies in international politics include British prime-minister Cameron officially apologizing for the role of the British army on Bloody Sunday in Londonderry, Northern Ireland. As with Brandt’s Kniefall, we see a political leader apologizing for the injustice caused by his nation in the past, even though he was not personally involved in the wrongdoings. Another example is the Canadian official apology towards survivors and descendants of the residential schools, which lasted over a long period from 1840-1990s. A similar public apology was issued in Australia in 2008, when prime minister Rudd apologized for the history of the ‘stolen generations’ in a well prepared speech and event in front of the entire nation. Furthermore, the mere fact that we live in an age of apology is marked by the very existence of the ‘truth and reconciliation commission’ in South Africa, which dealt with the wrongdoings from the Apartheid regime.

The fact that there is such an increase in issued apologies within Western politics since the 1990s and that they are valued nowadays as a sign of respectability can be explained by the slow shift from Realpolitik, a form of ‘hard’ diplomacy based on given factors and circumstances rather than ideological or ethical reasoning, towards a more emotional and ethical kind of politics over the last few decades. It reflects an increasing willingness to meet certain criteria of moral respectability within politics. However, despite the commonality of public apologies, and the fact that they are sometimes even in demand – how seriously should we treat them? Are they merely an act of self-reflection, or indeed a valid potential for reconciliation? Surely, it is difficult to generalize on the effect of apologies – and it would be too early to draw conclusions on the effect and outcomes of today’s reparations. Nevertheless, what the Warschauer Kniefall teaches is that we cannot simply dismiss the value and potential of such gestures or apologies by merely looking at our current (political) circumstances. Even though heavily criticized in 1970, the meaning of the Kniefall changed as history was reinterpreted over the years – and thus we can only start to understand the value and true impact of apologies and other forms of reparations by looking back.

Therefore, time will tell if our apologies today have the potential to heal old wounds and if we can indeed overcome the ugly parts of our history through our public outings of remorse today. But as long as the Kniefall is able to tell the story of how a small, quiet and humbling gesture has the ability to grow into a meaningful symbol of forgiveness, able to re-direct the course of history, it will most likely continue to inspire other leaders and their nations to show remorse for the past – in the future.