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

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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.

Film Review: Im Labyrinth des Schweigens – “The Disclosure of a Disturbed Past”

Copyright: Beeldbank WO2- NIOD

 

Main defendant Wilhelm Boger, on the photo left, awaits the beginning of the Frankfurt Auschwitz trial in April 1964. In the background a map of the infamous Auschwitz concentration camp. Copyright: Image Bank WW2- NIOD

 

By Laurien Vastenhout and Marieke Zoodsma – 

 

It was not the handsome leading actor on the promotion poster of the film Im Labyrinth des Schweigens (Labyrinth of Lies) that stirred our young historians’ blood. This was rather caused by the endless number of high-up filling cabinets with documents and dossiers surrounding him, perhaps sloppily archived, but a dream for any historian to dig into. These dossiers are the thousands and thousands of personnel files of the Schutzstaffel (SS), the major paramilitary organization that was, under the command of Heinrich Himmler, primarily responsible for many of the crimes perpetrated during the Nazi-regime. The poster depicts the Berlin Document Center, the central collection point of the American administration for documentation from the time of Nazism. Here, our leading actor, the Frankfurter prosecutor Johann Radmann, initiates his major investigation into the crimes committed at the Auschwitz concentration camp. The film starts at the end of the 1950s in West Germany. Radmann is startled by the fact that no one ever seems to have heard of Auschwitz concentration camp – let alone of the atrocities committed there.

 

This idea of (willful) ignorance of the atrocities committed during the Second World War by the Nazis in the post-war period has been thoroughly investigated by Dan Stone in his recent work Goodbye to all That (2014). He underlines that a consensus on the memory of the Second World War was formulated in Germany. In the communist East-Germany, the capitalist system was blamed for this dark period in German history. In the West, there was a tendency to remain entirely silent on the period. Instead of finding a way to deal with the difficult past in which particular groups had suffered tremendously, the idea that this history had already been sufficiently dealt with prevailed, particularly in the West. Those that were deemed guilty had received their punishments through the Nuremberg trials and, from this perspective, the country had been completely denazified.  Stone has argued that this was a constructed consensus that was necessary in order to restore the country, allowing the German citizens to go on with their lives rather easily without having to think of the disturbing past. This can be seen as the central starting point of Im Labyrinth des Schweigens, with an ambitious young prosecutor who, as the story continues, slowly and painfully opens up this disturbing past.

 

In his publication Legacies of Dachau (2008), Harold Marcuse has also illustrated this deliberate silencing of the past by describing the way the Dachau concentration camp was viewed by German society in the post-war period. The municipality of Dachau refused both to construct signs indicating where the camp was located as well as the construction of a metro stop when a new metro line was built. All efforts were directed to make people remember the ‘good’ things of Dachau, for example that it used to be a place with a significant community of painters before the war. The war period was, in short, entirely ignored. This unwillingness of authorities to investigate the past, or even to pay attention to it in the first place, is a reoccurring theme in Im Labyrinth des Schweigens. Johann Radmann and his prosecuting team become visibly frustrated with the fact that the authorities they have to work with, refuse to actively help find the alleged Nazi perpetrators.         

 

The film neatly portrays how politically charged this search for, and the eventual arrest of, alleged Nazi war criminals has been. Even though 50 years have passed since the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials (1963-1965) and international law has quickly developed afterwards, with international tribunals sprouting up like sunflowers in the sun, the politicization of the arrest of alleged war criminals is still as relevant today as it was then. As Radmann digs further in the evidence on crimes committed at Auschwitz, he learns about Joseph Mengele, the infamous Nazi-doctor of Auschwitz who performed medical experiments on the camp prisoners – at that time Mengele is at large and living in Argentina. Radmann decides he wants to bring Mengele to justice, that he ought to be the ‘big fish’ of these trials; “Mengele is Auschwitz”, he claims. The unwillingness of the West-German authorities to arrest Mengele, even when he visits his family in Germany, is reminiscence of the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) 2009 arrest warrant of Omar Al-Bashir – the still presiding Sudanese president who is indicted for genocide and crimes against humanity (see Iona’s recent interview with professor Samuel Totten on the Sudan-conflict). When the Mossad (the Israeli intelligence agency) captures Adolph Eichmann in May 1960, Mengele flees to Paraguay and eventually dies a free man in 1979.

 

As the film is largely based on events that have actually taken place, it is a decent and thorough portrayal of the difficulties faced by anyone who wanted to call attention to the troubled past in a period (1950s and early 1960s) when the large majority remained silent. The historical accuracy is praiseworthy, despite the dramatization of some events – with arrests of suspected Nazi criminals taking place even while they are in the dentist’s chair. The film ends with the actual start of the trials which could leave the viewer feeling somewhat unsatisfied. However, the director’s choice not to focus on the perpetrators and the trial itself but mostly on the pre-trial period, where the silence and lies present in German society are most visible, is a favorable decision. This story is not about the war criminals and the actual trial, it is about the difficult disclosure of a disturbed past.

 

Only last week, the 93-year old “Accountant of Auschwitz” Oskar Gröning, who was assigned with the confiscation of luggage of prisoners at Auschwitz, has gone on trial in Germany. Of the approximately 7,000 SS-officers who served at Auschwitz and its sub-camps, no more than a hundred of them have faced trial and even less went to prison. On January 27th of this year, the 70th commemoration of the liberation of Auschwitz was held. Next week on the 5th of May, the Netherlands will celebrate their 70-year liberation of Nazi-occupation. Let these trials, how belated and perhaps incomplete as they might be, be a remembrance of the stories untold by the thousands of victims of dictatorial and genocidal regimes. Perhaps not justice but the opening up of silence, of the labyrinth of lies as the film cleverly portrays, is thus primarily served.

“We Are You”: The Meaning of the Holocaust in Israeli Identity and Politics

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Photo: Laurien Vastenhout

By Laurien Vastenhout

By After the ‘march of unity’ of world leaders in Paris on the 11th of January, which was a response to the terrorist attacks on both the French newspaper Charlie Hebdo and the Jewish grocery store in the city centre, Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu visited the memorial ceremony at the Grand Synagogue of Paris. The ceremony was dedicated to the remembrance of those (Jewish) citizens who had been brutally murdered by Muslim terrorists a few days earlier. Rather than mourning for the lives lost, Netanyahu used the opportunity to spread his own message. He encouraged French Jews to come to Israel since this, in his view, is the only country where Jews can live safely. The French authorities were offended. Clearly, Netanyahu saw the attacks in Paris as an opportunity to promote his election campaigns at the expense of relations between Jewish and non-Jewish citizens of France. The Prime Minister of Israel even made a link between the horrendous attacks on innocent French Jews and his settlements policy, justifying the latter because he considers it a necessary policy in order to protect the Jewish citizens of Israel against any foreign threat.

Last year, during the Yom HaShoah, the Holocaust Remembrance Day in Israel, Netanyahu acted in a similar way. While the entire evening was dedicated to the remembrance of the suffering of the Jews during the Second World War, for example by reading poems and listening to survivor’s stories, he used the opportunity to give a lecture on the offensive policies of Iran and argued that Israelis should be aware that enemies are continuously trying to demolish the Holy land, Eretz Israel. The moment of national mourning was used to spread a highly political message. Rather than remembering the victims, Netanyahu used the Holocaust as an example of what might happen to the Jewish population in case they did not protect themselves to the maximum. 

When we take a closer look to the meaning or function of the Shoah in the politics of Israel and in the consciousness of the citizens of Israel, a particular development can be identified. In the years following the end of the Second World War, the idea that there had been many collaborators amongst the European Jews prevailed among citizens of Israel. Also, it was generally argued that Diaspora Jews had somehow contributed to their own suffering by easily submerging themselves to the German anti-Jewish measures. In short, the European Jews were considered to have been too weak. In this period, which lasted from around 1945 until the early 1960s, the Shoah hardly played a role in national consciousness of citizens of Israel; the establishment of the State was the sole focus of attention.

This altered with the changing of time.  As soon as the establishment of the State of Israel was no longer a ‘new’ reality, attention could be paid to more ‘peripheral’ topics. As a result, the story of the immigrant Jews whom had fled Europe either during or after the Second World War, surfaced on the agenda. Rather than arguing that European Jews had been too weak and collaborative, room was made for a more differentiated and compassionate attitude.  This tendency was reinvigorated by the Eichmann trial in 1961, during which the stories of the suffering of Jews in concentration camps in Eastern Europe and elsewhere played a central role. By then, 600.000 Jews living in Israel, out of the 2 million in total, were survivors of the Holocaust.  Because of the increasing tendency to pay attention to the traumatic experiences of Jews during the Second World War, this quarter of the population that had survived, began to fulfill a new social role. That was particularly true because, the Diaspora Jews were finally equalled with the autochthon Jews. As Shabbetai Keshev, a journalist of the liberal Israeli newspaper Haaretz stated in 1961: ‘we are you’, in which the ‘you’ referred to the Jews who had come from Europe to Israel either during or after the Second World War. In doing so, the burden of guilt of those who had lived through the Holocaust, was mitigated. The Diaspora Jews were now no longer seen as a marginal, weak and unimportant group, but rather as a bridge between Israelis and the Diaspora Jews that were still living in Europe. A new social reality was born.

This trend of increasingly incorporating the Shoah in the identity of Jews living in Israel has continued. As a result, the Shoah has become a key moment to which Israelis look back, and base their existential decisions on. Apart from the famous notion of ‘never again’, there exists in fact an additional view: ‘this will never happen again to us’. Currently, this notion plays a central role in Israeli identity and politics. Research has indicated that the large majority of Israelis consider the Shoah to be part of their core identity. Increasingly, the Jewish State is by now considered a safe haven, established in order to provide Jews all over the world with a country in which they can live safely. The Holocaust is an example used to illustrate of what will happen in case the Jews do not find protection in their Holy Land. The recent speeches of Benjamin Netanyahu re-emphasize this feeling in a clever way and take this notion even a step further. Not only is Eretz Israel a safe haven to Israelis, it is the only safe haven for Jews. In fact, the country should protect itself by all means against any foreign threat.

Strangely enough, with the changing of time the history of the Shoah has come to play a more central role in the identity to those Israeli citizens who have not personally experienced it. This is a good example of the way the meaning and importance of history and historical events can change, and can be reinterpreted, whether subconsciously or consciously. The increasing conscious approach of Netanyahu to use the Shoah as a justification for continuous repressive actions against Palestine is absolutely worrying. Not only because it is the view of one political leader, but because this concept is partly the result of an atmosphere that is reigning among the population as well.