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London, November 20, 2000
The Holocaust as show business
Nick Cohen argues that politicians and artists have drained Nazi genocide of meaning and turned it into a banal cause celebre
ON 27 January 2001, the 56th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the Home Office says that a royal personage (as yet unnamed) and political and religious leaders will meet in a central London hall (address as yet unknown) to share the pain of millions of dead on Britain's first Holocaust Memorial Day. The capital's ceremonies will be the hub of national institutional mourning. Hundreds of exhibitions will be presented in schools, libraries and town halls, and the BBC will broadcast commemorative programmes.
Why should a country that was not invaded, and therefore has no uncomfortable ghosts of collaboration to confront, be grieving two generations after the event? "As the Holocaust survivors age and become fewer in number," explained Tony Blair, "it becomes our duty to take up the mantle and tell each generation what happened and what might happen again."
Chew on that soundbite for a moment and wonder if our Prime Minister thinks before he speaks. He claims to be donning the striped-pyjama mantles of concentration-camp survivors and adds that his government is determined to ensure that the lessons of the camps inform its decisions. He is echoed by the civil servants organising Holocaust Day. Our aims are contemporary, they say. We want to "restate the continuing need for vigilance in light of the troubling repetition of human tragedies in the world today . . . [and] a continuing commitment to oppose racism, anti-Semitism, victimisation and genocide".
If there were a shred of truth in the above, the government would not have passed an Asylum Act that makes it as impossible for today's victims of "genocide and victimisation" to reach Britain legally as it was for the Jewish victims of Hitler to find sanctuary before 1938. Nor would Blair have incited racism by forcing asylum-seekers to live on a handful of vouchers and authorising supermarkets to pinch the change when they spent them. If Blair were sincere, in short, Jack Straw would not be Home Secretary. But Straw remains in office and is the minister responsible for Holocaust Day.
"I believe that, as we enter a new millennium, it is essential that the Holocaust is never forgotten," the Home Secretary told readers of the Jewish Chronicle. "Recent events in Rwanda, the Balkans and East Timor show that ethnic cleansing and mass murder are still affecting the world today."
The Indonesians who cleansed East Timor were armed by Britain at the insistence of Blair. The PM's culpability will not stop him attending the ceremony; nor will the Asylum Act deter Straw from showing up. The Tories propose to outnigger him at the election by campaigning on a promise that refugees who are accused of no crime but asking for a safe haven should be locked up without trial in internment camps. For all that, on Holocaust Day, I doubt if William Hague will be shamed into finding reasons to be elsewhere.
The chutzpah of Blair, Straw and Hague is to be expected. What is depressing is the likelihood that they will escape with their reputations unscathed.
The right-wing press will not lash them for their treatment of the heirs of the refugees from Nazism. From what I have seen of the BBC plans, they will not examine conditions for refugees in, say, the Campsfield internment centre. BBC executives and the government have also banned references to the Turkish slaughter of 1,500,000 Armenians in 1915, the first 20th-century genocide, and one that has many impolitic resonances. Turkey does not like to be reminded of the parallels between its treatment of the Armenians 85 years ago and of the Kurds today; earlier this year, it threatened to deny the Americans use of air bases on her territory if Bill Clinton formally accepted the massacres were genocide.
The whitewashing of history in the interests of our Nato ally has caused tensions in the factious BBC team struggling with the contradictions of Holocaust commemoration. Fergal Keane made public his anger with his employer. "Wasn't it Hitler who said 'Who remembers the Armenians?' when he laid the groundwork for the slaughter of the Jews?" he asked.
Indeed it was, and there is a line of left-wing thought that finds nothing surprising in brutish politicians exploiting the victims of Nazism while doffing their cap to military and trading partners. To the successors of the "Zionism is fascism" crowd of the Seventies (it isn't, incidentally, it's colonialism), the Holocaust and reaction sit comfortably together.
Norman Finkelstein wrote in The Holocaust Industry that the obsession with the camps began with
"Israel's victory in the 1967 Six Day War against its Arab neighbours. [Since then] too many public and private resources have been invested in memorialising the Nazi genocide. Most of the output is worthless, a tribute not to Jewish suffering but to Jewish aggrandisement. The Holocaust has proven to be an indispensable ideological weapon. Through its deployment, one of the world's most formidable military powers, with a horrendous human rights record, has cast itself as a 'victim' state, and the most successful ethnic group in the US has likewise acquired victim status. Considerable dividends accrue from this specious victimhood - in particular, immunity to criticism, however justified."
There is a great deal of truth in this, alas. But Finkelstein is so determined to prove that remembrance is fraudulent that he ignores the possibility that studies of 20th-century dictatorship can be undertaken in good faith or can reflect a humane desire to honour exterminated relatives. He ends up as cramped and sectarian as the grave- robbers he rightly denounces.
The confected furore that greeted the publication of The Holocaust Industry earlier this year distracted attention from a far better study by another Jewish-American historian. Peter Novick, author of The Holocaust and Collective Memory, is, like more thoughtful Jews in Britain, disturbed that dwelling on the Holocaust allows Hitler to define Jewish culture. He has little time for the hard "lessons" it is meant to teach us, and hammers home the insight that commemoration is easy - particularly in the lucky countries that were never occupied.
The Holocaust was such an extreme event that modern injustices can be dismissed as paltry in comparison, he writes.
"The principal lesson of the Holocaust, it is frequently said, [is that] it sensitises us to oppression and atrocity. In principle it might, and I don't doubt that sometimes it does. But making it the benchmark of oppression and atrocity works in precisely the opposite direction, trivialising crimes of lesser magnitude."
Thus when the Bosnians were begging the west to save them in 1992, Warren Christopher, Clinton's secretary of state, said there were crimes on all sides and the fate of the Muslims could not be compared to that of the Jews. Because the Serbs were not actually gassing every Bosnian, Nato passivity was in order. When Palestinians ask how Jews, of all people, can persecute them, they are sternly reminded that their sufferings do not compare with the horrors of wartime Europe. When the European Union imposed diplomatic sanctions on Austria for allowing Jorg Haider a voice in government, Eurosceptic pundits screamed that Haider wasn't a Nazi. True, he is not; he's a racist mob-rouser. Isn't that enough?
The not-a-Nazi gambit is played daily. A few months ago, I shared a platform with Sion Simon, a new Labour cheerleader. I had a go at the government's assault on trial by jury, and his instant response was: "Nick Cohen thinks Blair's Hitler." I pointed out that I thought nothing of the sort, and asked if all criticism of new Labour's record would be illegitimate until the day the Cabinet dressed in black leather and invaded Poland.
The Holocaust is in danger of becoming a sedative - and doubtless this appeals to the political class. But it is not only simpering and opportunist politicians who have drained the camps of meaning. The Holocaust is everywhere and nowhere - dehistoricised and uprooted. No cause is too banal to appropriate it. Like Elvis, Marilyn or Diana, it has become a two-dimensional icon in the mass-media market. If you think I'm exaggerating, ask how on earth Beatrix Campbell could write in her hagiography of the aforementioned Spencer that, "by telling her story" on Panorama after her marriage bust-up,
"Diana joined the constituency of the rejected - the survivors of harm and horror, from the Holocaust, from world war and pogroms, from Vietnam and the civil wars of South America and South Africa, from torture and child abuse".
Diana, apparently, was not the only survivor of horror hiding scars behind a pretty convincing facade of privilege. Members of the Groucho Club, the coke-strained heart of media London, can match her torment, according to Gordon Burn. The gushing "critic" of Britart told Guardian readers how Damien Hirst ordered the club's cleaners to collect "cigarette butts, champagne corks, matchbooks, cocaine wraps" left after a rough night in the West End. The installation he created in a giant plastic ashtray was "like a horrible record of a Srebrenica, of an Auschwitz or Belsen".
Hirst's fine sensibility is heightened in the Chapman Brothers' Hell now on show in the "Apocalypse" exhibition at the Royal Academy. Jake and Dinos wasted two years moulding and painting 5,000 model soldiers. The result of their labours is a room of glass cases filled with tiny Nazis being mutilated in toyland Treblinkas. The Chapmans are the intellectual equals of the sad old men who construct scale models of St Paul's from match stales in their sheds and send them to Blue Peter. The concentration camp reference, however, was enough to convince Academicians that the Chapmans were new Goyas.
The French synchronised swimming team wanted to do an Auschwitz ritual at the Olympics. The journalist Geoffrey Wheatcroft swears there is a restaurant in Taiwan with pictures of camp inmates on the walls to delight the diners. When Arnold Schwarzenegger told Californians he was considering running for governor of their state, he floored those who suggested that a beefcake might not be up to the job by revealing that he'd received an award from the Simon Wiesenthal Centre for "Holocaust Studies".
You can protest about the crassness of these and thousands of similar examples as much as you like, but it won't do any good. The ubiquity as much as the extremity of the Holocaust makes it a feeble inspiration for worthwhile intervention in political and cultural life.
It strikes me that one sensible response remains. As our mean politicians join royalist feminists and asinine artists in the appropriation game, it is time for a shabby Jewish fella at the back of the hall to leap to his feet, throw his hands in the air, his eyes to the ceiling and interrupt the professional mourning with an indomitable bellow. "Enough Already!"