London, Tuesday, January 18, 2000
History on trial: David Irving may be isolated in his high court battle, but a growing number of respectable academics are criticising what they have dubbed the 'Holocaust industry'.
David Cesarani on the battle to control the memory of the Shoah
AT times during his legal battle in the high court, David Irving, a man of natural military bearing, resembles a beleaguered Wehrmacht general in some god-forsaken pocket on the eastern front, desperately trying to beat off the Jewish-Bolshevik hordes. At least, one suspects, that is rather how he sees it.
He stands or sits alone on one side of the courtroom, while the large defence team occupies most of the rest of it. In his opening statement he referred several times to the existence of an 'international endeavour' to destroy his name and career as a writer. He menacingly promised that 'the Jewish community, their fame and fortunes, play a central role in these proceedings'.
Lest there be any doubt about that particular role, he avers that he was 'the target of a hidden international attempt' to silence him. Naming names, Irving has pointed the finger at the American Jewish Anti-Defamation League and its equivalents in Britain, Canada, and Australia. Bizarre as they may be, these accusations will resonate beyond the odd collection of his supporters huddled in the Irving corner of the public gallery.
To the young man clad in a black parka, black roll-top sweater, black trousers and black baseball cap sitting among them, the notion, no matter how paranoid, of an international Jewish conspiracy to destroy a hero of the far right will appear just so much common sense. Rather more worryingly, it may feed into the growing backlash against the so-called 'Holocaust industry' which, for very different reasons, is taking hold in mainstream media and academic circles.
Few reasonable people will dispute the right of Jews in this country and elsewhere to join forces with other Jews, as well as legions of non-Jewish anti-fascists, in opposing neo-nazism and the Holocaust denial that is associated with it. But some are questioning whether memorialisation of the Holocaust, as well as Holocaust studies in schools and universities, are not being used wrongly, or simply getting out of hand.
While Irving disputes the accepted facts of the Holocaust, posing as the victim of powerful forces with a vested interest in the established version, serious writers on both sides of the Atlantic who scorn his methods and arguments are questioning the purposes to which the Holocaust is being put. They are asking if it deserves a special, protected place in the public consciousness.
The government's announcement in October 2000 that it was considering the establishment of a Holocaust Memorial Day in the UK gave evidence both of the heightened intensity of Holocaust awareness and the reaction to it. Richard Ingrams in the Observer complained that 'not a day goes by without the Holocaust being mentioned in one context or another'.
Earlier in the year the announcement that the Imperial War Museum North was planning a joint venture with the Manchester Shoah Centre provoked Brian Sewell in the Evening Standard to condemn the 'bandwagon' effect. 'Can we not say to the Jews of Manchester,' he asked, 'that enough has been made of their Holocaust and they are too greedy for our memories.'
Most recently, Sam Schulman in the Spectator warned that 'a new kind of anti-semitism may emerge in the 21st century, in reaction to the attempt to make 'the Holocaust' central to our civilisation.' As with all such journalistic provocations there is more than an element of the self-fulfilling prophecy, but the critique is not confined to columnists hungry for a topic that will trigger an avalanche of letters to the editor.
In 2000, Tim Cole, a British academic responsible for ground-breaking research on the wartime Budapest ghetto, published Images of the Holocaust: the Myth of the 'Shoah Business', which slammed the redemptive and kitschy representation of the Holocaust seen in films and museums the world over. He dubbed this, perhaps foolishly, the 'myth' of the Holocaust.
It is not hard to show that what we know as the Holocaust, or Shoah, is a narrative that was constructed over the years and only gained popular currency from the late 60s onwards. Cole, building on the work of US scholar James Young, argues that the Holocaust is invested with different meanings depending on the society in which it is recalled. As Young showed, it helps to tell a nation's story through the Jewish experience.
But Cole singles out the use of exhibitions and memorials to combat Holocaust denial. 'Museums such as the US Holocaust Memorial Museum and movies such as Schindler's List have as a self- conscious goal not simply teaching the public lessons from the past, but also the aim of disproving the claims of those who deny the Holocaust.'
In his eyes this is a mistake, since 'it amounts to attempting to counter the questioning of the reality of the 'Holocaust' by offering in its place a representation of the 'Holocaust' which only tends to blur the critical distinction between reality and representation'. Worse, it's self-defeating: 'It was not until it emerged as an iconic event that it was perceived to be an event which was deemed to be worth denying.' Memorialisation provokes denial.
The intellectual backlash has been more prominent and problematic in the US. Next month will see the publication in Britain of The Holocaust In American Life by the respected US historian Peter Novick, in which he maintains that 'it was Jewish initiative that put the Holocaust on the American agenda'. The story of Jewish martyrdom was used by American Jewish leaders from the 70s on to provide a narrative that could unite the diverse American-Jewish community and deter assimilation, he argues. It was also a handy way to clobber anti-semitism and justify US support for Israel.
Novick uncovered many policy statements by leaders of the American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Congress and the Anti-Defamation League to sustain his thesis. He was on more speculative ground when it came to explaining the receptivity of American society to a tale of Jewish misery in Europe, although this was the most interesting part of his argument.
The 60s saw the end of the melting-pot ethos in American society and the rise of the 'new ethnicity'. It became fashionable to be a hyphenated American. This 'particularism' enabled American-Jews, and specifically Holocaust survivors, to tell their stories for the first time. Moreover, their experience harmonised with America's self-image as a sanctuary for history's victims. Victimhood proved especially useful to American Jews who wanted to defend their privileges against other ethnic groups, notably African-Americans, without appearing too powerful or greedy.
Americans accepted the prioritisation of the Holocaust because it made them feel good: they stood shoulder to shoulder with the people who had endured the worst of the 20th century. Remembering genocide in a 'warm glow of virtue' became a vicarious alternative to actually doing anything about it.
These arguments are echoed in a more reductive form by Norman Finkelstein in his forthcoming book The Holocaust Industry, which was prefigured by his hostile review of Daniel Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners in the New Left Review in mid-1997. Finkelstein, a left-wing and anti-Zionist political scientist, claims that the 'Holocaust industry' was created by the pro-Israel lobby in the US after 1967 to justify aid for Israel. "The Holocaust' is in effect the Zionist account of the Nazi holocaust. It was seized upon and methodically marketed because it was politically expedient.' It is at this point that the backlash against the so-called Holocaust industry collides disturbingly with the events in the high court and their background.
On the far left throughout the 70s and 80s it was common to find the argument that Jews cultivated knowledge of the Holocaust to buttress Israel's right to exist at the expense of the Palestinians and repel criticism of its occupation policies. These themes lay at the heart of Jim Allen's 1987 play Perdition, tellingly resurrected last year. In this drama, based coincidentally on a libel trial, the defence counsel argues that 'Israel is a paid watchdog: a nation built on the pillar of Western guilt and subsidised by American dollars.'
Similar reasoning was located on the far right. It found expression in Irving's introduction to the Leuchter Report, which purported to show that there were no gas chambers at Auschwitz. According to Irving, 'Since 1949 the state of Israel has received over DM90bn in voluntary reparations from West Germany, essentially in atonement for the 'gas chambers of Auschwitz", which he declared a 'myth'.
Of course, there is a world of difference between this and the unease felt in many quarters about the prominence of the Holocaust in society, culture and politics today. But in their efforts to chart the origins of the 'Holocaust industry', its critics fall into the trap of ascribing too much influence and power to the Jews, while the motives they ascribe to Jewish organisations are reductive and harmful.
The Holocaust is the object of fascination today not just because it is a gripping chapter of history, but because it has stunning contemporary relevance. In a Europe that has recently witnessed 'ethnic cleansing', the past has become the present. As events in Rwanda showed, genocide is not just a matter of academic research. The routine violation of human rights and the benighted treatment of refugees inevitably evoke past experiences and call for these to be studied and, with respect for all the crucial variations of scale and character, recalled as a warning.
For it is too easy to dismiss reference to the Holocaust as an easy way of demarcating good and evil. The issues that the Holocaust throws up, such as racism, eugenics and biological politics, are precisely the dilemmas we face today. It was for this reason that the British historian Michael Burleigh concluded his study of Nazi 'euthanasia' policies, Death and Deliverance, with a passionate discussion of what the Australian philosopher Peter Singer currently says about the right to life.
In the global marketplace of moral values, the Holocaust seems one instance of applied evil that everyone can agree about. The globalisation of media has made the Holocaust a ubiquitous subject, not the other way round.
The struggle for compensation for slave and forced labourers of the Nazi era would not have won such support were it not, partly at least, for the inclination to hold multinational corporations to account for their treatment of employees. The ethical standards that are being demanded from big business have given a reciprocal relevance to conduct of business under the Third Reich. Such interest hardly existed a few years ago.
Most importantly, the impatience with Holocaust memorialisation rests on a continuing, stubborn resentment of Jewish difference. Behind Peter Novick's criticism of 'particularism' is an assimilationist agenda. In Finkelstein's anti-Zionism this is quite explicit. The critics of the proposed Holocaust Memorial Day who instead want a 'genocide day' seem unable, or unwilling, to comprehend the specificity of the Jewish fate in the 20th century and the right of a people to commemorate its suffering after decades when it was all but ignored by the world.
Jews are still living with the pain of that silence. It was not of their making or choosing. The ways of commemorating the Holocaust that may make amends for that silencing process are legitimate subjects for argument, but there is a danger of an inadvertent coalition between the man who sees himself as the victim of a 'hidden international conspiracy' and the critics of the 'Holocaust industry' who depict it as a manipulative ramp for the benefit of one ethnic interest group and the State of Israel.
David Cesarani is professor of modern Jewish history at Southampton university and is writing a book on the impact of the Holocaust.
January 18, 2000