Holocaust, no politics

The 'Problem of Evil' in Postwar Europe by Tony Judt (The New York Review of Books, February 14, 2008) is a very interesting and courageous article, among other things because the author warns us against the political use and misuse of the Holocaust by Israel. Unfortunately, the rest of Judt's story on the evolution of our perception of evil has been largely depoliticized.

According to Judt the political exploitation of the Shoah by a number of Israeli politicians started "in recent years". In fact this instrumentalization began in the years 1970-80 (mostly with Likud), or even in 1960-61 with the kidnapping of and the trial against Adolf Eichmann. This was of course the immediate occasion for Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem. This exploitation of the Holocaust by some Israeli politicians was joined in the US by Jewish interest groups that exercized pressure upon politicians with the intention to put the destruction of European Jewry prominently on the agenda and thus reinforce American support for Israel. The Endlösung , the Shoah, the judeocide turned into the Holocaust, an expression first applied by Elie Wiesel and launched on a worldwide scale by the American television serial Holocaust (1978). This serial, which got wide attention and stirred up a great commotion in Germany, heralded the start of the consciousness-raising and the Americanization of the judeocide. The seal of this work was set, after years of tag-of-war, with the establishment of the national Holocaust museum on the Washington Mall (where all the victims and heroes of the American nation have a monument, with the exception of the African-Americans), even though not a single Jew had been killed by the Nazis in the US. The United States Holocaust Memorial and Museum - which performs splendid work - was established with the explicit aim of uniting all Americans, all classes and ethnic groups, under the umbrella of the (that much more unique) suffering of the European Jews.

Europe was flooded with mostly American television serials, movies, books and articles. In the nineties, especially around the fiftieth anniversary of the end of World War II, the commemoration and the study of the judeocide became ever more politicized in Europe as well, specifically in the struggle against the emergent extreme right (the Holocaust denial, Austria with Jörg Haider...). That is the reason why many Western and Eastern European politicians at the Stockholm International Forum on the Holocaust(presided by Elie Wiesel) in 2000 were in agreement that "the magnitude of the Holocaus must be forever seared in our collective memory". Everything would be done to promote the education, remembrance and research on the Holocaust.   An annual Day of Holocaust Remembrance would be (and has been) decreed and in many countries a Holocaust Museum was established or is in the process of being built.

This politicization (much more so than the destruction of the Berlin Wall or the emergence of new generations) explains the ever more prominent place the Holocaust has taken in our collective memory. Politicization in Israel, America and Europe - and not, to a much lesser degree in the rest of the world, let alone the Third World. People there have other things to worry about, such as the remembrance and the consequences of colonialism, the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and genocides here and now.

It is and remains a good thing that so much attention is paid to the terrible fate of the European Jews. One could however regret, as Tony Judt indicates, that this diverts the attention from other and more recent forms of suffering (the media and the politicians pay more attention to the Holocaust than to Darfur). It is equally regrettable that the forcefully cranked up history of the commemoration of the Holocaust influences and even distorts scientific research and historiography. As of today all Nazi camps, even the concentration camps that were initially set up for other categories than the Jews, are called extermination camps. Many people, especially youngsters, no longer know the meaning of the red, brown, purple, black and pink triangles these inmates wore on their uniforms.

This also slightly distorts Tony Judt's story. For instance his intentionalization of the lack of interest for the judeocide during the first postwar decennia ("doing their best to forget", "turned their head resolutely away from it", "ignored the Shoah as much as they could", "no one wanted to recall"). Most people wanted to forget, Judt writes. One can, however, only forget what one knew, what one was aware off, has realized. In reality, as Judt writes in a other passage, most non-Jewish Europeans were not concerned with the fate of the Jews before and during the war and even less with the suffering of countless mentally and physically disabled people (mostly Germans) who were sterilized and "euthanized". Emotionally and legally most Jews were seen as foreigners, mainly relatively recent immigrants. Most of them did not possess the nationality of the country from which they were deported by the Nazis. During and immediately after the war, nationalism and patriotism flared up in all occupied countries. Most of the attention was spent on the terrible antagonism between resistance fighters and collaborators, between those who had shed their blood for the nation and those who had betrayed the nation (this was also one of the central themes in Hanna Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem , the "treason" the "Jewish Councils" had committed). This dichotomy was translated in laws which recognized the suffering of Jewish survivors only if they could prove that they had performed patriotic acts, and in a historiography with an emphasis on resistance and collaboration.

It is good that today so much commemorative and scientific attention is paid to this terrible fate of the Jews. But maybe the time has also come to pay more attention to the precedents of this most modern of all genocides: the exclusion of entire populations on account of their otherness. To begin with the mentally and physically disabled, who in Nazi-Germany proportionally counted at least as many victims as the Jews, but who, contrary to the latter, are not represented by a combative nation and who in our opinion untill now unfortunately deserve less attention.