The Holocaust Industryby Norman Finkelstein, Index On Censorship, 03/2000.
Holocaust awareness, the Israeli writer Boas Evron observes, is actually an official, propagandistic indoctrination, a churning out of slogans and a false view of the world, the real aim of which is not at all an understanding of the past, but a manipulation of the present.
Two central dogmas underpin the Holocaust framework: the Holocaust marks a categorically unique historical event and the climax of an irrational Gentile hatred of Jews. Although they became the centrepieces of Holocaust literature, neither figures at all in genuine scholarship on the Nazi Holocaust. On the other hand, both dogmas draw on important strands in Judaism and in Zionism.
The Holocaust uniqueness dogma became, according to Peter Novick, author of The Holocaust in American Life axiomatic, a fetishism and a cult in official Jewish discourse. No speech crime loomed larger than the use of the words Holocaust and genocide to describe other catastrophes. In an illuminating essay, historian David Stannard ridicules the small industry of Holocaust hagiographers arguing for the uniqueness of the Jewish experience with all the energy and ingenuity of theological zealots.
The uniqueness dogma makes no sense. Every historical event is unique, if merely by virtue of time and location, and every historical event bears distinct features as well as features in common with other historical events. The anomaly of the Holocaust is that its uniqueness is held to be crucial. What other historical event, one might ask, is framed largely for its categorical uniqueness? Typically, distinctive features of the Holocaust are isolated in order to place the event itself in a category apart. Novick dismisses this gerrymandering technique as intellectual sleight of hand which entails deliberately singling out one or more distinctive features of the event and trivialising or sweeping under the rug those features it shares with other events to which it might be compared.
All Holocaust writers agree that the Holocaust is unique, but few, if any, agree why. Each time an argument for Holocaust uniqueness is empirically refuted, a new argument is adduced in its stead. The result, according to Jean-Michel Chaumont, is multiple, conflicting arguments that annul each other: Knowledge does not accumulate. Rather, to improve on the former argument, each new one starts from zero. In other words, uniqueness is a given in the Holocaust framework; proving it is the appointed task, and disproving it is equivalent to Holocaust denial. Perhaps the problem lies with the premise, not the proof. Even if the Holocaust were unique, what difference would it make? How would it change our understanding if the Holocaust were not the first but the fourth or fifth in a line of comparable catastrophes?
The most recent entry into the Holocaust uniqueness sweepstakes is Stephen Katzs The Holocaust in Historical Context. Citing nearly 5,000 titles in the first of a projected three-volume study, Katz surveys the full sweep of human history in order to prove that the Holocaust is phenomenologically unique by virtue of the fact that never before has a state set out, as a matter of intentional principle and actualised policy, to annihilate physically every man, woman and child belonging to a specific people. His argument is that an historical event containing a distinct feature is a distinct historical event.
Only a fleas hop separates the claim of Holocaust uniqueness from the claim that the Holocaust cannot be rationally apprehended. If the Holocaust is unprecedented in history, it must stand above, and hence cannot be grasped by, history: it is unique because it is inexplicable and inexplicable because it is unique.
Dubbed by Novick the sacralisation of the Holocaust, this mystificationss most practised purveyor is Elie Wiesel. For Wiesel, Novick observes, the Holocaust is effectively a mystery religion: it leads into darkness, negates all answers, lies outside, if not beyond, history, defies both knowledge and description, cannot be explained nor visualised, is never to be comprehended or transmitted, marks a destruction of history and a mutation on a cosmic scale. Only the survivor-priest (read Wiesel) is qualified to divine its mystery. Any survivor, according to Wiesel, has more to say than all the historians combined about what happened. And yet, the Holocausts mystery, Wiesel avows, is noncommunicable. We cannot even talk about it.
Rationally comprehending the Holocaust means denying it since reason denies the Holocausts uniqueness and mystery. To desacralise or demystify the Holocaust is accordingly, for Wiesel, a subtle form of anti-Semitism. To compare the Holocaust with the sufferings of others constitutes a total betrayal of Jewish history. Some years back, the spoof of a New York tabloid was headlined, Michael Jackson, 60 Million Others, Die in Nuclear Holocaust. The letters page carried an irate protest from Wiesel: How dare people refer to what happened yesterday as a Holocaust? There was only one Holocaust. The scholarly consensus is that the Holocaust uniqueness debate is sterile. The claims of Holocaust uniqueness have come to constitute a form of intellectual terrorism.
A subtext of the Holocaust uniqueness claim is that the Holocaust was uniquely evil. However terrible, the suffering of others simply does not compare. Proponents of Holocaust uniqueness typically disclaim this implication, but Novick rightly dismisses such demurrals as disingenuous. The claim that the assertion of the Holocausts uniqueness is not a form of invidious comparison produces systematic doubletalk ... Does anyone ... believe that the claim of uniqueness is anything other than a claim for preeminence? (Emphasis in original.)
There is another factor at work. The claim of Holocaust uniqueness is a claim for Jewish uniqueness. Not the suffering of Jews but that Jews suffered is what made the Holocaust unique: the Holocaust is special because Jews are special. Thus Ismar Schorsch, chancellor of Jewish Theological Seminary, ridicules the Holocaust uniqueness claim as a distasteful secular version of chosenness.
For Anti Defamation League (ADL) head Abraham Foxman, the Holocaust was not simply one example of genocide but a near successful attempt on the life of Gods chosen children and, thus, on God himself. And Elie Wiesel is no less vehement that Jews are unique than he is about the uniqueness of the Holocaust: Everything about us is different.
The Holocaust dogma of Gentile hatred also validates the complementary dogma of uniqueness. If the Holocaust marked the climax of a millennial Gentile hatred of the Jews, the persecution of non-Jews in the Holocaust was merely accidental and the persecution of non-Jews in history merely episodic. From every standpoint, Jewish suffering during the Holocaust was unique.
Embedded in the Holocaust framework, much of the literature on Hitlers final solution is worthless as scholarship. The first major Holocaust hoax was The Painted Bird by Polish emigré Jerzy Kosinski. The book was written in English, Kosinski explained, so that I could write dispassionately, free from the emotional connotation ones native language always contains. In fact, whatever parts he actually authored (an unresolved question) were written in Polish. The book purports to be the autobiographical account of a solitary child wandering through rural Poland during WWII. In fact, Kosinski lived with his parents throughout the war. The books motif is the sadistic, sexual tortures perpetrated by the Polish peasantry. Pre-publication readers derided it as a pornography of violence and the product of a mind obsessed with sadomasochistic violence. The book depicts the Polish peasants he lived with as virulently anti-Semitic. Beat the Jews, they jeer. Beat the bastards. In fact, Polish peasants harboured the Kosinski family, fully aware of their Jewishness and the dire consequences they themselves faced if caught. Kosinski invented most of the pathological episodes he narrates.
In the New York Times Book Review, Wiesel acclaimed The Painted Bird as one of the best indictments of the Nazi era, written with deep sincerity and sensitivity. Cynthia Ozick later said that she immediately recognized Kosinskis authenticity as a Jewish survivor and witness to the Holocaust. Long after Kosinski was exposed as a consummate literary hoaxer, Wiesel continued to heap encomiums on his remarkable body of work. Best-seller and award-winner, translated into numerous languages, required reading in high school and college classes, The Painted Bird became a basic Holocaust text. Finally exposed by an investigative news weekly, Kosinski was still stoutly defended by the New York Times, which alleged that he was the victim of a communist plot.
To his credit, Kosinski did undergo a kind of deathbed conversion. In the few years between his exposure and his suicide, he deplored the Holocausts exclusion of non-Jewish victims. Many North American Jews tend to perceive the Shoah as an exclusively Jewish disaster ... But at least half the worlds Romanies (unfairly called Gypsies), some 2.5 million Polish Catholics, millions of Soviet citizens and various nationalities, were also victims of this genocide. He also paid tribute to the bravery of the Poles who sheltered him during the Holocaust despite his so-called Semitic looks. Angrily asked at a Holocaust conference what did the Poles do to save the Jews, Kosinski snapped back, What did the Jews do to save the Poles?
The more recent fraud, Binjamin Wilkomirskis Fragments, borrows promiscuously from the Holocaust kitsch of The Painted Bird. Like Kosinski, Wilkomirski portrays himself as a solitary child survivor who becomes mute, winds up in an orphanage and only belatedly discovers he is Jewish. Like The Painted Bird, the chief narrative conceit of Fragments is the simple, pared-down voice of a child-naif that allows time-frames and place names to remain vague. Like The Painted Bird, each chapter of Fragments climaxes in an orgy of violence. Kosinski represented The Painted Bird as the slow unfreezing of the mind; Wilkomirski represents Fragments as recovered memory. It is the archetypal Holocaust memoir. Every concentration camp guard is a crazed, sadistic monster joyfully cracking the skulls of Jewish newborns. Yet, the classic memoirs of the Nazi camps concur with the views of Auschwitz survivor Dr Ella Lingens-Reiner: There were few sadists. Not more than five or ten per cent. However, ubiquitous German sadism figures prominently in Holocaust literature.
Yet the singularity of Fragments lies in its depiction of life not during but after the Holocaust. Adopted by a Swiss family, little Binyamin endures yet new torments. He is trapped in a world of Holocaust deniers. Forget it its a bad dream, his mother screams. It was only a bad dream ... Youre not to think about it any more. Here in this country, he chafes, everyone keeps saying Im to forget and that it never happened, I only dreamed it. But they know all about it!
Driven to abject despair, Binyamin reaches a Holocaust epiphany. The camps still there just hidden and well disguised. Theyve taken off their uniforms and dressed themselves up in nice clothes so as not to be recognized ... Just give them the gentlest of hints that maybe, possibly, youre a Jew, and youll feel it: these are the same people, and Im sure of it. They can still kill, even out of uniform.
Translated into a dozen languages, winner of the Jewish National Book Award, the Jewish Quarterly Prize, and the Prix de Mémoire de la Shoah, Fragments was widely hailed as a classic of Holocaust literature. Star of documentaries, keynoter at Holocaust conferences and seminars, fund-raiser for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Wilkomirski quickly became a Holocaust poster boy.
Acclaiming Fragments a small masterpiece, Daniel Goldhagen, author of the controversial 1996 publication Hitlers Willing Executioners, was Wilkomirskis main academic champion. Knowledgeable historians like Raul Hilberg, however, early on pegged Fragments as a fraud. Wilkomirski, it turns out, spent the entire war in Switzerland. He is not even Jewish. But Israel Gutman, a former inmate of Auschwitz and now a director of Yad Vashem and a Holocaust lecturer at Hebrew University, says its not that important whether Fragments is a fraud. Wilkomirski has written a story which he has experienced deeply; thats for sure ... He is not a fake. He is someone who lives this story very deeply in his soul. The pain is authentic.
The New Yorker called its exposé of the Wilkomirski fraud Stealing the Holocaust. Yesterday Wilkomirski was feted for his tales of Gentile evil; today he is chastised as yet another evil Gentile. Its always the Gentiles fault. True, Wilkomirski fabricated his Holocaust past, but the larger truth is that the Holocaust industry fabricated Wilkomirski: he was a Holocaust survivor just waiting to be discovered.
Consider now Holocaust secondary literature. Novick justly describes Yehuda Bauer, lecturer at the Hebrew University and a director of Yad Vashem, as a leading Israeli Holocaust scholar. He quotes an article by Bauer to refute the Goldhagen thesis of German complicity in Hitlers final solution: The Jews were murdered by people who, to a large degree, did not actually hate them ... The Germans did not have to hate the Jews in order to kill them. Yet, in a review of Goldhagens book, Bauer maintained the exact opposite: The most radical type of murderous attitudes dominated from the end of the 1930s onward ... [B]y the outbreak of World War II the vast majority of Germans had identified with the regime and its antisemitic policies to such an extent that it was easy to recruit the murderers. Questioned about this discrepancy, Bauer replied: I cannot see any contradiction between these statements.
In the wake of Israels ill-fated invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and as official Israeli propaganda claims came under withering attack by Israels new historians (Index 3/1995), apologists desperately sought to tar the Arabs with Nazism. The historian Bernard Lewis managed to devote a full chapter of his short history of anti-Semitism, and fully three pages of his brief history of the last 2,000 years of the Middle East, to Arab Nazism. New Republic literary editor Leon Wieseltier claimed that the Palestinians, or many of them, were Hitlers little helpers in the Middle East. According to Novick, Middle East politics are no longer a prime mover of the Holocaust industry. He quotes a statement by ADLs Foxman deploring the use of Holocaust imagery in the context of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The most recent Holocaust extravaganza is Hitlers Willing Executioners. Every important journal of opinion printed one or more reviews within weeks of its release. The New York Times featured multiple notices, acclaiming Goldhagens book as one of those rare new works that merit the appellation landmark. With sales of half a million copies and translations slated for 13 languages, Time magazine hailed Hitlers Willing Executioners as the most talked about and second-best non-fiction book of the year.
Pointing to the remarkable research, and wealth of proof ... with overwhelming support of documents and facts, Wiesel heralded the book as a tremendous contribution to the understanding and teaching of the Holocaust. Gutman praised it for raising anew clearly central questions which the main body of Holocaust scholarship ignores. Nominated for the Holocaust chair at Harvard University, paired with Wiesel in the national media, Goldhagen quickly became a ubiquitous presence on the Holocaust circuit.
The central thesis of Goldhagens book is standard Holocaust dogma: driven by a pathological hatred, the German people leapt at the opportunity Hitler gave them to murder the Jews. Although disguised as an academic study, Hitlers Willing Executioners amounts to little more than a compendium of sadistic violence.
Yet despite the hype, there is no evidence, says Novick, that Holocaust deniers exert the slightest influence in the US. Indeed, given the nonsense churned out daily by the Holocaust industry, the wonder is there are so few sceptics.
The motive behind the claim that there is widespread Holocaust denial is not hard to find. In a society saturated with the Holocaust, how else to justify yet more museums, books, curricula, films and programmes except by conjuring up the bogey of Holocaust denial? Thus Deborah Lipstadts acclaimed book, Denying the Holocaust, as well as a contrived poll alleging pervasive Holocaust denial, were released just as the Washington Holocaust Museum opened.
Denying the Holocaust is an updated version of the new anti-Semitism tracts. To document widespread Holocaust denial, Lipstadt cites publications by in Novicks words a tiny band of cranks, kooks and misfits. Her pièce de résistance is Arthur Butz, the protagonist of her chapter Entering the mainstream. Butz, who teaches electrical engineering at Northwestern University, published his book The Hoax of the Twentieth Century with a crackpot press; were it not for the likes of Lipstadt, no one would have heard of him
The one truly mainstream holocaust denier is Bernard Lewis. A French court even convicted Lewis of denying genocide. But this was the Armenian genocide and Lewis is pro-Israel. Accordingly, this holocaust denial raises no hackles in the US; the fact that Turkey is an Israeli ally was a further extenuationg circumstance. Mention of the Armenian genocide is, therefore, taboo. Wiesel, Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz and Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg withdrew from an international conference on genocide in Tel Aviv because the sponsors, against government urging, included sessions on the Armenian case. Acting at Israels behest, the US Holocaust Council virtually effaced mention of the Armenians in the Washington Holocaust Museum; and Jewish lobbyists in Congress blocked a day of remembrance for the Armenian genocide.
To question a survivors testimony, to denounce the role of Jewish collaborators, to suggest that Germans suffered during the bombing of Dresden or any state except Germany committed crimes in WWII is, according to Lipstadt, all evidence of Holocaust denial. But the most insidious form of Holocaust denial, she suggests, is immoral equivalencies: that is, denying the uniqueness of the Holocaust. This argument has intriguing implications. Goldhagen argues that Serbian deeds in Kosovo are, in their essence, different from those of Nazi Germany only in scale. That would make Goldhagen in essence a Holocaust denier. Across the political spectrum, Israeli commentators compared Serbias deeds in Kosovo with Israeli deeds in 1948 against the Palestinians. Reckoning, then, by Goldhagen, Israel committed a holocaust. Not even Palestinians claim that any more.
Newspaper editors display fragility of reason, in Lipstadts view, if they run a Holocaust denial ad or op-ed column that, according to their own evaluation, is totally lacking in relevance or substance. But not all revisionist literature is totally worthless. Lipstadt brands UK historian David Irving one of the most dangerous spokespersons for Holocaust denial, yet Irving has also made indispensable contributions towards explaining Nazism. And Arno Mayer, in his important study of the Nazi Holocaust, as well as Raul Hilberg, cite Holocaust denial publications. Even if the world is in the right, Mill wrote in his essay On Liberty, it is always probable that dissentients have something worth hearing to say for themselves, and that truth would lose something by their silence.
Norman Finkelstein teaches political theory at the City University of New York. He is the author of A Nation on Trial: The Goldhagen Thesis and Historical Truth (with Ruth Bettina Birn). His latest book, The Holocaust Industry, will be published in July by Verso.