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Battle For The Holocaust

Channel 4 Documentary

broadcast on
Britain's first Holocaust Memorial Day, 27 January 2001

runtime 53 minutes, click play to start

Martin Niemoeller:
Als die Nazis die Kommunisten holten,
habe ich geschwiegen;
ich war ja kein Kommunist.

Als sie die Sozialdemokraten einsperrten,
habe ich geschwiegen;
ich war ja kein Sozialdemokrat.

Als sie die Gewerkschafter holten,
habe ich nicht protestiert;
ich war ja kein Gewerkschafter.

Als sie die Juden holten,
habe ich geschwiegen;
ich war ja kein Jude.

Als sie mich holten,
gab es keinen mehr,
der protestieren konnte.
When the Nazis came for the communists,
I remained silent;
I was not a communist.

When they locked up the social democrats,
I remained silent;
I was not a social democrat.

When they came for the trade unionists,
I did not speak out;
I was not a trade unionist.

When they came for the Jews,
I remained silent;
I wasn't a Jew.

When they came for me,
there was no one left to speak out.


Channel 4's Battle for the Holocaust, broadcast on Britain's first official Holocaust Memorial Day, raises controversial questions about how the world perceives the Nazi extermination. In this programme, Jewish historians look at how our understanding of the Holocaust has changed in the five decades since the end of the Second World War and ask whose agenda is being served by the proliferation of museums, memorials and commemoration events.

In the year 2000, Andrew Dismore MP proposed that the British parliament introduce a national Holocaust Memorial Day. The aim was that each year, on 27 January, people would learn about and remember the Nazis' systematic extermination of millions of people — Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals and many others. Sponsored by the Holocaust Education Trust Dismore visited Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland, where the Nazis murdered some 1.5 million people. Now it is possible to take a day trip from Britain to Auschwitz, the largest of the extermination centres.

Henry Kissinger, US Secretary of State between 1973 and 1977, grew up in Germany. He was only 15 when he left in 1938, before the outbreak of the Second World War. He rarely talks about the Holocaust, saying, 'It has to end, the talking about it from people like me.' But in this rare interview on the subject he reveals that 13 members of his family were killed, including his grandmother, along with nearly half his classmates.

From as early as 1933 the Nazis imprisoned in camps those they defined as their enemies, and right up to the end of 1944 trains carried Jews from Hungary and the Lodz ghetto in Poland to Auschwitz. Although the film footage of that era has been familiar to cinema and television audiences since the Allied armies liberated the camps, our perceptions of those events have changed over time.

Shifting views

Now a debate is emerging about the political interpretations and uses of the Holocaust. At times this debate is bitter. There are some influential and well-known people within Jewish communities who would rather this discussion did not happen. Others believe that stifling dissenting views serves neither the victims nor the generations that have followed those terrible events.

Peter Novick, author of The Holocaust and Collective Memory, describes how newsreel film of skeletal survivors and heaps of bodies became familiar images. He says that in the period immediately after the Second World War, these shocking images were seen as 'a dimension of Nazi murderousness and brutality in general … a Jewish subdivision of the crimes of Nazism — not a distinct thing, the way we talk about it today'.

Gulie Ne'eman Arad, author of America, Its Jews and the Rise of Nazism, argues that perceptions of the Holocaust were politicised even before these events were named as 'the Holocaust'. For example, she says, most people believe that the United States army liberated the Jews and the camps — but the truth is that Auschwitz was liberated by the Soviets. Today it is unacceptable even to mention the Soviet role and this 'disremembering', she argues, is part of a political agenda. Once the Second World War had ended and the Cold War began, says Arad, the priority was for Germans to stand alongside the West in an alliance against the Communist bloc.

She believes that the Nuremberg trials, in which leading Nazis were brought to book, were more symbolic than real as only 24 people were sentenced. But their aim, she says, was to achieve closure, after which, Germany could start to rebuild.

A new state

1948: David Ben-Gurion proclaimed the founding of the State of Israel. Saul Friedlšnder, author of Nazi Germany and the Jews, says that the two events are inextricably linked: 'The birth of Israel, if one may say, benefited from the horrible tragedy of the Jews of Europe' — the international community felt they had to do something because the Jews had suffered so horrendously.

And, says Gulie Ne'eman Arad, once the State of Israel was established, and war immediately broke out, the Arabs were perceived as Nazis. Ben-Gurion, Prime Minister of Israel, 1948-53 and 1955-63, made that link explicit, saying: 'Our war of independence, fought after six million of our people have been exterminated by the Nazis, proved once again that the cause of justice, faithfully pursued, must triumph in the end.'

A turning point came in 1960, when leading Nazi Adolf Eichmann was captured by Israeli agents in Argentina to face trial in Jerusalem. He was sentenced to death and executed in 1962. Prior to the Eichmann trial, the personal experiences of survivors who lived in Israel were not talked about. The memory was suppressed; people felt ashamed. The image of Eichmann sitting impassively in his bullet-proof glass box, accused of carrying out the 'Final Solution of the Jewish Problem' was transmitted all over the world. 'It served,' says Peter Novick, 'to put what we now call the Holocaust on the agenda.'

This was not to teach the world a moral lesson, argues Gulie Ne'eman Arad, but to gain the recognition that the Jews were victims and that this made them morally superior. She situates this in the 'culture of victimhood' now prevalent in the US and Israel. Peter Novick describes some Jews as wearing their victimhood as a badge of honour. Arad notes the shift in language from survivors, to martyrs, to kidushim (holy people), which contrasts with Primo Levi's account of his own survival in the moral 'grey zone' where you lied and pushed your friends out of the queue or else you died.

Agendas and interests

The 1990s saw the greatest expansion in consciousness about the Nazi extermination. In 1993 the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington was dedicated by President Bill Clinton. The Holocaust, he said, gave rise to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and to the creation of the State of Israel. Now, out of the ashes of the former Communist states, the world must learn about good and evil.

Saul Friedlšnder argues that because of the vacuum left by the collapse of the Communist bloc, the United States needed a new 'radical opposite' to affirm the values of US society. Nazi Germany epitomised evil and so fulfilled that role.

James Young, author of The Texture of Memory, and Gulie Ne'eman Arad say that far from preventing such crimes from happening again, this memorialising may be a substitute for acting, a way of avoiding the issues of those who are suffering in the world today. Instead of empathising with other victims, a competition is set up between victims.

Norman Finkelstein, author of The Holocuast Industry, expresses a radical version of this view, claiming that the Holocaust has been used as an ideological weapon to silence critics of Israel and of mainstream Jewish communities. Controversially, he says that the Holocaust has become an extortion racket, a mechanism by which the established institutions of Jewish life, claim restitution on behalf of the individual victims and, in doing so, bolster their own power.

The sanctity of suffering

A spokesperson for the World Jewish Congress, whose headquarters are in the USA, says that spreading information about the Holocaust 'is very much the agenda of the World Jewish Congress today. It is important that the suffering of each victim should be reported and should be in our hearts.' This aim is close to the heart of Elie Wiesel, survivor and author, who says: 'I don't want them to die thinking that their words will not be heard.'

Novick states that this veneration of suffering is essentially within the Christian tradition, which has torture and death at its centre in the form of the Crucifixion. He compares the symbolism of the Holocaust to Christianity, speculating on whether it represents a Christianisation of the Jewish experience. Arad points out that the images of suffering encourage compassion and pity for the victims but not respect, liking or knowledge.

Elan Steinberg, Director of the World Jewish Congress is clear that the purpose of his organisation is 'to defend and safeguard the rights and interests of the Jewish people throughout the world'. Denying Finkelstein's charge of extortion, he claims that Finkelstein is opposed to restitution for the victims.

Finkelstein and Holocaust survivor Gizella Weisshaus see it differently. They want the victims compensated but they don’t want any institutions claiming compensation on their behalf. Nevertheless, institutions, indeed whole communities, as well as individuals, were wiped out and whether they should receive restitution money, and how that should be allocated, remains an open question.

Truth is not only a casualty of war, it is a casualty of political expediency. Peter Novick illustrates this with the many different versions to suit many different political agendas of the famous poetic plea for resistance attributed to Pastor Niemoeller, which starts, in some published versions, 'First they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak out because I was not a Jew…' but in others, also attributed to him, finds the Jews relegated to last, the Communists excluded, Catholics and homosexuals included Р each to suit a specific audience.

Are there 'lessons of the Holocaust'? The nature of the lesson depends on your place in the world. For the State of Israel and some institutions that claim to speak for Jews, that lesson is that Jews need to defend themselves and not rely on outsiders otherwise they may again become victims. They may even claim the Holocaust as justification for attacking others, as Gulie Arad puts it: 'As a victim, I have a little permission, even if unstated, to become a victimiser not only if anybody threatens me, but if I think he may threaten me."

For Jews who look outwards from their own history of suffering to the current suffering of others, the simple message of self-defence is not only insufficient but dangerous. Some would say that there are no lessons, or that if there are, they are banal. Arad believes that the Holocaust has been used politically, and questions the morality of that as 'too cheap'. If there are to be lessons, they should be of use to people who are suffering now. But a better future is unlikely to be constructed by reference to the epitome of evil.


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