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The Final Insult

Channel 4 Documentary

broadcast April 2005

The Final Insult explored the painful and sensitive conflict over the distribution of money in reparation to those who survived the Nazi genocide of the Jews.

runtime 48:35, click play to start

Rough Justice Or Exploitation?

Dr Brian Klug adds his opinion to the controversial and sensitive debate over Holocaust reparations

The name of the Channel 4 programme The Final Insult, echoes one of the most sinister phrases of the 20th century: the Final Solution (die Endlösung in German). This was the term used by the Nazi regime in Germany for its plan to exterminate European Jewry. The Nazis were nearly as good (or as bad) as their word: about two-thirds of the Jewish population of Europe – approximately 6 million people – were murdered in the course of the Second World War. Jewish community life on much of the Continent was destroyed in the process. Those who survived lost everything. In Hebrew, this event is known as the Shoah (catastrophe). The English term is the Holocaust.

War within a war

Hitler’s Holocaust against the Jews was, in a sense, a war within a war. It was not part of a wider military strategy, a means of defeating the Allies, but an end in itself. The Nazi state, assisted by a number of German corporations, systematically robbed Jews of their belongings, their liberty, and ultimately their lives. They did this for its own sake, or rather as the solution to the so-called Jewish Question (der Judenfrage). Antisemitism, hatred of Jews as Jews, was at the heart of the Nazi world-view.

The Jews, however, were not the only group targeted by the Nazis. Millions of other people, such as Gypsies, non-Jewish Poles, homosexuals and people with disabilities suffered similar treatment. Like Jews, these groups were regarded as 'life unworthy of living' (lebensunwertes Leben). Others fell victim for political or religious reasons. In a broader sense, ‘the Holocaust’ covers all such crimes and atrocities committed by the Nazi state and its collaborators, German or otherwise.

After the war, the nations of the world, recoiling from the horrors of the Holocaust, came together and affirmed the inherent worth of all human life – the antithesis of the Nazi creed. This view underlies the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948. It is also the basis for the Holocaust reparations movement.

Pursuit of justice

Thus the campaign for reparations is, in principle, a quest for justice. It is based on the idea that each and every human life counts, and that every individual who was wronged by the Nazis is entitled to compensation for their injuries and losses. But what constitutes just recompense for someone who has survived a concentration camp? Or fair restitution for the heirs of those who perished? Who precisely should benefit? Who should pay? And who decides?

These tough questions, in a way, boil down to one: can there be such a thing as justice for Holocaust victims and their heirs?

This question came to the fore at a press conference in Manhattan on 19 June 2001 when reparation cheques for slave labour were handed over to a number of ageing Holocaust survivors. One recipient, Mendel Rosenfeld, was forced to spend the war digging tunnels under the Austrian Alps to protect German munitions factories. He observed, 'There’s no such thing as money that can pay for what I went through in my life.' Another, Jaime Rothman, who survived Auschwitz, said simply, 'It’s not justice.' He added, 'Whenever you touch the subject and you put the money and the suffering together, it’s not the way to do it.'

But is there any other way to do it? And granted that justice is unattainable, does it follow that it is wrong to pursue it? Some would argue, to the contrary, that the pursuit of justice, however imperfect, is the least we can do on behalf of those who suffered the horrors of the Holocaust.

Essentially, this is the rationale given for the new campaign for reparations launched in the mid-1990s. One of the prime movers is the World Jewish Congress (WJC). Secretary-General, Israel Singer, puts it this way: 'We can only take a modicum of justice – a modicum of attempting to somehow right wrongs in a small way for those who are still alive.' In other words, the justice he seeks is rough and incomplete, but it is better than nothing.

Rough justice is one thing, injustice another. The assertion of The Final Insult is that this quest for justice has been, in part, an exercise in exploitation.

A new campaign

Holocaust reparations are nothing new. Following an agreement negotiated with West Germany in 1952, some survivors have been receiving compensation for decades for certain material losses. But the new campaigners wanted to plug the gaps left in the original agreement and to add substantial sums to the pot. They pursued these goals in three ways: identifying new targets (such as the Swiss banks), expanding the definition of ‘survivor’, and citing new grounds for compensation.

Their efforts bore fruit. In August 1998, the Swiss banks agreed to a settlement worth $1.25 billion. In a separate initiative, German interests (combining government and industry) agreed in 1999 to create a fund worth about $5 billion. Both settlements were intended for a wide class of Jewish and non-Jewish beneficiaries. There were other successful initiatives involving other countries. But the Swiss and German settlements were the most important.

The programme focuses on three groups that have played a crucial role in the new reparations campaign: the WJC; an organisation known as the Claims Conference (its full name is the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany); and the American lawyers who brought class action suits on behalf of survivors. In the programme, survivors and their heirs accuse the WJC and the Claims Conference of using the proceeds of settlements to fund causes they have chosen – cultural, religious and educational – at the expense of survivors. They also suggest that, through salaries and fees, executives and lawyers have profited handsomely from their ‘quest for justice’.

Questions of definition

Several books and numerous articles have discussed allegations like these over the last five years. It is clear that many survivors do feel cheated. Equally, the issues turn out to be complex. Some of this complexity is technical and legal. But there is also complexity of another kind. Underlying the whole controversy are certain overlapping conceptual and moral issues that are difficult to disentangle, among which are the following.

First, who is a Holocaust survivor? One author calls this 'the unsolvable conundrum'. A classic definition would be this: anyone who was herded into a ghetto or incarcerated in a Nazi concentration camp or the equivalent. But what about people who hid during the war? Or those who fled? Does ‘survivors’ fit Jews living in the former Soviet Union who were evacuated before the Nazis invaded their lands? Or the 10,000 children (Jewish and non-Jewish) who escaped via the Kindertransport (Children’s Transport)?

It emerges that there is neither a clear-cut constituency of survivors nor a definition that is applied consistently across the various reparations settlements. This is one factor that has led some survivors to feel that they are being cheated.

A second reason has to do with the distribution of funds to ‘worthy causes’. Some people argue that all reparations should be used for the exclusive benefit of individual survivors. Others believe that a portion should be set aside for philanthropic projects. In the German settlement, for example, around $325 million was dedicated to Holocaust education and remembrance – apparently at the insistence of the German parties to the agreement.

Who decides?

The picture is complicated by the fact that some of the stolen assets covered in the settlements – schools, community centres, synagogues, cemeteries – were originally communal property. Who should receive the compensation? What about the personal funds that likewise are ‘heirless’? What should be done with the so-called ‘residuals’: monies left over after direct claims have been paid to survivors?

In the eyes of the WJC, 'the Jewish people are the heirs of the Jewish assets'. Aside from the question of what this means and whether it is true, who speaks for the Jewish people? In effect it is the Claims Conference (which works closely with the WJC). Vast sums of money are dispersed by this organisation to charities and projects, many in Israel, some in Jewish settlements in the Occupied Territories. Such allocations, made in the collective name of the Jewish people, are highly controversial.

David Shaecter, President of the Holocaust Survivors Foundation (USA), points out that only two of the 24 organisations that make up the Claims Conference represent survivors. But survivors are not the only ones to raise an eyebrow. The wider Jewish public has reason to be concerned. On the face of it, a small number of individuals are deciding, on behalf of the whole of Jewry, who gets what. Where is the accountability? How can the process be made democratic?

In the last few years, at public meetings and in courtroom proceedings, survivors have challenged the people who claim to represent them. The latter defend their actions with equal vigour. The controversy is disturbing, feelings run high but the questions are legitimate. However the issues are complex, and people want and need to understand the debate and to reach their own conclusions.

Anyone watching The Final Insult, though, without prior knowledge of the subject, might be in danger of thinking it's all far simpler than it really is. What makes for compelling narrative is not necessarily a sound premise for teasing out the subtleties and complexities of the issues.

Diverse interests

On the one hand, as Michael Bazyler puts it in his book Holocaust Justice, 'the survivors do not speak with one voice'. Different groups have different interests and take different positions on how funds should be distributed. On the other hand, the parties that have led the reparations campaign – the firms of lawyers and Jewish organisations like the WJC – do not constitute a united front; there have, indeed, been bitter splits between them.

Furthermore, there are other major actors in the drama, such as the US government, who do not appear in the film. The programme makers don't adequately explain that what we're talking about is a loose coalition of diverse groups and not a unified campaign.

While the programme raises some of these complex issues, certain key points are either glossed over or not adequately dealt with. For example, one of the arguments made by a contributor in the film is that the WJC exaggerated the number of Jewish survivors of slave labour camps so as to exact more money from German industry. This argument does not take sufficient account of a point that the programme itself mentions: about 80% of the beneficiaries of the German settlement were non-Jews from Eastern Europe – Holocaust victims in the wider sense of the word.

Similarly, the programme is silent about the fact that the Swiss settlement was not for the sole benefit of Jews. Members of four other groups qualify as recipients: Gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, people with disabilities and homosexuals. Again, this reflects the broader meaning of ‘the Holocaust’.

The heart of the matter

A documentary is, of course, entitled to take a position, and this film largely reflects The Holocaust Industry, a book that created a stir when it appeared in 2000. Its author Norman Finkelstein appears frequently in the programme.

The programme highlights how the Swiss banks have been pressurised. However, it is one thing to say – as many critics other than Finkelstein have said – that some of the tactics used by the reparations campaigners were excessive. It is quite another to depict these wealthy banks as the subject of 'the world's biggest bank job’.

In fact, the programme begins with this topic, and not, as you might expect from the title, with the grievances of Holocaust survivors. With dramatic music in the background and images of dollars on the screen, the voice-over describes 'a small group of people' who planned 'the world's biggest bank raid'. The 'raiders', we are told, included 'a whisky billionaire, a clutch of top lawyers and a rabbi'.  At the very outset we the viewers are given this rhetoric and these images, and may consequently view the rest of the programme through this lens.

Antisemitism, as I said at the beginning, was at the heart of the Nazi world-view. At the core of antisemitism is a stereotype: the image of the money-grubbing Jews, forming cabals, manipulating the law and controlling the banks for their own nefarious ends. The opening sequence of the programme, however inadvertently and despite the best of intentions, risks evoking this stereotype and thus playing into the hands of antisemites. Arguably, this would add injury to insult.

It is vital not to lose sight of the important and legitimate issues that the programme raises and the question that lies at its heart: justice for Holocaust survivors. Has the campaign for reparations lost the plot? Bazyler tells us that 'every survivor I spoke to has expressed deep hurt that, for example, their "death-through-work" labor in the concentration camps should now be valued substantially less than the work of the cadre of white-collar professionals working on their behalf in climate-controlled offices'. The Final Insult conveys this sense of 'deep hurt' and reminds us that justice, however rough and imperfect, is owed to Holocaust survivors.

Dr Brian Klug is Senior Research Fellow in Philosophy at St Benet's Hall, Oxford, and Associate Professor of Philosophy at Saint Xavier University, Chicago. He is Associate Editor of the journal Patterns of Prejudice, published by Routledge in association with the Parkes Institute for the Study of Jewish/Non-Jewish Relations at the University of Southampton and is a founder member of the Jewish Forum for Justice and Human Rights (UK).


See also
Professor Raul Hilberg on Slave Laborers and Swiss Banks

Trading With The Enemy - The Whole Story

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