Saul Friedländer : A Fundamental Crime

While anti-Semitism is rampant throughout the world, the Holocaust memory is increasingly interrogated in the name of post-colonial ideas. The latest attack is signed by the Australian historian Dirk Moses. He argues that distinguishing the Holocaust from other violent crimes in human history is nothing more than a matter of faith. And that it is time to abandon this faith in the singularity of the Holocaust and the obligations that derive from it and replace it with a new truth: the Holocaust is only one crime among others. The great historian of the Holocaust Saul Friedländer, in an article originally published in Die Zeit, counters: “‘Auschwitz’ was something completely different from the colonial atrocities of the West. And postcolonial thought is currently taking on the risk of disassociating itself from the struggle against anti-Semitism that can sometimes simmer in its ranks.”


Saul Friedländer © Mahj
Saul Friedländer © Mahj


A friend of mine recommended that I read the essay “German Catechism”, by the Australian historian and genocide researcher A. Dirk Moses, which appeared in the Swiss online magazine Geschichte der Gegenwart [History of the Present] on May 23. And indeed, it opened my eyes to some of the new debates taking place in Germany and beyond about the historical significance of the Holocaust in relation to overall colonial violence, as interpreted in post-colonial thinking.

Notwithstanding my limited expertise in this area, I agree wholeheartedly with the general historical and emotional premises of postcolonial thinking: yes, the Western world has ignored its colonial past and its racism for too long. But that does not mean, of course, that I agree with Dirk Moses’ conclusions. Many of his statements strike me as wrong-headed and misleading. This impression was reinforced after I read Moses’ comments on the reactions generated by his essay published by the web portal The New Fascism Syllabus on June 15, under the title “Dialectic of Vergangenheitsbewaeltigung”.

The Federal Republic of Germany [West Germany] in the 1980s, Moses writes, replaced an “old catechism” according to which the Holocaust had been perpetrated by a minority of fanatic Nazis, with a new self-understanding admitting a much wider German responsibility for this unique crime. The resulting German memory culture would have contributed greatly to the liberalization of the Federal Republic, but in 2008 this memory culture would have turned into a “new catechism.” Self-critical thinking was transformed into a rigid, conservative dogma promoting a newfangled philosemitism and an ongoing German support of the Jewish state, notwithstanding Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians.

According to Moses, this new orthodoxy has become a foundational principle of present German self-understanding, enforced and supervised by vigilant American, British and Israeli elites. It is the condition sine qua non for Germany’s international recognition. At Moses’ second mention of these mysterious “elites,” it is probably not entirely coincidental that they become purely American and Israeli. Who could these mysterious elites be? Jews of course. In other words, some Jewish elites are the enforcers of Germany’s faithful observance of the new catechism that, let’s repeat it, because of the unique nature of the Shoah, implies the unconditional support of Israel. Moses’ critique, if interpreted sympathetically, has in mind an instrumentalization of the memory of the Holocaust in the service of German raison d’état. What his discourse on American and Israeli “elites” suggests, however, leaves a rancid aftertaste.

Dirk Moses wants to think about the Shoah along with the genocides of colonialism. He calls German memory culture a “state ideology” that “prescribes ways of speaking” (ZEIT no. 27/21). He is more specific about what he calls the “catechism.” His argument here is based on two axioms: first, the Germans believe that the Holocaust was a unique crime, “fetishized as sacred object” as he writes in the New Fascism Syllabus; second, the catechism that derives from this assumption is recent. Although it was already accepted in the 1980s (Moses cites the Historikerstreit [Historians’ Quarrel] in particular), it would only become an article of faith after the turn of the millennium.

This presentation of the facts is questionable in many respects. In fact, German historians and a growing segment of the public recognized the specificity of the Holocaust from the sixties on. The Eichmann trial in Jerusalem in 1961 and the two Auschwitz trials in Frankfurt in the mid-sixties were early wake-up calls. Major historians of Nazism in the sixties, the seventies and on (such as Karl-Dietrich Bracher, Eberhard Jaeckel, Hans Mommsen, Martin Broszat, Hans Ulrich Wehler) disagreed on what led to the Holocaust but not on the unique aspect of this extermination. Strangely enough, the NBC miniseries “Holocaust,” as kitshy as it was, had a major impact on the wider German public in the late seventies. All of this, incidentally, did not entirely vitiate an undercurrent of antisemitism in the Federal Republic.

Dirk Moses and others are now questioning the singularity of the Shoah from the perspective of comparative genocide research and the colonial history of violence. Contrary to what Moses suggests, however, it is not a matter of faith to consider the Shoah as singular, for it differs not only in some specific features from other historical crimes, but fundamentally.

Nazi Paranoid Ideology and Its Obsessive Purges

By the end of the nineteenth century, within the general framework of racial antisemitism, a more extreme current, from Houston Stewart Chamberlain to Dietrich Eckart, to Adolf Hitler, perceived “the Jew” as Evil per se, as the mortal enemy of Aryan humanity, an enemy to be fought to death. The outcome of this apocalyptic struggle was uncertain: victory of the Jew meant the death of Aryan humanity, victory over the Jew, its redemption. Thus, Nazi antisemitism was not aiming solely at getting rid of the Jews as individuals (by expulsion first, by extermination later) but also at eradicating any trace of “the Jew.” It meant cleansing every domain of human existence: ancestry, blood, daily relations, public activities, the economy, intellectual and artistic life, etc., etc. Of course, religion itself had to be aryanized: converted Jews shared the fate of their racial brethren; the Bible was aryanized and Jesus was restored as Aryan savior within an Aryan Christendom.

In his two essays, Dirk Moses seems to willfully ignore Nazi paranoid ideology and its obsessive purifying practices. He merely looks for practical aims of the Holocaust in order to prove that it was a genocide like any other (killing out of concrete, immediate considerations). In his article Dialectics of Vergangenheitsbewältigung, for example, he quotes the historian Christian Gerlach to show that the extermination of the Jews on Soviet territory was meant to allow German colonization (T.T). Moses misinterprets Wolf Gruener’s book on the slave labor imposed on Jewish males after Kristallnacht (TT). This was just a step in the pre-Holocaust persecution and Gruener was never accused of relativization. No doubt, practical aims were pursued (mainly slave work) but always within the overall framework of ultimate, total extermination. As further practicalities, Moses could have mentioned the severing of heads of freshly killed Jewish Soviet commissars for the benefit of “anthropological research” at Reichs- Universitaet Strassburg, or the immersion of Jewish camp inmates into freezing water to measure the time it would take them to die – in order to improve methods of saving German sailors. However, the overall aim was never forgotten.

In July 1944, as the Red Army was reaching Warsaw and the Western Allies had landed in Normandy, the tiny Jewish fishermen communities of the Greek islands of Rhodes and Kos were arrested, shipped on a slow boat to Athens, sent by train to Auschwitz and gassed on arrival…

Especially in his second piece for the New Fascism Syllabus blog one gets the impression that Moses looks for every possible use of the word “colonization” or “imperialism” in order to add it to anything having to do with the fate of the Jews of Europe: There were German Jews who dreamt of colonies; the Nazis considered the Jews as having colonized Germany; the majority of Jews exterminated were not German but foreign, mostly East European, i.e. slaves of the Nazi empire; the extermination of each and every Jew was meant to ensure the future security of the German empire, and so on. Is all this necessary to draw attention to other victims of violence in history? To point out the persistence of racism to the present day?

Moses bases his criticism on one accusation: that in Germany resentment against immigrants, especially Muslims, and a racist belief in white supremacy are widespread. I can’t comment on this at a distance from the Federal Republic. I simply am too ignorant of German laws about citizenship and immigrant life in Germany to feel confident about discussing this issue. However Moses’ reference to Jewish immigrants to Germany as being “reforested” in order to recreate a German Jewish community leaves one with a whiff of unpleasantness.

Violent Mass Demonstrations of Jew-Hatred in the US

What remains is Moses’ claim regarding Germany’s unconditional support for the security of Israel as an integral part of the “new catechism,” notwithstanding the Jewish State’s attitude toward the Palestinians.

Let me say here that, over the decades since 1967, I have been in favor of the two state solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and opposed Jewish settlements on occupied territory.  In a dialogue with two Palestinians, moderated by the French journalist Jean Lacouture, in 1974, I even suggested dividing Jerusalem again (“Arabs and Israelis: A First Dialogue,” New York 1975); I was called a traitor by some of my compatriots. Unfortunately, a solution to the conflict looks very distant nowadays, and not only as a result of Israeli policies. Understandably, Palestinian frustration has led to Palestinian radicalization and ever wider support for the Islamist Hamas, which does not look for an arrangement with Israel but for the disappearance of Israel. Behind Hamas stands Iran. Like almost half of the Israeli population, I can only hope for a lowering of tension between Israel and the Palestinians that would lead to incremental arrangements opening the path to peace. Under the current circumstances, however, is German support for Israel’s security a mistake?

There is one more element that Moses fails to mention, which is part of a long tradition: in 1985, forty years after the end of the war, President Richard von Weizsaecker declared German historical responsibility for the extermination. In fact, German responsibility to Jews and to Israel had already been accepted by Chancellor Konrad Adenauer when he signed the Reparations treaty with Israel and the Jewish Claims Conference in 1951. For Dirk Moses, it seems that these things only matter to the professional historian; in his eyes, in reality, this all is the past. For him, the German culture of memory, which developed over several decades after 1945, has done its job. Now it is urgent to make room for something new, for a comprehensive view of the history of violence in past centuries. And then, in his presentation of things, so-called postcolonial studies is a marginalized discipline that must be promoted in order to do historical justice to all victims of violence.

I cannot assess the importance or insignificance of postcolonial theory in Germany. In the US, post-colonial thinking, the kind represented by Dirk Moses and many others, has conquered university campuses and is well represented in Congress. Pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel movements have surged, BDS (boycott, divestments, sanctions) has become the common cause of an increasingly militant – and often violently so – coalition of “subaltern” communities, the Black Lives Matter movement (BLM) and sundry academics and politicians.

Sure, not everyone who gathers under the banner of postcolonial critique is an enemy of Israel, and those who are openly anti-Semitic may be only a minority. But anti-Semitism in the U.S. has taken on disturbing proportions in the wake of recent protests, particularly in Los Angeles, where I live: Jewish neighborhoods were the primary targets of Black Lives Matter protests against police violence after the murder of George Floyd last May. In Fairfax, home of one of the oldest Jewish communities in Los Angeles, the march was led by professor Melina Abdullah, one of the main organizers of Black Lives Matter; at the protest, rioters also vandalized synagogues and Jewish businesses. “It is no coincidence,” wrote a local rabbi, “that the riots escalated here in Fairfax, the symbol of the Jewish community. I witnessed the Watts riots and the riots following the acquittal of Rodney King’s murderer, in which no synagogue or house of worship was harmed. Today’s graffitis, even before the attacks, were a sign of open anti-Semitism.”

These massive violent outbursts of Jew-hatred are relatively new to the United States. Unfortunately, they now seem to accompany Black Lives Matter protests quite often. Those who criticize the memory of the Holocaust from a postcolonial perspective and murmur about “American and Israeli elites” should take note of this fact. Antisemitism was a destructive force then, and it is still a destructive force today, no matter which direction it comes from. Does Dirk Moses wish to see this new militancy and its unavoidable and unrestrainable sequels unleashed in Germany? I can hardly imagine that.

Saul Friedländer

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