On Sunday January 8, 2012, twenty-three Australian educators gathered in the seminar room on the ground floor of Prima King’s Hotel, Jerusalem, and commenced a seventeen-day scholarship-funded Holocaust studies program. One of the Yad Vashem co-ordinators of the “Teaching about the Shoah and Anti-Semitism” course invited us to introduce ourselves and explain why we were forgoing an Australian summer to investigate the harrowing details of genocide. Learning the importance of tolerance seemed a priority for many of my compatriots. The logic of this, I assumed, was that since intolerance played a key role in bringing about the murder of six million Jews, greater tolerance in society (and in the classroom) creates a better environment for people to co-exist harmoniously, thus diminishing the likelihood of another Hitler-style genocide or, at any rate, crimes of a related but lesser magnitude. For an instant I was almost persuaded—but not quite.
A recent article by Simon Critchley in the New York Times, “The Dangers of Certainty: A Lesson from Auschwitz”, attempts to make sense of the psychosis of the Holocaust in terms of “intolerance”. Critchley’s piece is a reflection on the confronting scene at the end of the eleventh episode of the powerful twelve-part documentary The Ascent of Man (1973), in which Jacob Bronowski plunges his hand into the ponds of Auschwitz where the remains of over a million murdered Jews, including members of his own family, were flushed. Bronowski cogently argues that the triumph of Nazi dogma transformed Germany into a nation of “obedient ghosts” and “tortured ghosts”. Critchley, extrapolating from Bronowski’s thesis, warns that Auschwitz “can repeat itself” unless “the play of tolerance opposes the principle of monstrous certainty that is endemic to fascism and, sadly, not just fascism but all the various faces of fundamentalism”. We can agree with Critchley that Auschwitz is an outcome of Nazism, Nazism a form of fascism, fascism a variety of fundamentalism, fundamentalism an expression of some kind of absolutism, absolutism one of the by-products of certainty and certainty often the result of intolerance—but to equate “intolerance” with Auschwitz? Please.
There is the problem of people not only misconstruing the Holocaust, but also commandeering it for their own disparate political agenda. Many take advantage of Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27—the date of Auschwitz’s emancipation—to sound off about whatever constitutes the hot button of the moment. The real causal agents of the Holocaust, not to mention the actual Holocaust victims, are sometimes overlooked altogether. Baroness Catherine Ashton, vice-president of the European Commission, failed to mention the word Jews even once in her 2014 Holocaust Remembrance Day statement, despite warning of the need to “keep alive the memory of this tragedy” in order to prevent—you guessed it—“any form of intolerance”. The lessons from the Holocaust for modern-day Europe, in the opinion of Ashton, are “the dangers of hate speech” and the need to respect “diversity”. Nevertheless, the Holocaust has little to do with Ashton’s latter-day leftist bromides and everything to do with the industrial-scale slaughter of millions of innocent people by eliminationist anti-Semites. As the late Elie Wiesel affirmed: “The Holocaust is not man’s inhumanity to man—the Holocaust is man’s inhumanity to the Jews.”
One does not have to agree with Theodor Adorno’s Frankfurt School neo-Marxian explanation for the Holocaust to appreciate his famous admonishment: “The premier demand upon all education is that Auschwitz not happen again.” In Education after Auschwitz (posthumously published in 1973), Adorno argued that the “monstrosity” or “anti-civilisation” of the Holocaust cannot be disregarded as an “aberration of the course of history” or a “superficial phenomenon” amid humanity’s “great dynamic of progress”. The horror of the extermination camps must be faced and understood. The twenty-three Australian educators wintered in Jerusalem because Hitler’s “fury against civilisation” still casts a dark shadow over our life’s work, which is to fight on the side of enlightenment against the forces of anti-civilisation: “Every debate about the ideals of education is trivial and inconsequential compared to this single ideal: never again Auschwitz.”
The expansive Yad Vashem memorial site is located on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem. The vast complex contains a library and research institute, a publishing house, the Museum of Holocaust Art, memorial sites such as the Children’s Memorial and the Hall of Remembrance, various outdoor memorial sites including the Valley of Communities. We spent much of our time in the new International School for Studies extension, but perhaps our most confronting time at Yad Vashem was the day we visited the Holocaust History Museum. It is a most solemn and powerful encounter with the past. I took copious notes, as if writing everything down would help make sense of it all, but for the most part what I experienced was a kind of brain-freeze. The Holocaust involves a form of devilish madness that mocks contemporaneous notions of “tolerance” and “intolerance”. Somewhere in the middle of our tour we were all called together to reflect on a site displaying official German estimates concerning the distribution of Jewry in Europe circa 1941.
Nazi-occupied Poland (also known as the Government General) came in at 2,284,000. Also in Category A—nations already under the jackboot—was the Netherlands with 160,800. Category B, countries remaining on the Wehrmacht’s “still to do” list, included the Ukraine (2,999,684) and Hungary (742,800). England’s Jewish population purportedly stood at 330,000. Their fate might have been otherwise had the Battle of Britain turned out differently and Operation Sea Lion proceeded as planned. The psychosis of the Nazis is exemplified by the inclusion in Category B of some 200 Albanian Jews. Consider the implication. Here were have Hitler et al, in the midst of amassing an invasion force of four million soldiers for Operation Barbarossa, making careful note of a couple of hundred Jews on the periphery of Europe. Hitler’s so-called “Comprehensive Solution to the Jewish Question” cannot be regarded as tangential to his War of Annihilation against Stalin. In fact, it signified—as German historian Eberhard Jäckel has argued—the very essence of Hitler’s Weltanschauung (systematised worldview).
In Hitler’s Worldview (1969), Jäckel contends that Hitler outlined the case for exterminationist anti-Semitism (Vernichtungantisemitus) in Mein Kampf (1925) and further developed his political ideology in the unpublished sequel, Zweites Buch (1928). “The Aryan race”, according to Hitler, had found itself in a merciless and inexorable life-and-death struggle with “the Jewish race”. The actual details of the Final Solution were to a greater or smaller extent dependent upon later events and yet the idea existed as early as the mid-1920s.
Eberhard Jäckel has endured much criticism over the years from “functionalist” historians who, by contrast, emphasise the contingent aspects of the Holocaust and question the directness of the line between Hitler’s fulminations in the 1920s and the particularities of Auschwitz. To be fair, Jäckel has acknowledged the pertinence of various unforeseen factors affecting the final course of events, including the rivalry between Himmler and Heydrich, and recognises the ad hoc nature of aspects of the death camp program. On the other hand, the functionalism-versus-intentionalism debate loses much of its exigency if we accept that the primary purpose Hitler assigned to the Second World War was—or, at the very least, became—the Final Solution. How else to make sense of the resources he invested in the industrial-scale slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews at the same time as Stalin’s potent and remorseless army drew ever closer to the Fatherland? Thus, Lebensraum and Vernichtungantisemitus—“space and race”—represent two sides of the same Nazi scheme, the latter even more imperative to Hitler as the former grew less likely.
Richard Landes, in Heaven on Earth: The Varieties of the Millennial Experience (2012), maintains that the context of Hitler’s systemised worldview was the post-Great War apocalyptic mood that infected Germany. The “unbearable loss of control, the impotence, the humiliation” that accompanied defeat in 1918 provoked a sense of millennial end times: “Apocalyptic time took authoritarian German culture from the dominating imperative, ‘rule or be ruled’ to the paranoid imperative, ‘exterminate or be exterminated’.” If the German people were increasingly embracing “a virulently zero-sum dualism”, Adolf Hitler was a “world-historical actor” able to animate the dark fantasy of the Protocols in the imaginations of his people: “The Nazis articulated a vision in which the very existence of the rival chosen people, the Jews, meant the certain death of the German people.”
In the 1990s, historians debated the nature of German attitudes towards Jews during the Final Solution. A tiny section of the population had risked everything to protect Jewish people, although the heroics of an Oskar Schindler, a Sudeten industrialist, were rare. Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 (1992) is a study of 500 ordinary middle-aged German men of working-class background seconded by the Nazi regime to German-occupied Poland. Their assignment involved rounding up Jews to be transported to death camps, including the one at the Auschwitz complex. These men committed countless atrocities and yet expressed no bloodlust or overwhelming enthusiasm for their homicidal work, seemingly motivated by obedience to authority and peer pressure rather than any personal pathology towards Jews. All were free to return to Germany if the stress became too much, but only fifteen did. Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (1996) is in many ways a response to Ordinary Men and asserts that the Holocaust was the logical outcome of long-standing German Judeophobia: the Nazis simply gave the green light to a nation of genocidal anti-Semites.
Goldhagen’s book is a powerful read, and yet these days its central thesis has far more detractors than supporters. A more tenable position is that long-standing German Judeophobia was a necessary but not sufficient condition for the Holocaust. Had President Hindenburg not offered Hitler the chancellorship, the Nazis’ insane ideology might never have been put into practice, which makes January 30, 1933, the real contingency in the diabolical Nazi project. The Führer was not merely some populist strongman propping up the interests of Big Capital by appealing to the bigotry (or intolerance) of the lower middle class, as Marxists are wont to insist. His revolutionary creed, with exterminationist anti-Semitism at its core, hijacked Germany and drove it to moral and military ruination. He co-opted the whole nation, the judiciary, the church, the intelligentsia, business, the media, the Wehrmacht, the education system and the ordinary man for his evil purposes. The triumph of Hitler, as Bronowski says, transformed Germany into a nation of “obedient ghosts” and “tortured ghosts”.
The more grotesque of the “obedient ghosts” ran the death camps: monsters such as Auschwitz’s Rudolf Höss. According to Piotr Setkiewicz’s The Private Life of the SS in Auschwitz (2013), Höss was devoted to his own children and kind-hearted to animals while at the same time supervising the slaughter of 1.2 million innocent people. Setkiewicz provides this eyewitness account of Höss by his Polish maid: “He tucked his children into bed every night and he kissed his wife each morning. He wrote poems about ‘the beauty of Auschwitz’.” This is the same SS-Obersturmbannführer Rudolf Höss who installed the gas chambers and crematoria at Auschwitz capable of killing up to 2000 people every hour. Before his own execution in 1947, Höss confessed to having felt “weak-kneed” after pushing hundreds of screaming, pleading children into the gas chambers. A pep talk from Adolf Eichmann on Nazi ideology assuaged Höss’s sense of his guilt. There was, explained Eichmann, no value in “leaving a generation of young people who can be possible avengers of their parents and can constitute a new biological cell for the re-emerging of this people”.
The absolute indifference on the part of the German populace to European Jewry was less of a crime than the butchery committed at the extermination camps and yet it still amounts to a transgression against humanity. Some historians are wary of giving too much weight to Hitler’s role in events. This is not just a matter of the David Irvings of the world wanting to minimise the Führer’s role in the Final Solution, but a genuine concern that the idea of Hitler’s sole rule (Alleinherrschaft) might exculpate “Hitler’s people” from responsibility. Sole rule, however, does not absolve individual Germans from blame, except in extreme circumstances when someone was forced to commit crimes against humanity; and such cases, Browning’s Ordinary Men suggests, were more the exception than the rule.
It is not the absence of imprecise qualities such as “tolerance” or “open-mindedness” that brings us closer to an understanding of the psychosis accompanying the Holocaust. Many Germans were tolerant and open-minded all right—tolerant and open-minded about Hitler’s Weltanschauung. The fundamental cause of the Holocaust was the investment by the population—with brave and honourable exceptions—in Adolf Hitler’s radical ideology at the price of their own individual moral sovereignty. Hitler’s zero-sum anti-Semitism—“the very existence of the rival chosen people, the Jews, meant the certain death of the German people”—helps explain why so many Germans were, at the very least, supremely indifferent to the fate of six million Jews, although it does not excuse their behaviour.
There is a display at one of the final stations in the Holocaust History Museum marking VE Day, May 8, 1945. On that day, from London to Moscow, people were at last free to celebrate the end of the Nazi nightmare—everybody, paradoxically, but European Jewry. “Hitler’s shadow”, to use the expression of the Jewish philosopher Emil Fackenheim, did not disappear for the Holocaust survivors who made their way back home only to discover that home no longer existed. Their traditional communities had vanished and so nobody was there to meet them. Strangers, more often than not, had appropriated Jewish property and baulked at the idea of giving up their ill-gotten gains. Kielce, a Polish town, was home to 24,000 Jews in 1939. By the middle of 1946, some 200 Holocaust survivors had returned, hoping against hope to take up where their old lives left off. The locals were having none of it. On July 1946 a pogrom resulted in the murder of forty-two of the Holocaust survivors.
Emil Fackenheim’s “614th commandment” is not without its detractors and is tough to summarise. The general concept is that there must be no “posthumous victories” for Hitler to add to his “victory at Auschwitz”. The individual lives that were destroyed must not be forgotten—each of them, to the best of our ability, should be remembered and memorialised. Judaism, moreover, must remain in the world as an eternal rebuke to the aims of the Final Solution. Accordingly, Holocaust survivors and the Jewish nation in general cannot allow the unutterable horror of the Shoah to destroy their faith in God, because that too would constitute a posthumous triumph for Adolf Hitler. Fackenheim came late to Zionism. It was not until 1967 that he understood—to the depths of his soul—the necessity of a Jewish state to safeguard and promote all that Hitler wished to erase from the face of the Earth.
Before exiting the Holocaust History Museum, a visitor catches a panoramic view of modern-day Jerusalem beyond a vast windowpane. The shock of the Holocaust and the logic of the State of Israel unified in one image.
One of the great surprises of our seventeen-day program was to be addressed by Hannah Pick (born in 1928), best friends with Anne Frank before the Frank family went into hiding. Hannah had thought the Franks escaped to Switzerland and was shocked to discover Anne was her neighbour in the exchange camp of Bergen–Belsen in January–February 1945. A wall divided the two friends, but Hannah—who was in a less oppressive part of the compound—managed to pass a package with bread and a few clothes to Anne. Some conversation occurred between them, but Anne’s voice sounded weak—she would not survive to see freedom.
The Diary of Anne Frank is the tale of the final stages of the life of a Jewish girl doomed to an early death. But for the boys of my generation it was something more than that; it initiated us into the day-to-day reflections of a keenly intelligent and spirited teenage girl. Anne Frank introduced us to “The Other” without fear or prejudice, and the anti-Semites of the world have never forgiven her.
Hannah Pick might be diminutive and well into her eighties, but there is nothing frail about her. She spoke powerfully and volubly, and her last sentence caught us all off guard. “Don’t believe everything they say about us,” she warned, before disappearing from our lives with a silent dignity. That evening as our bus wound its way down Mt Herzl to our hotel in western Jerusalem, I wrestled with Hannah’s caution. What particular lie, slander, smear, slur and vilification did Hannah want us not to believe? It was almost impossible to know where to begin, the list being so outlandishly extensive. There is always the 1144 Blood Libel, or perhaps The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Possibly we should start with the Holocaust deniers, such as Dr Robert Faurisson and David Irving, who questioned the authenticity of Anne Frank’s diary. Not even the 270-page report published by the Dutch State Forensic Science Laboratory in 1981 declaring Anne’s writings between 1942 and 1944 to be no forgery satisfies the hardcore deniers. Maybe the Dutch authorities at the time were acting as part of a global Jewish conspiracy to deny the world the truth?
Hannah Pick’s admonition was still on my mind a few days later when our study group visited Tel Aviv for a guided tour of Independence Hall, the place where David Ben-Gurion proclaimed the independent State of Israel on Friday afternoon, May 14, 1948. Along with the Old City of Jaffa, our other stop-off that day was the Palmach Museum in Tel Aviv. The Palmach was the strike force of the Haganah, one of the pre-state underground defence organisations incorporated into the Israel Defence Forces after 1948. Given that the Palmach, along with its allies, was triumphant over Palestinian Arab militia (1947–48) and the armed forces of Iraq, Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon during the War of Independence (1948–49), it is not surprising that a note of triumphalism—or, at the least, accomplishment—pervades the Palmach Museum. Nevertheless, a sense of disquiet overcame me.
Rejectionism has been the theme of Palestinian Arab leaders ever since. For instance, Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation and later president of the Palestinian Authority, never accepted Resolution 181, even though by recognising it—at any time of his choosing—he would have instantly legitimised an Arab state on the territory of British Palestine. Of course, such an action on Arafat’s part would have simultaneously validated or authenticated the existence of the State of Israel. Revisionist historians can rewrite history in any way that pleases them, but the fact remains that the Israelis have been prepared to accept an Arab state on what was once British Mandatory Palestine in 1948, 2000, 2001, 2006 and again today if the Arab Palestinian leadership were not rejectionists seeking the destruction of the State of Israel.
If ever there was ever a case for rejectionism it has long since passed. The life and times of Haj Amin al-Husseini, ostensible leader of the Palestinian Arabs until 1948, should be warning enough for what happens when you cross anti-Zionism with Judeophobia. The Mufti of Jerusalem had this to say in 1943 on Berlin radio: “Kill the Jews wherever you find them. This pleases God, history and religion.” A year later, knowing full well what Hitler’s Final Solution entailed, he spoke about “the scourge that Jews represent in the world”. This kind of virulent anti-Semitism is now par for the course in too many parts of the Arab world. Recently, the Palestinian Authority Minister of Culture, Anwar Abu Eisheh, awarded a special plaque to the Egyptian poet Hesham El-Gakh for a poem that included the usual poisonous blather: “Our enemy, Zion, is Satan within a Tail”.
An essential point is that both Arab nationalism (à la Nasser) and Islamism (the Muslim Brotherhood) have relied upon anti-Israeli, anti-Zionist and, ultimately, anti-Semitic premises in order to fortify the two disparate ideologies. Richard Landes makes the connection to Hitler’s worldview:
All anti-modern manifestations of Jew hatred share many of the apocalyptic elements of Nazi ideology—the sense of urgency at the nearly complete conspiracy, the ferocious hatred of a cosmic enemy, the profoundly paranoid sense of being suffocated by Jewish success, the assumption that all major developments of modernity (marriage of capital and technology, urbanisation, constitutional governments, public media, and public atheism) stemmed from the Jews and threatened chaos and enslavement.
Ideology stops people thinking, which is bound to turn into a tragedy when the Dear Leader is a demagogue. The Egyptian novelist Youssef Ziedan has spoken of the need for his compatriots to “reconsider our notions regarding the Jewish question”, lamenting the reality that anti-Semitism “has become a common trade” in his country even though it only ends up “benefiting all our politicians”. Significantly, over 800,000 Sephardi Jews fled to Israel as a consequence of post-1948 Arab anti-Semitism.
Modern-day leftism is also succumbing to anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. Informing an escalating number of progressive institutions in the West, from British Methodists to Oxfam, is the ideology of Holocaust Inversion. Having graduated from the conventional Marxist ideology of the Old Left, aficionados of the New Left believe they are no longer encumbered by any kind of ideology, and yet these are the same folk who believe Zionism parallels Nazism, Palestinians are the Jews of the Third Reich, and that the Jerusalem security barrier echoes the corralling of Jews in the Warsaw ghetto.
No wonder they cannot make sense of why 1300 West Bank Palestinians and another 450 Israeli Arabs are enthusiastic about working alongside their Jewish co-workers in the Israeli-owned SodaStream manufacturing plant. Contemporary leftism is so removed from the concerns of the working class, they seem not to care if the SodaStream enterprise treats all of its employees properly, pays them an excellent wage and creates a work atmosphere in which everybody feels part of a family irrespective of nationality.
For middle-class lefties in the West, ideological purity comes before the aspirations of ordinary people any day. Blinded by their anti-Zionist faith, BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) thugs bang their drum outside Jewish-owned stores in Australian cities without realising that we have seen all this before—in the 1930s, to be precise.
In April 2012, after returning from Israel, I attended (with a friend) a BDS-associated meeting. When the management committee called for comments from the 150-member audience, I waited for my chance to use the portable microphone and ask some questions. I wanted to share with everyone, as politely and articulately as I could, my opinion that apartheid does not exist in Israel, that a Supreme Court judge is Arab, that Arab citizens enjoy equal legal and political rights with Jews, that Israel is multi-ethnic, that Tel Aviv is a sanctuary for gay Arabs, and that modern-day Israel is a dynamic, liberal democracy. They took the microphone away from me. Fellow attendees glared at me as if I had interrupted a Sunday morning church service to announce the non-existence of God. Ideology, as all fanatics appreciate, is a religion—and a lethal one at that.
Daryl McCann wrote on the Obama approach to the Middle East in the March issue. He has a blog at darylmccann.blogspot.com.au.