The Holocaust Exhibition: A Dispatch from London
I’m standing at the entrance to the Holocaust Exhibition at the Imperial War Museum, London, one of the most authoritative and harrowing exhibitions of its kind in the world.
It’s my second visit in two days and I know what lies ahead – a literally dreadful experience threatening emotional and cognitive overload; a chronicle of tragedy and evil on a scale that exceeds the human capacity to understand; an account of an epoch-shaping event that rent the fabric of Western civilization.
I’ve returned to the exhibition to help me clarify my thoughts about the Holocaust in light of the bitterness of many of the responses to my recent article ["Business Class Radicals and Holocaust Denial"] in which I argued that it is vital to recognize the singularity of this epoch-defining event and warned that the full dimensions of its horror are being eroded and obscured by the ideological machinations of the political left and far right.
The article’s publication first in Quadrant Online and then in The Australian provoked demands on the latter’s website to know of me: “Is there any Jewish heritage there?” and claims that “so often the counter attacks with regard to Holocaust revisionist [sic] are written by those with an existing pro Israeli stance”. Another went a lot further down this path: “Bendle is in the pocket of Judaism. [His article] is no more than a well-orchestrated part of a concerted attempt, by Jewry, to take the heat off the recent barbarity and murderous conduct of … Israel in its dealings with [the] Palestinians [who] Jewry, has set … up as sitting ducks for Jewish armed killing incursions”.
According to this person, I am a “cat’s paw” of “Jewry”, as “Israel … with the engineered distractions aired by the likes of toadying Bendle, continues the maniacal latter-day style of Nazism”. For them, it is now “Jewry” and not the Nazis that are engaged in genocidal “human slaughtering and imprisoning madness”.
Clearly I have disturbed these people and they abuse me. Consequently – as is now the Australian way in these things – they want me silenced and sacked.
So here I stand, before the portal into the Holocaust Exhibition, anxious to know whether my critics are right and that the Nazi annihilation of the Jewish population of Europe really was ‘just’ another genocide to which the treatment of indigenous Australians by the English settlers and subsequent Australian governments may readily be compared.
I step forward and begin my descent through the exhibition, and in minutes I know I am not wrong – there is nothing in Australia’s history that is even remotely comparable to what is recorded in the Holocaust Exhibition, and to pretend otherwise is to display either ignorance, mendacity or both.
For this is a sinister troglodytic realm, a grotesque gothic narrative where acts of evil multiply like bacilli before one’s eyes, and primordial anti-Semitism, occultism, secret societies, social Darwinism, political messianism, Aryan supremacy, racial purity, the Nordic soul, race science, lebensraum, the Nuremberg laws, and eugenics congeal together with a lust for violence and revenge under the delusion that Germany was ‘stabbed in the back’ by Jews and Bolsheviks to ensure defeat in the Great War.
From this ideological matrix we witness Hitler and the Nazis emerging to seize control of a modern nation state, the full force of which they unleash across Europe, but especially upon the Jewish people as they pursue the ‘Final Solution’ through a systematic program of terror. One exhibit displays Hitler’s declaration of 1941: “This struggle is one of ideologies and racial differences and will be conducted with unprecedented, unmerciful, and unrelenting harshness”.
It was also conducted with a stupefying thoroughness, as one room of the exhibition reveals with stark minimalism, its jet-black marble walls displaying the vast administrative structure that was mobilized by the Nazis to carry out the Final Solution. Here are displayed 119 political, military, security, police, industrial, and administrative organizations that encompassed almost the entire Eurasian land mass and reached into every area of life to identify, collect, transport, enslave, torture, and annihilate Jews, Gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, political enemies ,and other victims, melting down and grinding up whatever was left for tallow, fertilizer and other materials.
Images, artifacts, instruments, and machines of the Nazi death system surround visitors as they descend through the exhibition and none makes the nature of the system more obvious than the huge model of the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp, a gigantic operation where the Nazis perfected their system of extermination.
This bleak model is rendered entirely white as if Auschwitz operated under a perpetual snow-storm as the staff of 7,000 operated its advanced technologies to kill a million Jews, 70,000 Christian Poles, 23,000 Gypsies, 15,000 Soviet prisoners, and many more in its gas chambers and slave labour camps.
Other displays emphasize how every one of these statistics records the fate of an individual person, torn away from their lives and consumed by a monstrous system of annihilation.
One display in particular is lodged indelibly in my mind. This is a gigantic montage depicting the hideous violence unleashed in the Ukraine by the Nazi blitzkrieg.
At its centre is the life-size image of a woman screaming in fright, running desperately down a cobble-stoned street. Clad only in her underwear and stockings, her dress floating in remnants behind her, she tries to escape a mocking, savage mob. Her face is contorted in outrage and incredulity. Beside her jogs a boy, delighted by the woman’s pain and humiliation.
Next to this is another image. Here a semi-naked young woman cringes in a gutter, her clothes also stripped from her body and lying in rags around her. An older woman, perhaps her mother, tries to comfort her but the girl seems inconsolable. She looks out at the camera, her eyes preternaturally wide, her swollen lips open and aghast, her mouth a black hole where her teeth should be. Her hands reach out beseechingly to the person recording her agony and beyond them to us, the witnesses from the future.
But enough! This is horror on an incomprehensible scale – as the title of the exhibition of holocaust art proclaims, it is the realm of ‘The Unspeakable’.
Consequently, it is impossible to complete the descent through the Holocaust Exhibition without a sense that it is dishonest, absurd, and offensive for Australian historians and intellectuals to pretend that their country witnessed events equivalent or comparable to the Holocaust and that they are bearing moral witness of this to the Australian people and the world. At best such posturing is ignorant and parochial; at worst it appears a transparent attempt to exploit the ineffable suffering of the Holocaust victims for the purposes of academic careerism and political opportunism.