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They were joined later by Germany, Israel, Poland, the Netherlands, France and Italy. In 2000 British Prime Minister Tony Blair announced the establishment of Holocaust Memorial Day and in 2005 the United Nations designated 27 January as International Holocaust Memorial Day. On the sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, Israel President Moshe Katsav told heads of state from Europe and North America not only that ‘the Germans conducted a genocide industry, a killing factory for the murder of our people’, but also that ‘the world knew about the destruction of the European Jewry, but remained silent.’ Holocaust remembrance passed from a private affair among Jews to an officially recognised expression of guilt that embraced not just Germans but everyone.
Soon after the Washington Holocaust Memorial Museum was opened journalist John Farrell wrote a column asking ‘Why do they come?’ His answer was that the Holocaust was
something like a foundation for modern morality:
In an era of moral relativity, the Holocaust museum serves as a lodestone. Here there is no rationalisation … Here is an absolute. And in that absolute of Evil, maybe, the prospect of an absolute Good … Americans flocking to the Holocaust museum are searching for answers - in the form of moral certainties …The Holocaust museum offers a basic moral foundation on which to build: a negative surety from which to begin.50 But even as the Holocaust is isolated as the one absolute truth in a world of confusion, the meaning of the ‘Final Solution’ is widely contested. First, the relative importance of the Holocaust in the assessment of the Second World War has increased as time passes.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair, interviewed by historian Tristram Hunt on the Sixtieth anniversary of D-Day was trying to rally support for his the invasion of Iraq when he made
You go back in the Thirties to the start of the persecution of the Jewish people, the murders and the wholesale plundering of their wealth, and you think well these things were there in 1935, 1934 even and it was only in 1939 they got round to doing something... [they said] this has got to be stopped. (Observer, June 6, 2004) However, Blair’s account is a retrospective reconstruction of the Allies’ war motives. At the time, the persecution of German Jewry played no part in the decision to go to war, and the specifically Jewish dimension of the Holocaust was played down by the allies even after the camps were opened. The elevation of the extermination of the Jews to the defining atrocity of the Second World War was by no means immediate, but emerged in a complicated interaction between a growing awareness of issues of racial justice, the work of Jewish advocacy groups and US diplomacy towards Europe and the Middle East.
The Holocaust has become a defining issue in contemporary morality, the one incontestable wickedness in an age that struggles to define the boundaries of right and wrong. But it is precisely the ideological weight that is put upon this defining event that distorts historical scholarship. While all are vigilant for any sign of holocaust revisionism, few understand that isolating the Final Solution from the wider conflict that was taking place could itself be a kind of revisionism. But to those who tried to keep the Holocaust within an ethical framework, it appeared that any attempt to explain what happened, to look for any wider cause, was to risk explaining away the personal culpability of its perpetrators.
Commemorating the Holocaust takes us out of historical research into public policy, but at the same time the mood created by the commemorations will tend to inform the research.
Here, the singularity of the Nazis’ Final Solution for the Jews creates an unfortunate hierarchy of suffering. In 1979 US President Jimmy Carter’s Commission on the Holocaust got bogged down in an unseemly debate with the Simon Wiesenthal Centre after Polish and Ukrainian-American lobbies persuaded him that they should be included in Hitler’s ‘eleven million’ victims.51 This kind of dispute is aggravated by the growing movement to exact reparations from governments and from businesses that profited from the Holocaust, of which the $20 billion dollar class action filed against Swiss Banks in a New York Court is an example.52 The politicisation of the history of the Holocaust is extensive, informing the building of Holocaust Museum in Washington (1993) and the memorial in Berlin (2005) as well as the inauguration of the Holocaust Day and laws against Holocaust denial. The impact of the great weight of moral expectation upon historical enquiry is marked. Amazon lists more than 52 000 titles with the word Holocaust, New York Public Library more than 10 000 and the British library 5 870.53 It is pointed that of all the many atrocities committed in the Second World War, the campaign of extermination against Europe’s Jews has been singled out as the exemplar of all suffering. Of course, there is something unique about the Holocaust, its single-mindedness, industrial scale and the grotesque culmination of eugenic policy. But the current reduction of all suffering in the war to the suffering of European Jewry is itself a misrepresentation of what took place.
The Wickedness of the German People
The practicalities of the rehabilitation of Germany as a NATO ally meant an end to denazification in the West. If punishing the Nazis was put on hold that did not mean that restitution to the victims was abandoned. On the contrary: The German Federal Republic paid 100 billion deutschmarks in restitution to victims of the Nazis under the Luxemburg agreement of 1952, and Germany today continues to pay around 1.2 billion each year to around 100 000 surviving pensioners, living in Israel, Germany and elsewhere. Germany also paid 3 billion DM directly to Israel, between 1952 and 1966. Since reunification Germany contributed 1.8 billion DM to restitution funds in Belarus, Poland, the Czech Republic, the Russian Federation and the Ukraine, out of which some compensation has been paid to former slave labourers.
In October 1945, eleven leading German Clergymen made the following declaration in Stuttgart, during a visit by foreign clergy: ‘We are especially thankful for this visit, since we realize that we are not only united with our people in a great company of suffering, but also in a solidarity of guilt.’ The official position put by Konrad Adenauer is that Germany was liable for the wrongs the Nazis committed in the name of the German people. Since then critics have thought this formula an evasion of the collective guilt of the Germans. Younger, radical Germans criticised their parents’ generation for complicity in the holocaust, as did the Red Army Faction terrorists Gudrun Ensslin and Ulrike Meinhof, for whom West Germany was heir to Nazi Germany.54 Anna Rosmus, whose local history project exposing the Nazi ties of her home town, Resistance and Persecution — The Case of Passau 1933-1939 (1983) was made into a film, ironically titled The Nasty Girl, by Michael Verhoeven in 1990.
Amongst historians Fritz Fischer disturbed the conventional view that Fascism was an exceptional period in Germany’s history, by publishing Germany’s Aims in the First World War in 1961. Though the subject was the First World War, the argument was that Germany was not a victim, but the perpetrator, having planned the annexation of Belgium. The meaning, drawn out in later books, like Hitler Was No Chance Accident (1992), was that there was continuity in German foreign policy that was expansionist. Fischer revived the idea that Germany had a ‘Special Way’, argued by conservative historians in the nineteenth century, except that as Fischer told it, Germany was uniquely vicious, rather than uniquely blessed.
Just how radical the theory of ‘collective guilt’ truly was is open to question. It was, after all the Hitler regime itself that asserted a mythic national community and sought to implicate Germans in the crimes of Nazism; that ideology of common cause was inverted by the occupying powers to justify their presence. In practice, the allies in the western zone used former Nazis because of their familiarity with the machinery of the state; but politically, they let the Germans know that they were all to blame. For West German political leaders ‘collective guilt’ at least had the advantage of spreading the direct blame for the Holocaust more widely, and of inculcating an attitude of subservience and shame in the population. It was an attitude shared by their opposite numbers among the East German leadership, which shared a secret ambition to de-legitimate popular claims.55 Though some leaders baulked at the implied loss of authority in the wider world and longed for a normalisation of Germany’s record, the more canny understood that reparations and apologies were the way that the country re-established its diplomatic connections and even projected its interests.
‘Restitution to Jewish victims became a cornerstone of the newly formed Federal Republic’, explains Human Rights professor, Elazar Barkan: ‘a moral obligation as well as a pragmatic policy that would facilitate the acceptance of Germany by the world community’.56 By the 1980s, with American power waning and the eastern bloc paralysed, the question whether Germany must always be on the defensive was raised. Historians Ernst Nolte and Joachim Fest put the argument that German national identity did not have to be problematic. Joachim Fest argued that the country’s exaggerated pacifism was an unwarranted reaction to a past that it should not be so apologetic about, and in its own way left the country still prisoner of the Nazi experience.57 Ernst Nolte tried to argue that the holocaust was an aberration in German history, a departure that owed its origins to the east,
and to Bolshevism, rather than arising out of Germany’s inner nature:
Did not the National Socialists, did not Hitler perhaps commit an ‘Asiatic’ deed only because they regarded themselves and those like them as potential or real victims of an ‘Asiatic’ deed? Was not the Gulag Archipelago more original than Auschwitz? Was not the ‘class murder’ of the Bolshevists the logical and factual prius of the racial murder of the National Socialists? 58 This way Nolte shifted the blame for the ‘Final Solution’ onto the Soviet Union, and, in characterising the extermination as an ‘Asiatic deed’ appealed to ideas of racial superiority that the Nazis would have recognised. Fest and Nolte’s attempts to recover an historical identity that Germans could be proud of stirred a big row in Germany, where more liberal historians were appalled. Beyond Germany’s borders, too, the chattering classes latched onto what became known as the Historians’ Debate as evidence of German revanchism, highlighting Nolte’s evasive account of the holocaust.59 The right-wing turn in German historiography, though was a case of the dog that did not bark. The end of the debate was not a strident reassertion of the German Way, but more of the guilty self-questioning that Fest reacted against. While the historians’ debate was going on Martin Broszat made a plea for a less passionate approach to the history of the Fascist period in German history, which he called ‘A plea for the historicization of National Socialism’ (1985).
The belief that German people must be uniquely wicked, has gathered more support, as commemoration of the victims of the Holocaust has become more compelling with the passage of time. In his book Hitler’s Willing Executioners (1996) the Harvard Professor Daniel Goldhagen argued that there was a culture of ‘eliminationist anti-Semitism’ deeply embedded in German society, of which fascism was just one expression.60 Goldhagen’s thesis was sharply criticised by many historians for its dogmatism, though the ensuing debate created more heat than light, tending to damage the reputations of all involved.61 Though professional historians were disquieted, Goldhagen’s arguments found a wider audience in the United States, but also in Germany itself, where Hitler’s Willing Executioners topped the best sellers’ lists and he was awarded the 1997 Democracy Prize.
Hostility to a perceived rise in German nationalism in other countries grew as Germany’s economic and political power grew, most notably within the European Union.
Fear of Germany’s rise led to a more critical attitude towards German history. From 1972 to 1981 the Secretary General of the United Nations was one Kurt Waldheim. His American sponsors for the position overlooked Waldheim’s military career in the Wehrmacht, and the CIA withheld information that Waldheim had been an intelligence officer in the Wehrmacht during the Balkan campaign. Then, in 1985, when Waldheim was running for the Austrian presidency, the World Jewish Congress uncovered his knowledge, as intelligence officer, of a massacre of Jews in Salonika. Though Waldheim was Austrian president, he was barred from entering the United States. Europeans were learning that the historical record that America had snapped shut in the early Cold War could be opened up when it helped put down a pushy rival power.
The collapse of the East German regime and the reunification of Germany provoked British fears. In 1990, the British Cabinet retired to Chequers for a weekend conference on the impending reunification of Germany.62 Judging by the comments from leading participants, we can guess that the discussion was not a happy one. ‘This is all a German racket designed to take over the whole of Europe’ Minister Nicholas Ridley told the Spectator: ‘You might just as well give it to Adolf Hitler, frankly.’ (14 July 1990) Nor was Prime Minister Thatcher’s judgment much more balanced: ‘We’ve been through the war and we know perfectly well what the Germans are like, and what dictators can do, and how national character doesn’t basically change’. On one occasion, Mrs Thatcher grabbed the (Communist dictator) General Jaruzelski ‘by the buttons of my jacket and said to me very urgently, “We cannot allow German reunification! You have to protest against it very loudly!”’ 63 In 2002, after two German children were beaten up on a visit to Britain who taunted them as Nazis, the Ambassador Thomas Matussek asked what was being taught in British schools.64 According to Gordon Marsden MP, head of an advisory group on history teaching the over-emphasis on the Third Reich risks a ‘Hitlerisation of history’.65
The Origins of the Second World War