Tuesday, February 21, 2006

The real Holocaust denial

Sam Smith

THE jailing of Holocaust denier David Irving in Austria is a reminder of how easy it is to imitate evil even as one excoriates it. The law that convicted Irving is of the sort the Nazis would have invoked, albeit for far different purposes, and was a routine offense in Orwell's 1984.

Many fail to see this irony because they are engaged in the greatest Holocaust denial of all: a refusal to look seriously at why there was a Holocaust in the first place. To blame it all on anti-Semitism is as dangerously ahistorical as to deny its existence. Yes, Jews were the victims, but why did an ancient and widespread prejudice produce such an extreme result in this case?

We avoid this question because it takes us places we don't want to go. Like the role of modern bureaucracy and technology in the magnification of evil. Like the commingling of corporate and state interests in a way the world had never seen before. Like the failure of Germany's liberal elite to stand effectively against wrong eerily echoed today in the failure of America's liberal elite to do likewise.

Some of the most important lessons of the Holocaust are simply missed. Among these, as Richard Rubenstein has pointed out, is that it could only have been carried out by 'an advanced political community with a highly trained, tightly disciplined police and civil service bureaucracy.'

In The Cunning of History, Rubenstein also finds uncomfortable parallels between the Nazis and their opponents. For example, a Hungarian Jewish emissary meets with Lord Moyne, the British High Commissioner in Egypt in 1944 and suggests that the Nazis might be willing to save one million Hungarian Jews in return for military supplies. Lord Moyne's reply: "What shall I do with those million Jews? Where shall I put them?" Writes Rubenstein: "The British government was by no means adverse to the 'final solution' as long as the Germans did most of the work. " For both countries, it had become a bureaucratic problem, one that Rubenstein suggests we understand "as the expression of some of the most profound tendencies of Western civilization in the 20th century."

How many school children are taught that, worldwide, wars in the past century killed over 100 million people? In World War I alone, the death toll was around ten million. Much of this, including the Holocaust, was driven by a culture of modernity that so changed the power of institutions over the individual that the latter would become what Erich Fromm called homo mechanicus, "attracted to all that is mechanical and inclined against all that is alive." Becoming, in fact, a part of the machinery -- willing to kill or to die just to keep it running.

Thus, with Auschwitz-like efficiency, over 6,000 people perished every day during World War I for 1,500 days. Rubenstein recounts that on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, the British lost 60,000 men and half of the officers assigned to them. But the bureaucratic internal logic of the war did not falter at all; over the next six months, more than a million British, French and German soldiers would lose their lives. The total British advance: six miles. No one in that war was a person anymore. The seeds of the Holocaust can thus be found in the trenches of World War I. Individuals had became no better than the bullets that killed them, just part of the expendable arsenal of the state.

But we don't talk about this do we? We don't teach our children about it, do we?

The problem with using the outcome rather than the origins of the Holocaust as our metaphor and our message is that we are totally unprepared for those practices, laws, and arguments that can produce similar outcomes. We study the death chambers when we should be learning about the birth places.

12 Comments:

At 4:12 PM, Jeff Taylor said...

Sam Smith, I think you're a genius. You have such an ability to see deeply into political questions! Thank you for your writings.

 
At 11:24 PM, Lloydyboy said...

I'm assuming that the same people who applauded that Danish newspaper's brave stand for free speech will condemn Mr. Irving's imprisonment. Haven't heard them yet. Probably warming up.

 
At 8:35 AM, Anonymous said...

Brilliant, Mr Smith!

--Mairead

 
At 9:28 AM, Anonymous said...

Dear Sam Smith, Beautifully written, as usual. Let us all re-read Hannah Arendt's 1963 classic, "The Banality of Evil", and recall Charley Chaplin's great oration at the end of "The Great Dictator". Tony Vodvarka, Hartly DE

 
At 3:13 PM, Anonymous said...

....Sam, seems like you're spending a lot of time in the place where great insights come from... leave a trail of crumbs so you can find your way back from time to time & maybe catch up on a little rest & something to eat.

regards, J. Joslin ( electrician in Detroit )

 
At 9:40 PM, m said...

The real holocaust denial also includes the pretense that there was only one, when there have been far too many that have occurred in the past. And to the shame of every human on the earth, those that are going on today.

The Jewish holocaust is one of many. It was not the first, the largest, or unfortunately the last. And, while it is difficult to rank such things, it is most likely not the most horrific. Man's complete inhumanity to man does not start or end with this event.

The pretensions that it does, only increases the likelyhood that we will never be able to put an end to such abominations. To ignore the others makes this a unique evil, and means that we need not protect against them again.

No, the real denial of holocausts is the treatment that there is not even a whisper of them. That so few know that they occurred, and worse that they are still occurring.

 
At 5:11 PM, Anonymous said...

really enjoyed your thoughtful piece on a subject which has encountered deafening silence from people who would be screeching about "freedom" were some thought police acting in a communist or islamic nation...one small point of difference...

when you said, at the close, that:

"We study the death chambers when we should be learning about the birth places."

it may have been a rhetorical flourish, but i hope you realize that we do NOT study these "chambers", and that is partly why the controversy over the holocaust exists...

fs

 
At 11:13 AM, Ohadi Langis said...

The News Media & Holocaust Denial - A Case in point ~ Irving v. Lipstadt
http://www.ideajournal.com/articles.php?id=23

 
At 5:19 PM, william davidson said...

Sam. I want to know why we can not get you to be the president. You understand the world better than any man I have ever talked to, you would do more for the world in 1 year than all of the others put togeather. I believe a ufo could land in the white hous lawn and be live on tv and the president could tell us that it was a fog and we would believe it. Untail you or some one with some smarts get in their we will stay in this hell we are in. We could kill 100 people in plain sight and Mr. Bush could say it is not true and we would believe it, so I think that is the reason we do not elect a smart man for president. It is us that need to get smart, than we could elect you are some smart person to lead us. William Davidson

 
At 11:14 AM, Anonymous said...

You're great, Sam.

 
At 10:11 PM, Anonymous said...

Since every day the human population increases by over 200,000, while the land area shrinks with rising oceans, to study the birth places is, in a sense, to study the death chambers.

 
At 10:53 AM, Anonymous said...

screw the british

 

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