Thursday, September 27, 2007

The roots of denial

Holocaust denial is in the news again, thanks (but no thanks) to the President of Iran. Ahmadinejad’s opinions have elicited the usual indignation, but what are we to make, finally, of Holocaust denial itself? There is no question that the “final solution” is among the most well-documented events in history. The Germans kept very precise records—not to mention the countless testimonies from survivors and perpetrators, along with all the other supporting evidence. That anyone would even attempt to deny the Holocaust has always puzzled me. Yet it’s been going on for at least forty years.

Sometimes the denial manifests as a critique of the extent or nature of Nazi persecution of the Jews, as for example in claims that the gas chambers were a myth. I don’t think it makes any difference whether a revisionist denies the Holocaust outright, or just the extent of it, or the means employed. None of it withstands critical scrutiny.

It seems to me that the question as to why such denial is being advanced has two related answers, one of them obvious, the other not as much. First, the obvious one: antisemitism. Hatred of Jews has a long tradition. The ambivalent relationship between Christianity and Judaism, in which organized Christian power incorporated the Jewish scriptures while claiming to usurp the Jews’ “chosen” place within the biblical story, has been one of the most tragic aspects of European history. The 19th century, however, saw racism as a cultural construct give way to an ideological racism. The mythical position of the Jew as scapegoat became a lightning rod for those using fear and resentment to wield a new kind of power that we’ve come to know as “totalitarian.”

When the magnitude of the Nazi regime’s crimes became widely known, the world shuddered. A supposedly “civilized” nation demonstrated to what depths human beings can go, and they were deeper and more frightening than anyone had dreamed. The post-war revelations concerning the death camps were a repudiation of ideological antisemitism. As the cause, so the effect: the end of antisemitic rhetoric was mass murder.

Rather than boldly attempt to justify the “final solution,” therefore, the antisemite of today seeks instead to deny that it existed. If there were no Holocaust, then anti-Jewish ideology can pretend once more to have a case. Holocaust denial, then, is an attempt to regain access to the destructive energy of the old Jew-as-scapegoat mythos, a time-honored source of power. Of course there are other scapegoats available (the right wing is currently using gay people for that end) but none of them have the history or the potency of the Jewish scapegoat.

I believe, however, that there is a second reason for Holocaust denial, related to the first but more subtle. That the Third Reich was really a rightist state is a fact that must be secretly embarrassing to right wingers. During the Cold War, the American right was fond of raising the specter of Munich and “appeasement” when attacking the left as being soft on Communism. This obscured the fact that it was the right that opposed entry into World War II, it was the right that was isolationist, and what support there was for Hitler in this country came exclusively from the right. During the McCarthy era, anticommunism and antisemitism went hand-in-hand, and this was no different in essence from Hitler’s own political views. A number of Congressmen were on record as believing that America had been duped into supporting the “wrong” side in the war by a “Jewish-Bolshevist” conspiracy.

As a symptom, then, of this largely unexpressed embarrassment, we witness the appearance, on society’s fringes, of Holocaust denial. For if the Holocaust didn’t happen, or even if it wasn’t as severe as we’ve been told, then Nazi Germany was just another regime that waged an unfortunate war and lost, rather than a massive criminal enterprise. And if the fascist state was not beyond the ken, then the fascist project for the future is given a new lease on life. I don’t believe the issue at stake is whether or not the denial is supported by the facts. The motive is to sow the seeds of doubt in the public mind. A gradual erosion of faith in the historical record advances the fascist cause. Most of this is unconscious, of course, just as all such ideological systems are an expression of an unconscious drive to power.

In the case of Ahmadinejad and other Holocaust deniers from Muslim countries, I think it’s primarily a symptom of their hatred of Israel. A sane perspective is to consider Israel as a state among other states, which means that one can oppose the policies of an Israeli government without being anti-Jewish, contrary to what many reflexive defenders of Israeli policies may say. Conferring a “special” status on a particular country is just as delusional as giving it a “hated” status. To do neither is not only a prerequisite for sane political discussion, but for respect as well. But both are apparently in short supply. So we have the spectacle of a Muslim leader spouting off about the “myth” of the Holocaust. No matter what the motive may be, the negation of the historical record reveals an insidious prejudice.

I understand that there are Holocaust deniers on the left as well. Delusion is not the sole property of the right. But if I were to believe what the right wing noise machine tells me, liberals and leftists are natural allies of Islamic fundamentalists, although the fundamentalists oppose homosexuality, abortion, women’s rights, and just about everything else that the American right opposes. The Orwellian state of public discourse is such that indignation about Holocaust denial can be expressed by those who haven’t learned anything from the Holocaust. The mortal danger of extremist ideology, whether we label it “right” or “left,” is not something in a museum. It’s still very much with us.


fiddler said...

To differentiate between cultural and ideological racism is a clever move. I like that :) I wouldn't say however that the former gave way to the latter. I believe cultural racism exists permanently in probably any society, sometimes latent, sometimes more openly. While it is the most important root of institutional and ideological racism, not every xenophobiac (is that a word?) is therefore already a mini-Hitler. Like everywhere else, there are shades of grey.

Apart from outright wackos like Fred Phelps I don't see the right wing scapegoating gay people so much as rather Muslims, whether in Iraq, Iran, Israel/Palestine, Syria, or Lebanon. While they don't have a history of being persecuted the way the Jews were, the potential is certainly there, don't you think?

Basically I agree with your theory about Ahmadinejad's motive being hatred of (the political, not ethnic or religious entity) Israel. Hatred usually does yield irrational symptoms, like, in this case, denial of historical facts. The old Zionist tactic (as old as the late 19th century) of exploiting and instrumentalising anti-semitism for their cause has however not exactly helped the situation.
By calling this particular holocaust (I don't like the capitalising of the word one bit) a myth, Ahmadinejad may even have unintentionally uttered a truth: in the west, the holocaust is in the process (in danger, I'd say) of becoming part of the "mythos" that unconsciously underlies all our culture, and simultaneously becoming detached from historical science, i.e. the "logos". A mythos in this sense obviously isn't something that isn't true, as opposed to the popular meaning of the word. But it bears the danger of tacking a perpetual special status to a people, a nation, an ethnic group, whatever. To describe a young or middle-aged contemporary Jew as a "holocaust victim" (and to infer special rights and impunity from that) is as ludicrous as ascribing an imminent eliminationist anti-semitism to the German people, as Daniel Goldhagen did.

Chris Dashiell said...

I agree with you that ideological racism did not supplant cultural racism. Instead of "gave way" I perhaps should have said "gave birth to" or "produced."
I actually don't care for the term "holocaust," capitalized or not. It conveys the sense of a natural disaster instead of a crime, which is what it was. The term has stuck, unfortunately, so I'm stuck using it.
You are also right in pointing out that genocide has been perpetrated on others beside the Jews, both before and after World War II. This particular event has a special significance in the history of the West, for complex reasons, but not a special "status" as essentially different from other examples of genocide.
I also agree that the Muslim has become the scapegoat de jour. This is an interesting example of pure ideological racism (or more accurately, ideological religious hatred). In the United States, at least, there is very little history of anti-Muslim hatred as a cultural construct. It's become a lightning rod for an ideologically-based movement.
I'm uncomfortable with "Zionism" as a term because it has different meanings, some of which are purely religious (not political) in nature. I hinted at the issue when I mentioned the folly of assigning special status to a country instead of recognizing it as a country like any other. The idea of denying Israel's "right to exist" seems absurd to me, both because the state of Israel is a fait accompli and (more importantly) because a country is composed of people, who have an unconditional right to exist. The issues in my mind always have to do with specific policies and actions of a government rather than dangerous abstractions about a country as a whole, such as whether it should exist or not. Not everyone understands this distinction, unfortunately. It's assumed that a government is an expression of a people, but this is true only in the most abstract sense. And the less accountable a government is to its own people, the less true it is.
I don't know whether or not Ahmadinejad's hatred of Israel is only political and not ethnic. I would tend to believe that holocaust denial wouldn't have entered the picture if there weren't an element of ethnic hatred involved.
We're in agreement on the exploitation of antisemitism by supporters of Israeli government policies. It's a very self-destructive tactic, because it implies a denial that Israel is a "state among states" by attempting to elevate it to a sacred status that therefore can never be questioned.

fiddler said...

To clarify, by "Zionism" I mean the modern, largely secular political movement founded by Theodor Herzl, not religious tradition linking the Jews to the Levante.

You're quite right about the folly of assigning special status to a country, something my own country is guilty of as well.

The "right to exist" issue is a little more convoluted I think. Certainly people have an unconditional right to exist, but people do not equal a state or any organisation. Nazi Germany existed, but would you say it had a "right to exist", or even demand such a recognition from its Jewish and other victims? Could any Catholic not lead a full Catholic life without the Vatican state's right to exist? It has indeed to do with specific politics and government actions, and I believe it is this context the issue is understood among Palestinians: what is demanded of them is not simply the recognition of Israel as a fait accompli (the PLO did that in the 1990s), but specifically to recognise Israel's "right to exist". To Palestinians this would mean acknowledging as right and just everything Israel has done to them in the past, not only their ethnic cleansing from most of historic Palestine and the occupation of the rest since the six-days war, but also their relegation to second class citizens within the Israeli ethnocracy, as well as Israel's "right" in the future to take from them whatever more land and resources it covets. This would be impossible for any nation to cede even to a friendly neighbour, and for Western leaders to demand it of the Palestinians shows at best a willful blindness that I find hard to understand.