What the critics are missing
Paul Demarty looks at the fallout from Roger Hallam’s invocation of the holocaust.
It was inevitable that some of the saintliness would wear off the good men and women of Extinction Rebellion, and so it has come to pass.
Step forward co-founder, Roger Hallam - a veteran of various social movements now in his 50s (and eminently arrestable by XR’s definitions). He has been charged with tagging up Kings College London to shame it into divesting from fossil fuel companies (earlier this year he and his co-defendants were acquitted by a jury sympathetic to their argument that the vandalism was a proportionate response). More recently, he is in trouble for allegedly conspiring to ground planes by flying drones.
He is not in the news for any of these reasons, however; instead, an interview he gave to the German paper, Die Zeit, has gotten him into trouble for comments he made about the holocaust and its place in history. He was challenged for having drawn comparisons between the climate crisis’s likely long-term effects and the Nazi extermination programmes in an earlier talk; instead of walking back from that statement, he expanded it further, saying that - in the light of, for example, the behaviour of the Belgian colonial regime in the Congo, and innumerable other obscene massacres and crimes - the holocaust was “almost a normal event … just another fuckery in human history.”1
This did not go down well, naturally. His statement was widely condemned as anti-Semitic and insensitive. German foreign minister Heiko Maas was typical when he declared:
The holocaust is more than millions of dead and horrific torture methods. To want to murder and exterminate Jewish women and men is uniquely inhumane. We must always be aware of that, so we can be certain: never again!2
Concerns were raised outside the mainstream, too. Rob Ferguson of Socialist Worker was not happy: “Hallam appeared completely ignorant of how his remarks chimed with fascists and holocaust deniers.”3
There is always with these spectacular allergic reactions a question of what is being hidden. Certainly the reason given by Maas for the holocaust’s uniqueness is spurious - plenty of people, through European and west Asian history, have wanted to exterminate the Jews, and some still do today; so it is questionable how much this helps us to be “certain” not to have a repeat.
There is also the question of exactly what is not to be repeated. The event is treated very often, including in Maas’s tweet, as a specifically Jewish tragedy; but we all know that Jews amounted to a plurality of half or so of the civilian victims of Nazi murder: the rest were made up of Soviet citizens (5.7 million), Poles (1.8 million), Serbs, Roma, communists, homosexuals, other supposed ‘asocials’, the disabled, the ‘feeble-minded’ and so on. If we look at things in this context, the thing we want never to have again is systematic massacre, rather than specifically anti-Semitic genocide. At that point, however, we are nudging in Hallam’s direction - aren’t we? - by reducing the singularity of Hitler’s crime.
In truth, the argument in the form it usually appears, presenting the holocaust as an absolute singularity of evil, is surely unsustainable. In order to understand its singularity, we would have to compare it to other things, even if only to find the distinction between them. That is what serious historians of the death camps have done in order to illuminate the subject - surely impossible without reference to the sordid history of pogroms in pre-war Poland and pre-revolutionary Russia; the nationalist-Catholic party of ultra-reaction that formed in France’s Third Republic after the Dreyfus affair, surrendered to Hitler’s armies and ultimately rounded up Jews in the Paris Velodrome for transportation; and so on. Crimes are built on crimes.
Hallam’s interview reminds us, inevitably, of other controversial comparisons relating to the holocaust. In a 1949 lecture, the philosopher, Martin Heidegger, infamously characterised it as a symptom of the mechanisation of production:
... agriculture is now a motorised food industry - the same thing in its essence as the production of corpses in the gas chambers and the extermination camps; the same thing as blockades and the reduction of countries to famine; the same thing as the manufacture of hydrogen bombs.
Heidegger had a lot to hide here: his membership of the Nazi Party was well-known by then, but only in recent decades has the full extent of his enthusiasm for and sympathy with German fascism - including its anti-Semitism - become clear. The implied equation of chemical pesticides and Zyklon-B is morally abhorrent, but paradoxically gets us closer to the holocaust’s place in the world’s history of blood-sacrifice than the nie wieder chest-beating of modern establishment types. It is the holocaust’s industrial character that presents a uniquely horrific aspect - the bringing to bear of sophisticated technique and infrastructural organisation to the task of mass murder. This distinguishes it from other great crimes of history, and even more recent genocidal activity, such as the massacres in Rwanda and Myanmar (perpetrated by riled-up mobs), or the Palestinian nakba and Yugoslav wars (terroristic, designed to encourage mass flight for ethnic-cleansing purposes).
The ‘final solution’ was in respect of ‘the Jewish problem’, of course; but it was also a solution to a more immediate problem, which is that the morale of SS units marching from one city in the east to the next and shooting Jew after Jew was in a state of collapse. These units were the prototype of the gas chambers, and as human material could hardly have been better selected - fiercely loyal, ideologically-committed Nazis, who despised Jews with the same fervour as Hitler and Himmler. At some basic level, the human organism resists being so used; the introduction of complex technological mediation was necessary for Hitler’s plan to be carried out.
The extermination of Jews (and Roma, gays ... ) was, in other words, a product of capitalism and its sophisticated forms of coercive cooperation, as well as its technological fecundity (as is usefully pointed out by comrade Ferguson, in fact, once he finishes ticking off Hallam). The desire for revenge and the demagogue’s scapegoating predate capitalism, and are intrinsic to the crooked polities of all class societies; the possibility of turning that into an international enterprise, complete with supply-chain and detailed accounting procedures, does not.
Heidegger was perhaps right at least to link Auschwitz with “the manufacture of hydrogen bombs”, and it is notable that the notorious neo-Nazi novel The Turner diaries ends with the eponymous ‘hero’ exterminating the world’s non-white population with indiscriminate nuclear strikes. Those who say ‘never again’ to genocide, while acquiescing in the stockpiling of the weapons best suited to achieving it must deceive themselves; hence the impoverished character of their views on the matter, their turning Auschwitz into a jealous god, whose finicky rituals must be observed whenever he is mentioned.
Where does this leave Roger Hallam? Ironically, in basically the same predicament. To view all human history, in the manner of Walter Benjamin’s angel of history, as merely the piling up of wreckage and corpses (Benjamin wrote before the camps, of course, and became himself a victim of the Nazis before the extermination programme got fully into its stride) is just as much to render the genesis of the holocaust unintelligible, since it denies that there is anything very much about it to know, beyond the ‘bare facts’ of how many died, where, by whose hand and what means - which are reduced to entirely contingent details, as meaningless as pizza-toppings.
Hallam seems to be on the pessimistic wing of the environmental movement; and part of his trouble is that this does shade into some pretty dodgy territory before long. Our paper has criticised the Malthusian population obsessions of many environmentalists - including the Green Party - and there is a further shading into the far right, with Walther Darré’s Blut und Boden philosophy having something of a revival on the alt-right at the moment.4 Hallam’s politics on this point are ambiguous at best - Die Zeit notes previous statements to the German press to the effect that XR is “not a classical leftist movement who will exclude you if you are a bit sexist or a bit racist”, and elsewhere that “democracy is irrelevant in immoral societies”.
The endless-fuckery of history is not prima facie defensible as a ‘theory’: it is rather an axiomatic statement that there is not an explanation for human brutality - or at least not an explanation with any practical import for humans as we are. So we may or may not choose to accept that axiom, but we must surely call it ultimately a counsel of despair: if not a climate holocaust, then some other one shall surely arise ultimately, according to basic statistic laws. The best we can do, then, is to join the far right, and hope that our ethnic group outlives everyone else’s (Garrett Hardin’s repugnant ‘lifeboat ethics’).
This leads us beyond the historiography of the holocaust, and other sordid episodes in human history, to the small matter of the political future of XR. Hallam, on the one hand, and his critics, on the other, point towards two divergent dangers for the movement’s supporters. Hallam’s error, though perhaps unrepresentative of his overall political opinions, reminds us of that unsavoury, misanthropic current in green thought; and that, in spite of the overwhelmingly liberal and leftwing coloration of the contemporary movement, the connection is not automatic.
As for the ‘You can’t say that!’ brigade, they ought to remind us that XR is always in danger of being coopted and domesticated by the powers that be. The militancy of its direct actions, pace most far-left cheerleading, is no prophylactic; long-term general political organisation outside the grip of the establishment could be. We hear often enough from XR militants that ‘system change’ is needed to prevent climate disaster; but they cannot forever dodge the key question: change from what system, to what system - and how?