Class struggle and the holocaust

In the light of this week's Holocaust Memorial Day, and the official Auschwitz commemorations, Eddie Ford revisits a controversial work - Norman G Finkelstein The holocaust industry: reflections on the exploitation of Jewish suffering Verso 2000, pp150, £16

If success, and intellectual achievement, could be measured solely by the sheer level of furious condemnation it generates, then Norman Finkelstein's punchy little polemic was without doubt a roaring triumph. For his numerous critics, who stretched from the 'politically correct' anti-Zionist left, the liberal (non-Zionist) centre and the pro-Zionist right, all semblance of balance and rationality went straight out of the window when it came to The holocaust industry. (We wait to see if Finkelstein's new and more substantial follow-up work, Beyond chutzpah: on the misuse of anti-semitism and the abuse of history, due out in June, will be met with the same level of intense hostility.) So, for one leftwing critic, Tobias Abse, The holocaust industry provided "considerable comfort to every holocaust denier, neo-Nazi and anti-semite on the face of the planet" (New Interventions autumn 2000). Our Socialist Workers Party comrades, now wrapped up within Respect and desperate to curry favour with the muslim 'community', might no longer care to recall what they said. But Alex Callinicos suggested that Finkelstein came "dangerously close to giving comfort to those who dream of new holocausts" (Socialist Worker July 22 2000). An assessment echoed by liberal journalist Jonathan Freedland, who opined that Finkelstein is "a Jew who doesn't like Jews" and who "does the anti-semites' work for them" (The Guardian July 14 2000). More straightforwardly, Leon Wieseltier, a bourgeois Zionist intellectual and literary editor of the US journal, New Republic, slammed Finkelstein as the lowest of the low: "He's poison." At first glance, Finkelstein does appear an unlikely candidate for such sweeping vilification. His profile hardly matches that of your usual anti-semite holocaust denier. Both his mother and father were survivors of the Warsaw ghetto and the Nazi concentration camps. Apart from his parents, every family member was exterminated by the Nazis. In the words of Finkelstein, "My earliest memory, so to speak, of the Nazi holocaust is my mother glued in front of the television watching the trial of Adolf Eichmann (1961) when I came home from school" (p5). Still, for some, grotesquely, all this proves just how pathological and dangerous Jewish 'self-hatred' can be - the enemy within reaching out to the enemy outside. Finkelstein is in good company though, with fellow 'self-haters' like Noam Chomsky, Karl Marx and Leon Trotsky. Finkelstein is author of the penetrating anti-Zionist works, Image and reality of the Israel-Palestine conflict (1995) and The rise and fall of Palestine (1996). He entered into the political limelight with his extended polemic, co-authored with Ruth Bettina Birn, A nation on trial: the Goldhagen thesis and historical truth. This work, enthusiastically championed by the SWP (before it did its volte-face and decided that Finkelstein's ideas were too ideologically subversive to handle), was a scathing attack on the author of Hitler's willing executioners, David Jonah Goldhagen, who argued that the German people were (and still are?) inherently anti-semitic and therefore the holocaust was an event just waiting to happen. For Goldhagen Adolph Hitler's regime, or an analogous one, was inevitable. History has always had it in for the Jews and always will - to say otherwise is to slip inexorably into anti-semitism. In the now infamous words of Abraham Foxman, head of the Anti-Defamation League, responding to the assault of Finkelstein and Birn on Hitler's willing executioners, "The issue is not whether Goldhagen's thesis is right or wrong, but what is 'legitimate criticism' and what goes beyond the pale" (p66) - a sentiment which, unfortunately, some on the British left seem to share. Ironically, given the hysteria-tinged sound and fury of his detractors, Finkelstein's project is at heart eminently moderate - to make the Nazi holocaust a subject of rational and scientific inquiry. This entails rescuing real history from the clutches of "holocaust correctness" (p65) and so-called 'holocaust awareness', which, in the words of the Israeli writer, Boas Evron, is actually "an official, propagandistic indoctrination, a churning out of slogans and a false view of the world, the real aim of which is not at all an understanding of the past, but a manipulation of the present" (p41). Surely an apt description of Holocaust Memorial Day, with its ritual, ceremonies and orchestrated mourning - and government-authorised 'lessons'. Finkelstein's project is to strip away all the self-serving myths and falsehoods which envelop the holocaust, which can only mean stepping on a lot of very sensitive toes - some powerful, some just desperate for a crumb of ideological absolutism in an uncertain and disturbingly complex world. As he clearly puts it in his mission statement, "In this text, 'Nazi holocaust' signals the actual historical event; 'The Holocaust' its ideological representation ... Like most ideologies, it bears a connection, if tenuous, with reality. The Holocaust is not an arbitrary, but rather an internally coherent, construct. Its central dogmas sustain significant political and class interests. Indeed, The Holocaust has proven to be an indispensable ideological weapon" (p4). In other words, Finkelstein wants to understand how "the Nazi holocaust" became "The Holocaust" - a "categorically unique historical event" which "cannot be rationally apprehended ... Indeed, The Holocaust is unique because it is inexplicable, and it is inexplicable because it is unique" (pp41-45). Does this sound like a book which could provide "comfort" and nourishment to your average holocaust-denying, neo-Nazi, anti-semitic, no-brain nutter? As a graphic example of the "sacralisation of the holocaust", as the radical liberal scholar Peter Novick dubs it, some have been infuriated by Finkelstein's blunt statement that "much of the literature on Hitler's 'final solution' is worthless as scholarship. Indeed, the field of Holocaust studies is replete with nonsense, if not sheer fraud" (p55). This prompted the SWP's Alex Callinicos to ask, "How different is [Finkelstein's] assertion that 'the field of Holocaust studies is replete with nonsense, if not plain fraud', from the holocaust revisionist David Irving's rantings ... ?" (Socialist Worker July 22 2000). Well, actually, Alex, all the difference in the world. Irving's well researched "rantings" were motivated by a combination of undeclared anti-semitism and Hitlerite apologetics. Even then, it would be a fundamental mistake to righteously dismiss his extensive works as mere reactionary trash. For instance, in his readable Churchill's war: struggle for power, Irving emphasises how Churchill's prime motivation during World War II, apart from self-aggrandisement, was the defence and preservation of the holy British empire. Certainly not the pursuance of a noble 'anti-fascist' crusade - least of all a humanitarian concern for the plight of European Jews. For Churchill it was surely be the case that the holocaust was indeed a "mere detail" of the war. The horrors of Auschwitz and the other death camps were a convenient add-on gloss, when it came to the production of post-World War II anti-Nazi propaganda by the ruling class and their servants. Looked at from this angle, there are many aspects of Irving's Churchill's war that the left could concur with. But for the patriarchs who run the SWP such views are heresy. Hence the notorious 'What we think' column in Socialist Worker, which thundered: "There is only one reason for denial of the Nazi holocaust. It is to make it possible again ... Holocaust deniers should be confronted whenever they raise their heads, and Irving's books should be banned from every public, college and school library" (my emphasis, January 22 2000). This immediately begs the obvious question - if Finkelstein's views now come "dangerously close" to Irving's, as Alex Callinicos no doubt sincerely believes, then why not demand that The holocaust industry also be removed from public libraries? To make such a call would at least have the merit of logic or consistency. After all, as we know, our SWP comrades these days are busy co-authoring letters to The Guardian, promoting Holocaust Memorial Day and expressing concern that the likes of Harry Windsor are not "condemning" or "distancing themselves" from fascism enough (January 15). In other words, the SWP is endorsing the official or establishment version of the 'just war' against fascism. Finkelstein's remit, on the other hand, is to explain the way in which the ruling class and reactionary forces in general have managed to expropriate the 'memory' and discourse of the holocaust - to the extent that the almost unimaginable suffering endured by the victims of Nazi rule has become the virtual political-moral property of the reinvented, post-World War II bourgeoisie, which never tires of parading its new-found anti-racism/fascism. Also, can comrade Callinicos inform us of a field of scholarship that is not "replete with nonsense" - especially one where there are so many different and at times competing vested interests at stake? Comrade Callinicos's innocent outburst betrays an instinctive uneasiness about anything which might upset the tenets of 'holocaust correctness' and hence alienate that pool of 'respectable' opinion which the SWP is so desperate to tap into and feed off. The distasteful truth, as Finkelstein remorselessly points out, is that 'The Holocaust' has become a sort of proprietary trademark. The murder of between three and six million Jews (holocaust industry estimates usually exceed historical estimates) was not intrinsically unique to a century that witnessed the wholesale slaughter of many ethnic groups, including the Nazis' systematic killing of Roma, Slavs, homosexuals, and physically and mentally disabled individuals (not to mention the bloodbath that was Stalin's great terror). The 20th century's body count ran into tens of millions, with many victims in the latter years being killed by Israeli weapons. Yet the holocaust industry claims a property right over the "uniqueness" of the holocaust. This aggressive defence and maintenance of the 'Holocaust brand' has been so successful that even a few gentiles have gained wealth and notoriety by masquerading as Jewish holocaust survivors - an ironic example of chutzpah. Those Jews who have done the same have usually won holocaust industry praise rather than condemnation for their efforts. Finkelstein has detailed and chronicled these abuses of memory. Inevitably, this has led to a violent clash with the officially designated guardians of 'memory', especially Elie Wiesel. Many readers will know that Wiesel, a genuine Auschwitz survivor, was the first to systematically apply the word 'holocaust' to the Jewish experience of the Nazi terror. He also engaged in a lengthy and increasingly bitter struggle with Simon Wiesenthal as to who had the moral right to wear the crown of The World's Most Important And Saintly Witness To The Holocaust - or "The Event", as Wiesel always calls it, which he describes in his memoirs, And the sea is never full, as "the ultimate mystery, never to be comprehended or transmitted". Indeed, he has gone one further and claimed that 'The Holocaust' is "non-communicable" - "we cannot talk about it" - and that "the truth lies in silence". Not that this has prevented Wiesel and others, notes Finkelstein, from making "personal fortunes by talking and writing about" the "non-communicable" (p 45). Now, says Finkelstein, Wiesel is a near perfect example of the holocaust industry at work. Of course, this could be yet another example of Finkelstein's twisted and internalised 'anti-semitism'. So it is instructive to read a review of And the sea is never full by David Goldberg, senior rabbi at the Liberal Jewish Synagogue in London, which appeared in The Independent. In his review, rabbi Goldberg comments that Wiesel's "mock-modest tone of 'Aw shucks, fancy me, the yeshiva student from Sighet, here in the White House/Elysée Palace/Kremlin' soon wears thin" - calling the Nobel Prize winner "vain, arrogant, gullible and naive about international affairs". In conclusion, Goldberg writes: "[Wiesel] seems to spend his time touring the world with an entourage of Nobel winners, organising conferences like 'The anatomy of hate and conflict resolution'. Ferried first-class to five-star hotels, the great and the good deliberate at length and issue insipid declarations which Wiesel solemnly reproduces. How one would love to get on to the gravy train! Alas, this wanton review will have scuppered my chances" (August 31 2000). Funnily enough, I do not recall any protests about the rabbi's scathing remarks - no accusations of unconscious self-loathing and suchlike. Yet when Norman Finkelstein too attacks Wiesel for being part of the 'holocaust remuneration business' (or, if you prefer, the "gravy train"), there are the usual howls of outrage - with even some who would consider themselves to be Marxists slamming Finkelstein for his "anti-semitic" language, "Jewish self-hatred", and so on. Yet, there is not that much which separates rabbi Goldberg from Norman Finkelstein, at least in terms of moral outrage and general humanitarian intent. Frankly, it is a bit shocking that so many are so easily shocked by Finkelstein and by those who try to seriously engage with the ideas and contentions broadly outlined in The holocaust industry. However, it goes further than that. There have been blatant attempts to censor such works, to such an extent that it starts to take on the form on intimidation. With A nation on trial there was a concerted attempt to silence Finkelstein and Birn, and generally intimidate those connected with their work (shades of Satanic verses, Behzti and Jerry Springer - the opera). Ruth Birn has made the prosecution of Nazi war criminals her life's work and is the world's leading authority on the archives that Goldhagen consulted for his book. When she first published her critical evaluation in the (Cambridge) Historical Journal, Goldhagen immediately responded by hiring a big-shot London law firm to sue Birn and the Cambridge University Press for "many serious libels", even though the journal had given him ample opportunity to write a full rebuttal. Shortly afterwards, Finkelstein's equally scathing findings were published in New Left Review, and subsequently Metropolitan - an imprint of Henry Holt press - agreed to publish both anti-Goldhagen essays in book form (A nation on trial). This prompted the influential American magazine, Forward, to pen a front-page story warning its readers that Metropolitan was "preparing to bring out a book by Norman Finkelstein, a notorious ideological opponent of the state of Israel". Foxman too called on Holt to drop publication of the book, as Finkelstein's ideas "are irreversibly tainted by his anti-Zionist stance". Leon Wieseltier personally met the president of Holt publishers, Michael Naumann, to impress upon him the true nature of Finkelstein - "a disgusting, self-hating Jew", the sort of person "you find under a rock". Naumann refused to buckle under however and when the book was published, Elan Steinberg, the executive director of the World Jewish Congress, damned Holt's decision as "a disgrace". Not that it ended there. The Canadian Jewish Congress denounced Birn - who is chief historian of the War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity Section of the Canadian department of justice - for involvement in A nation on trial, claiming that Finkelstein was an "anathema to the vast majority of Jews on this continent". Piling the pressure on Birn's employer, the CJC filed a protest with the justice department, on the grounds that Birn was "a member of the perpetrator race" (ie, Birn was born in Germany). Goldhagen then entered the bear-pit, denouncing Birn as "a purveyor of anti-semitism" and shouting about how Finkelstein was of the opinion that the victims of Nazism deserved to die. New Republic piously proclaimed that "there is a difference between censorship and upholding standards" - that is, A nation on trial should never have been published. Goldhagen was nominated for the post of holocaust chair at Harvard University. The sorry episode described above illustrates the alarming climate of irrationality that has been allowed to develop over this issue. This is easily observed by the way that Martin Niemöller's famous mea culpa ("First they came for the communists ...") has been progressively doctored. Infamously, Time magazine's 'new' version promoted the Jews to first place and dropped both the communists and the social democrats. Al Gore publicly did the same too - and for good measure he dumped the trade unionists as well. Gore, Time and others have all added 'catholics' to Niemöller's list - even though he did not mention them. In the heavily catholic city of Boston, they were added to the 'quotation' inscribed on its holocaust memorial. Naturally, the establishment-sanctified US Holocaust Museum airbrushes out the communists from its roll call of official victimhood (but, interestingly, the holocaust bureaucrats decided to retain the social democrats as authentic, bona fide victims). Others have decided to include gays - the fact that Niemöller did not was obviously a mere oversight on his part. This footloose and fancy-free attitude to what should be a basic, easily verified and hence non-contested truth clearly demonstrates that the ruthless battle for the 'memory' of the holocaust is a form of class struggle - a handy barometer as to the current balance of class forces. Once upon a time, at least in the US, to 'harp on' about the Nazi holocaust was a sign of distinctly dangerous pinko-commie leanings. Now it is a badge of moral and bourgeois uprightness. Niemöller himself symbolises this shift in bourgeois ideology. In the 1940s and 1950s the protestant pastor, who spent eight years in Nazi concentration camps, was regarded with grave suspicion by American Jewry in the shape of organisations like the American Jewish Committee and the Anti Deformation League. Niemöller's instinctive opposition to the McCarthyite witch-hunts made him persona non grata for America Jewish leaders who were desperate to boost their anti-communist credentials - to the point of joining, and partly financing, far-right organisations like the All-American Conference to Combat Communism and even turning a blind eye to veterans of the Nazi SS entering the country. Indeed, the AJC enthusiastically joined in the establishment hysteria whipped up against the Rosenbergs, and its monthly publication, Commentary (November 1953), actually editorialised about how the couple - executed as Soviet spies - were not really Jews at all. (This tradition of toadying before the US establishment continues - the Simon Wiesenthal Centre made Ronald Reagan the winner of its 'Humanitarian of the Year' award in 1988.) Another significant aspect to the debate is the so-called uniqueness of the holocaust, an idea heavily mooted in schools, colleges/universities, books, TV documentaries, films, etc. Banally speaking, of course, every single event that has ever happened, and ever will happen, is 'unique'. The evangelists for 'uniqueness' have a different agenda though. Take Deborah Lipstadt, occupant of the holocaust chair at Emory University, an appointee to the United States Holocaust Memorial Council and author of the widely lauded Denying the holocaust: the growing assault on memory and truth. Lipstadt became a liberal hero for successfully slugging it out with David Irving in the British courts, after the Hitler-admiring historian filed a doomed libel suit against Lipstadt for branding him "one of the most dangerous spokespersons for holocaust denial". What was not mentioned in the mainstream press coverage of the time, and which throws a different and less salutary light on Lipstadt's motivations, is that she is on record as declaring that if you do not accept the 'uniqueness' theory, you must be effectively classed alongside those who deny the very historical fact of the Nazi holocaust itself. We are all potential Irvings then. Thus, in Denying the holocaust, Lipstadt rages against the drawing of "immoral equivalences" with the Nazi holocaust - like the Armenian genocide. This has "intriguing implications", according to Finkelstein, who observes: "Daniel Goldhagen argues that Serbian actions in Kosovo 'are, in their essence, different from those of Nazi Germany only in scale'. That would make Goldhagen 'in essence' a holocaust denier" (The holocaust industry p71). Inconsistencies, contradictions and paradoxes may abound in the 'uniqueness' school of Wiesel, Goldhagen, Lipstadt et al - but it is strongly recommended that you make loud, approving noises if you want to find yourself with your feet well under the table, and if you are non-Jewish it could also mean that you are actually feted (always nice). Reject the doctrine, however, and purdah beckons - doubly so if you are Jewish and thus an abominable 'self-hater', like Finkelstein. Some have criticised Finkelstein's allegedly narrow focus on 1967 as the creation date of the holocaust industry, arguing that this has caused him to overlook the competition for the Jewish vote that characterised the 1948 Truman-Dewey presidential campaign and other elections for state and national offices (see, for example, John Snetsinger, Truman, the Jewish vote and the creation of Israel New York 1974). During that election incumbents and challengers competed wildly to outdo each other's campaign promises in support of Zionism. Politicians at all levels eagerly sought speaking invitations from Zionist and other Jewish groups. Truman summarised his developing position in 1946 by telling a gathering of diplomats: "I have to answer to hundreds of thousands who are anxious for the success of Zionism; I do not have hundreds of thousands of Arabs among my constituents" (quoted in William Eddy, FDR meets Ibn Saud New York 1954, p37). The victorious president Truman certainly made good on his campaign promises - he aggressively supporting the newly-formed Israel over the vehement objection of his then secretary of state, George Marshall, and his financial aid to Israel was nearly seven times greater per capita in 1952 than the amount given to Europe under the Marshall Plan. Yes, in that sense, the seeds of the holocaust industry had been sown in the years prior to the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. However, I still think Finkelstein's is correct to identify that event as marking a qualitative development in the ideology and theory of 'The Holocaust' and its attendant industry.