Zyk­lon prof­its are poi­son­ing his­tory

The Jewish Chronicle - - Comment&analysis -

IS MoNEy de­rived from man­u­fac­tur­ing Zyk­lon B, the pes­ti­cide used in Nazi gas cham­bers, a suit­able source of sub­sidy for his­to­ri­ans? Should they ac­cept funds gained from smelt­ing the gold tooth-fill­ings of mur­dered Jews to run in­ter­na­tional con­fer­ences? Some Ger­man aca­demics based in Bri­tish uni­ver­si­ties have been do­ing just this. More­over, Jewish col­leagues and the Im­pe­rial War Mu­seum have sup­ported them. The mu­seum has given its venue and im­pri­matur to two con­fer­ences ti­tled: “Be­yond Camps and Forced Labour: Cur­rent In­ter­na­tional Re­search on Sur­vivors of Nazi Per­se­cu­tion”.

The mu­seum’s new di­rec­tor-gen­eral jus­ti­fies the grants from De­gussa, the com­pany which pro­duced Zyk­lon B dur­ing the War and smelted tooth gold plun­dered from Nazi vic­tims. The mu­seum uses four ar­gu­ments: (1) De­gussa’s sub­ven­tions have been used for a good cause — Holo­caust re­search. (2) De­gussa has looked crit­i­cally at its own past. (3) The firm pro­vided only a small pro­por­tion of the bud­gets of the two ini­tial meet­ings (the other main spon­sors in­cluded Ger­man gov­ern­men­tal bodies, which will spon­sor a sim­i­lar con­fer­ence in 2009). (4) De­gussa is a “mod­ern-day cor­po­ra­tion”. In other words, too much time has passed to hold it to ac­count for its war­time ac­tions.

The Holo­caust ex­hi­bi­tion at the Im­pe­rial War Mu­seum has vi­tal func­tions and is rightly ad­mired by Bri­tain’s Jewish com­mu­nity and by sur­vivor or­gan­i­sa­tions. But I be­lieve the mu­seum has made a se­ri­ous mis­take, for the best of mo­tives, in this par­tic­u­lar case.

The slave labour­ers abused by De­gussa and the fam­i­lies of those whose bodies were des­e­crated in the ser­vice of Nazi plun­der have an over­whelm­ing case for claim­ing any of its money on of­fer (not that all sur­vivor fam­i­lies would want it). By seek­ing or ac­cept­ing grants from busi­nesses in­volved in the Holo­caust, his­to­ri­ans and Holo­caust mu­se­ums give them le­git­i­macy, thus un­der­min­ing the sur­vivors’ con­tin­u­ing search for jus­tice.

In the late 1990s, th­ese com­pa­nies of­fered pit­tances to for­mer slave labour­ers — a max­i­mum of £4,500 and av­er­ag­ing half of that amount for each for­mer slave. The cor­po­ra­tions, De­gussa prom­i­nent among them, de­nied any le­gal li­a­bil­ity for their war­time crimes and made clear that their small pay­ments did not con­sti­tute “com­pen­sa­tion”. There­fore, the no­tion that De­gussa and its fel­low firms have car­ried out their le­gal or moral obli­ga­tions is lu­di­crous.

Nor have they been as open and self-crit­i­cal about their his­to­ries as they like to claim. As Roger Boyes re­ported in The Times on oc­to­ber 9, 2002, the in­de­pen­dent re­searcher Hirsch Fis­chler “dug up archive ma­te­rial show­ing the scope of its [De­gussa’s] war­time prof­i­teer­ing from the con­fis­ca­tion and smelt­ing of Jewish gold. He was barred from com­pany premises.”

Then there is the ques­tion of whether fund­ing from De­gussa and from Ger­man gov­ern­men­tal sources has af­fected the con­tent of the Im­pe­rial War Mu­seum con­fer­ences. Holo­caust schol­ars need to be par­tic­u­larly wary of the agen­das of bene­fac­tors who have rea­sons to clear their names, even when they at­tach no for­mal strings. In an in­ter­nal plan­ning doc­u­ment, later leaked, Chan­cel­lor prospec­tus uses the Ger­man au­thor­i­ties’ an­ti­sep­tic al­ter­na­tive, “forced labour”. It nowhere refers to the “Holo­caust”. It drops the mu­seum’s usual ref­er­ence to Jews as the Nazis’ “pri­mary vic­tims”. The sole ref­er­ence to “Jews” is as the first in a list of 11 un­dif­fer­en­ti­ated groups.

Most telling is the prospec­tus’s ap­peal for pa­pers com­par­ing “vic­tims of Nazi per­se­cu­tion” with “ex­iles” (mainly eth­nic Ger­mans ex­pelled from East­ern Europe af­ter Hitler’s down­fall). By im­plic­itly liken­ing the hard­ships of or­di­nary Ger­mans — in­clud­ing mil­lions of Nazis —with those of Europe’s slaugh­tered Jews, the prospec­tus pro­vides a fright­en­ing il­lus­tra­tion of the “com­par­a­tive triv­i­al­i­sa­tion” of the Holo­caust which was and is a strong fea­ture of some Ger­man his­to­ri­og­ra­phy.

Di­rect Holo­caust-de­nial is an ob­vi­ous threat. Holo­caust spin-doc­tor­ing, be­cause it is less ob­vi­ous, is in­sid­i­ous. Ar­guably it is an even greater dan­ger in the con­tin­u­ing bat­tle for truth and mem­ory. Michael Pinto-Duschin­sky was honorary aca­demic ad­viser to Claims for Jewish Slave Labour Com­pen­sa­tion

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