Beware historical distortion, even our own
IN MANY respects, Kristallnacht was the start of it all. Certainly, it was a huge wakeup call for German Jews— migration levels over the following year were twice as high as they had been in any year previously. But more importantly, until then, Nazi policy had largely involved the passing of dispassionate antisemitic legislation. Kristallnacht was when Nazism turned brutally and indiscriminately murderous towards Jews.
Yet critically, Hitler appears to have been less than impressed. He didn’t mind the underlying killing; he just preferred his antisemitism cleaner, less emotional, more industrial. For him, Kristallnacht represented how it shouldn’t be done. The question for him afterwards was all about how it should.
I still struggle to understand the conclusions he reached. After my two university degrees, studying under such experts as Martin Gilbert and Robert Wistrich, after visiting numerous sites of destruction, poring over endless historical documents, reading countless academic studies and survivor testimonies, there’s still something about it I don’t get.
I understand the intellectual concepts that informed it; the economic factors, political dynamics, social forces and technological developments that supported it. I’ve studied and taught all of this. But, with all that, human beings — and so often just ‘Ordinary Men’ in Christopher Browning’s memorable analysis — still had to stand in front of other ordinary people, including children, babies even, and murder them in their millions. However much I’ve tried
Holocaust denial is the least common antisemitic idea in Britain today
to make sense of it, that one fundamental piece still eludes me. I hope it always does.
Perhaps it’s the incomprehensibility of it that somehow aids the spread of Holocaust denial; the notion that it’s so inconceivable, some start to find the deniers’ claims plausible. But statistically, denial is a fringe phenomenon — of all antisemitic ideas, it is the least common and most vehemently rejected across British society.
However, whilst Holocaust denial is rare, Holocaust distortion is not. And much like the tactics of deniers — namely to take one small half-truth and draw vast generalisations from it whilst ignoring mounds of evidence to the contrary — distorters act similarly. So when Ken Livingstone used ideologically-motivated historical analysis of the ha’avara agreement — a rather obscure episode in the context of the genocide of six million Jews— to claim that Hitler supported Zionism, he was using the denier’s method.
Yes, an agreement was established in the 1930s between the Nazis and German Zionist leaders to enable German Jews to migrate to Palestine. But no — Hitler never ‘supported’ Zionism. Any support he felt for the agreement was informed by his view that Jews were a degenerate race and a cancer in society that needed to be forcefully removed one way or another.
The German Jewish Zionist leaders were motivated by completely different factors: not least that they saw themselves as a proud nation that could best achieve its collective purpose and fulfilment in its ancestral homeland. Ignoring this distinction completely distorts history. It’s dogwhistling too — intimating to those attuned to the message that Zionism and Nazism are bedfellows.
But Livingstone is not the only distorter. On the contrary, Holocaust distortion is rather common. It is distorted whenever anyone claims that Israelis behave ‘like Nazis’ towards the Palestinians, or that Israel is committing mass murder. And these types of ideas aren’t fringe; they are believed, to some extent at least, by 20-25% of the UK population. And to be clear (and it almost defies belief this needs to be stated): whatever one thinks of Netanyahu and his government, there is no simply no parallel to be drawn between contemporary Israel and Nazi-occupied Europe. There are no ghettos, concentration or death camps; no policies of forced labour, starvation or mass racial profiling; no medical experiments, mass shootings or mass graves.
Yes, there is a brutal and bloody conflict, and yes, there are isolated cases of individual Israeli soldiers acting illegally and even occasionally with a degree of impunity, but drawing parallels with Nazis and the Holocaust is historical distortion, profound historical distortion, which comes only from ignorance or hatred.
But we have to be careful not to distort our history too. Kristallnacht — indeed the Holocaust as a whole — is just one chapter in Jewish history. It should be studied and commemorated, of course. But how we have lived is so much more interesting, so much more extraordinary, than how we have died.
That’s the greater story we need to learn and tell, and it’s in that story where the real justification for Israel and Zionism can be found.