What is the Holocaust?

Holocaust Studies A Journal of Culture and History ISSN: 1750-4902 (Print) 2048-4887 (Online) Journal homepage: http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/rhos20...
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Holocaust Studies A Journal of Culture and History

ISSN: 1750-4902 (Print) 2048-4887 (Online) Journal homepage: http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/rhos20

What is the Holocaust? Moshe Zimmermann To cite this article: Moshe Zimmermann (2014) What is the Holocaust?, Holocaust Studies, 20:1-2, 45-56, DOI: 10.1080/17504902.2014.11435383 To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/17504902.2014.11435383

Published online: 03 Jun 2015.

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Date: 27 January 2017, At: 03:03

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What is the Holocaust? MOSHE ZIMMERMANN Collective memory is not an aim in itself, but rather an instrument for shaping a collective identity in the present. Where does the key event of the Holocaust fit in as an element of collective memory in the service of contemporary politics? In this contribution I concentrate mainly on the states most identified as successors of the perpetrators and the victims: Germany and Israel. How have public discussions in both countries changed the meaning and relevance of the Holocaust for their respective societies? What did the Holocaust become? What is the social and cultural function of what was left of the Holocaust in contemporary collective memory in both states?

A commonplace with which all historians and all consumers of historical information will agree is that the historian’s particular object of study is the past. This is clearly evident in the questions usually put by the historian: what happened, how did it happen, why did it happen – all of which are in the past tense. Historians may have difficulty defining the exact point in time at which the past ends and the present begins, they may of course have difficulties with the notion of contemporary history (in German – Zeitgeschichte), but only because of this commonplace about the past as the sole object of the historian’s interest and the historian’s research. It follows that when referring to the specific topic of the Holocaust we historians are expected to deal with the question: What was the Holocaust? The historian is expected to address the question concerning the chronological and geographical framework, to discuss the concept itself, to differentiate and compare

Moshe Zimmermann is Emeritus Professor for German History and between 1986 and 2012 Director of the Richard-Koebner-Center for German History at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem. He has written many publications in German, English and Hebrew about nationalism, antisemitism and German-Jewish history. Recent books include Deutsche gegen Deutsche. Das Schicksal der Juden 1938–1945 (Berlin, 2008), Die Angst vor dem Frieden (with Conze, Frei and Hayes) (Berlin, 2010), Das Amt und seine Vergangenheit (München, 2010). Holocaust Studies: A Journal of Culture and History, Vol.20, No.1–2, Summer/Autumn 2014, pp.45–56 PUBLISHED BY VALLENTINE MITCHELL, LONDON

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occurrences of the past that might be considered comparable to the Holocaust as it was etc., etc. One of the important contributions to this volume therefore is the essay ‘What was the Holocaust’ that summarises the up-to-date historical research on this topic. The object of the historian’s research may indeed be the past, but the aim of his endeavour goes beyond it, to understand the present – the effect of past events – maybe even to be able to predict future trends. What is, after all, the use of our knowledge of bygone events if it cannot serve us as a guideline for the future? In the context of the present volume this means that we are not only interested in the answer to the conventional historical question ‘what was the Holocaust’, but also to the crucial question ‘what is the Holocaust’: what does it mean in the present, what did the Holocaust become, what is the social and cultural function of what was left of the Holocaust in contemporary collective memory. We seek to understand the purpose of the different interpretations of the past and of the choice of concepts, terminology and ductus used in dealing with the Holocaust. After all, most of history, in the sense of what ‘eigentlich gewesen’, is forgotten, erased from memory, and what is left in our ‘historical canon’ does not depend primarily on the amount of historical documents at our disposal or on accident but on our wish to make history an applied science, make history useful as a lesson. What Was, Was?

The following example may serve as an illustration: In the year 1997 the Israeli national football team was about to play against the German national team and a German sport journalist used this opportunity to refer to the bleak historical background of GermanIsraeli relations. In an interview he asked the Israeli coach, Shlomo Sherf, about his feelings concerning this encounter. Sherf, who was born 1943 in the USSR after his family fled from Poland, and belonged therefore to the category of Holocaust survivors, answered in his typical laconic manner: ‘What was was’. This bon mot sounds much better in Aramaic [‘man d’hava hava’] than in English, but the message it conveyed is clear all the same: We know the answer to the question ‘what was the Holocaust’, but this

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knowledge is irrelevant to the present, at least when it comes to a German-Israeli sporting event. Sherf ’s answer to the question ‘what is the Holocaust’ meant that in this case history should not be instrumentalised. Being himself a survivor Sherf ’s answer could not be brushed aside as a kind of Holocaust denial. This short statement has since become a well-known Israeli bon mot just because it was an exception to the rule: Israeli society is trained to do just the opposite – to make the Holocaust present, make the Holocaust an argument in every sphere of action, in politics, economics or sport. The famous ‘Chamber Quintet’ comedy group played a comic scene in which an Israeli sprinter competing in Germany in the World championship in athletics (1993) insists on moving his starting block a few meters ahead of the other sprinters ‘because we suffered so much’, meaning the suffering of the Jews in the Holocaust. Shlomo Sherf was two and a half years old when the war ended and the Holocaust was over. The memory of the Holocaust, or what the Holocaust was, could influence him only unconsciously. For people younger than 70 now, and for elderly people who were beyond the reach of Nazi rule before 1945, the memory of the Holocaust is an acquired, mediated memory. The overwhelming majority of Israelis construct an image of the Holocaust based on the information selected by the agencies of socialisation about ‘what the Holocaust was’. They did not take part in the past event called the Holocaust. This image, this construction, is the Holocaust in their eyes. The process is a natural one, and is not particular to the Holocaust per se – it is the same for every chapter of history and every period, of course: Individual, direct memory gives way to more and more indirect, collective memory, i.e. to a memory construed by agencies of socialisation. No wonder, then, that the time has finally come, when the question ‘what is the Holocaust’ becomes at least as important as the historical research concentrating on ‘what the Holocaust was’. All the more so, of course, when it comes to societies which cultivate this memory and consider it relevant, above all the German and the Jewish/Israeli societies. Indeed the memory of the Holocaust is not the only paramount element in the collective memory of a people, even of Israeli society. Since collective memory is there to be instrumentalised, the story of

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the destruction of the Second Temple (70 AD), the story of the Bar Kochba revolt (132–5 AD) or of the pogrom in Kishinev (1903) find their way to the forefront of collective memory that revolves mainly around catastrophes. But there is one element in the research about ‘what the Holocaust was’ that transcends contents as such and makes the ‘work of memory’ especially effective – the visual information about the Holocaust, visuals that became iconic, beyond words and beyond language. Here historiophoty added substantially to the ability to construct an effective collective memory, as the effect of the photographs and of the moving picture on memory and on the process of positioning the ‘what was’ information in the overall memory-aggregate is unquestionable. Just because ‘one picture may substitute a thousand words’, the iconic pictures of the Holocaust became a decisive element of ‘the image that is’, not only of ‘what the Holocaust was’. Collective memory is not an aim in itself, but rather an instrument for shaping a collective identity. Talking about ‘personal engagement’ in this respect does not relate to the historian or observer of the event called the Holocaust, but rather to the participants of the so-called collective identity. Thus the term ‘personal engagement’ receives a new dimension and meaning. Case the First: Israel

Let us begin by examining the attitude towards the relevant concepts and definitions. Where does the Holocaust fit in conceptually? Is the Holocaust a synonym for Endlösung, Shoah, Auschwitz? This question may seem artificial – what is, after all, the difference? But the nature of the public discussion enables us to find the differences hiding behind the use of the different figures of speech and expressions. Already the question of chronology and periodisation is indicative of different aims of the agencies that make such decisions. When does the epoch of Holocaust start – 1933, 1939, 1941? Again, this question relates not only to the question of ‘what was the Holocaust’, but also to the question ‘what is the Holocaust’: how we use the term for present educational, social or political purposes. This seemingly chronological question is interwoven into the question of the ‘essence’ of the Holocaust. Again, one example can

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be used in order to illustrate the general problem. In Israel the term Holocaust is used interchangeably with Auschwitz, or to be even more specific, with Auschwitz-Birkenau. The outcome is also a belief that Auschwitz is a synonym for Nazism itself. However, this belief is not a conviction based on a detached, matter-of-fact effort at studying or interpreting the past. It is mainly a tool used to evade a more differentiated discussion of the basics of Nazism. And this evasion, in turn, is a by-product of a political aim: If Nazism and Auschwitz are one and the same, nothing short of a new Auschwitz could be compared to the Nazi past. In other words – racism, racist policies, even persecution and ethnic cleansing remain beyond the scope of comparison to Nazism. To put it in the popular Israeli way: How could one compare elements of Israeli ideology and praxis with Nazism – do we have an Auschwitz? In contemporary Israeli discourse, the term Holocaust is often a condensation of the very complex machinery of persecution to the act of killing, mainly by gas. Everything short of this stage becomes an extra-Holocaust activity. This way any attempt at a comparison is by definition and a priori illegitimate. It is indeed a useful technic. It helps blockade the discussion of crimes done in the present, and exculpates in advance any participants in such crimes. The same mechanism explains the choice of the general framework into which the Holocaust should fit sub specie. Could we use the notion of genocide, mass-murder or racism as a kind of umbrella for the phenomenon called Holocaust? If one believes in the axiom of the eternal singularity of the Holocaust the question becomes automatically redundant: No general concept whatsoever may include the phenomenon called the Holocaust. Again, this is not a conclusion arrived at primarily by historical research concerning the past, but essentially an instrument of avoiding uneasy comparisons in the present. Accepting such an umbrella-concept in principle endangers the singularity of the Holocaust and is therefore forbidden. But even for those who accept the possibility of relating the Holocaust to a broader concept, the choice between the ‘umbrellas’ also becomes instrumental. This instrumentalisation may lead to very different, sometimes contradictory results. If, for instance, one accepts the notion of genocide as a suitable framework – most

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prominent in this respect is Holocaust historian Yehuda Bauer – and acknowledges the fact that the murder of Armenians in the First World War was yet another case of genocide, the price to be paid is double. One must give up, on the one hand, on the claim for the eternal singularity of the Holocaust, while on the other hand one risks a conflict with the Turkish government. Or if the notion of racism becomes the relevant frame of reference, the outcome may be criticism directed against Israel as a society that did not draw the right conclusions from the history of racism in Germany or Europe. Evading such a conceptual framework is therefore a practical way out of uneasy criticism. For the Israelis the Holocaust became a catchword that expresses the eternal situation of Jews, including Jewish Israelis, as the ultimate victims. In itself this is a paradox, or an admission of defeat, since Zionism claimed to be the solution for the ‘Jewish problem’ and the ultimate answer to antisemitism. In the Declaration of Independence (1948) the Holocaust appears as one among many causes for the creation of the State. Sixty-five years later it became one of the two cornerstones of its collective identity (the other one being the Bible). And yet, the belief that Israel is mainly an answer to the Holocaust did not reduce the fear of a next Holocaust, this time not in the Diaspora but in Israel. The idea that the Jews may fall victim to a new Holocaust, this time in Israel, to be caused by Palestinians, Iran or whoever it may be, is a contradictio in adjecto not only because it meant that Zionism failed to solve the problem of antisemitism but because it admits that the Holocaust was not a singular event. The theoretical way out of this contradiction is as follows: since the singularity of the Holocaust may be decided by the object – only Jews may become victims of a Holocaust – this logical contradiction is somehow solved. The singular object, the Jew, may be repeatedly targeted as victim. Since the search for the roots and pre-history of the Holocaust ought not to refer to more general concepts such as racism, prejudice or the persecution of minorities (because this may end up with a backlash on Israeli racism etc.,) antisemitism becomes the sole explanation for the unleashing of a Holocaust, be it the Nazi Holocaust or a Holocaust to come. The Holocaust is thus something that does not belong only to the

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Jewish past (‘was’), but is an eventuality to be expected any time in the present or the future (‘is’). The omnipresence of the Holocaust in the Israeli mind is indeed an achievement of many years of socialisation and indoctrination. This achievement is all the more paradoxical and impressive, since the question ‘why Zionism failed to overcome antisemitism and catastrophe’ is left out. Yet the Holocaust is effectively used as an argument in favour of Zionism and in favour of the preference for Israel over Jewish emancipation in the Diaspora. Israeli youth are sent to Poland, to the landscapes of the Holocaust, in order to return with the unshakable conviction that Israel alone is the answer to the Holocaust. Israeli soldiers are also sent to Poland in order to have a better understanding of the role played by the military (the IDF) in Israeli society. The three Israeli fighter-jets that flew over Auschwitz in 2003 were a living demonstration of the use of the Holocaust for ideological and political purposes in Israel. No wonder that the ‘Chamber Quintet’ made Israeli tourism to Poland an object of its biting criticism. Another excellent and concrete example for the instrumentalisation (some might say: manipulation) of the Holocaust as an element of collective memory in the service of contemporary politics was supplied by the so-called Iranian nuclear threat. In order to avoid serious negotiations with the Palestinians about a peace settlement (that will include giving up the dream of ‘Greater Israel’) a more acute threat had to be invented – the nuclear program of Iran. Nothing is easier than describing this threat as the potential next Holocaust, especially since the head of the Iranian state was stupid enough to deny the Holocaust that took place in Europe. This is an example of what the Holocaust is, at least for Israel: a convenient excuse for ducking a settlement with the Palestinians. It goes without saying that the Holocaust is used as an excuse for Israel’s occupation policy or for other questionable moves in the political arena also without any relation to the Iranian threat. The Holocaust is thus the ultimate excuse for Israel’s immoral policies. Accepting the monocausal connection between antisemitism and Holocaust not only supports the argument that criticism of Israeli policies must be automatically categorised as antisemitism, but that its predestined outcome will be yet another Holocaust.

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This very tactic of associating Israel’s (real or imagined) enemies with a Holocaust is used also in Israel’s effort to substantiate the argument that the Palestinians are ‘not partners’ for a peace settlement in principle. It is a well-known fact that the Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al Husseini, was an ally of Hitler and a partner to his vision of the ‘final solution’. Yet to deduce from this past an understanding that the Palestinians of our times are blind followers of Husseini’s aims, i.e. in favour of committing the next Holocaust in Palestine, is nothing but a misuse of the memory of the Holocaust in Israeli society. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s attempts to construct a continuity leading up from the late to the present Mufti of Jerusalem is an exercise in turning the Holocaust from a past event to a present situation. Against the background of Israel’s collective memory and process of socialisation, this appears to be a very effective political tool. No less effective in Israel’s discourse is the idiom ‘Auschwitz borders’. As an argument against returning the occupied territories to the Palestinians the Holocaust as an acute threat had to be activated or invented. The idiom ‘Auschwitz borders’, which has no roots in a given situation during the Second World War whatsoever, has become since the 1967 war a permanent reminder for the Israeli people when confronting the alternatives concerning the fate of the Palestinians and the withdrawal to the pre-1967 borders. This is the meaning of the Holocaust, this is the Holocaust in the present tense for this society. Oddly enough, however, the best disciples of Israel in this matter are none other than the Palestinians. When Pope Francis visited Israel 2014 they created a photo-op showing him standing next to the infamous wall that divides Israel and the occupied territories on which the graffiti says ‘Beit Lehem is like the Warsaw Ghetto’. This is what the Shoah is for the Palestinians, a phenomenon to be used for the sake of analogies as a political tool. However, the answer to the question ‘what is the Holocaust’ for Israeli society should not refer only to Israel’s foreign relations. The Holocaust is present, i.e. serves as an argument, in home affairs at least as often as in the international scene. If Ultra-Orthodox Jews want to make a point they use the Holocaust as their ultimate weapon. Any threat to their way of life is automatically described as

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equivalent to the Holocaust, as a new Holocaust, which renders all measures taken against this threat legitimate. Since the word Holocaust is so often used as a synonym for Nazism, the Israeli radical right wing extensively uses the expression ‘Nazis’ or ‘Nazi Behaviour’ while fighting its political opponents, or calls the government a ‘Judenrat’, i.e. Jewish collaborators with the process of a new Holocaust. This is yet another example of a concept disconnected from its real historical context, just to become a lethal weapon used by Israeli nationalists in order to oppose peace talks with the Palestinians. Case the Second: Germany

In Germany too the Holocaust needed time to be ‘discovered’ and activated for actual purposes. The first attempts at suppressing this specific chapter (typical of the 1950s, the years of the ‘economic miracle’) seemed to be quite successful. Not until the Eichmann and the Auschwitz trials (1961 and 1963 respectively) was awareness of the Holocaust as an issue per se very great; even the word itself remained obscure. The central historical issues were ‘Nazism’ (in the GDR – ‘Fascism’) or ‘the War’, and overcoming the effects of both was the main concern of the Germans. During the first phase of the attempt to cope with these effects a clear tendency of posing as victims of both was typical. The flight from the East, the air raids against German cities, mass rape by the conquerors sometimes overshadows the wrong inflicted by the Third Reich on its German and non-German victims. Later, historical research concentrated more and more on what the Holocaust was, and this created the need to answer also the question ‘what is the Holocaust’, what does it mean for German post-war society. Since vocabulary may be used as a euphemism, the question of the right terminus technicus is also intensely debated in Germany: Should the use of the word Endlösung, even in inverted commas, be permitted? Is the word Holocaust, so widespread in Germany since the end of the 1970s, not improper because of its original biblical meaning? And if indeed it is used, should or should it not be written in the German spelling – Holokaust? Or would it perhaps be better substituted by the Hebrew word Shoah? All these questions are

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relevant, but not for the sake of analysing the past per se. They are relevant because of the present. It became a matter of course, for the Germans as well as for non-Germans, that the historical event usually called the Holocaust is the darkest stain on the German collective identity, so the fear of being associated with similar tendencies in the present – be it a Neo-Nazi party, or underground support for military action, or some antisemitic outburst – became a guideline to Germany’s everyday modus operandi. This is also why the policy of the Bundesrepublik was, and still is, so hesitant or cautious concerning Israel when it comes to taking a position on the conflict with the Palestinians. Because the Holocaust is not only history but is also present – omnipresent – in Germany. The definition of the relations to Israel as ‘special’ became axiomatic, and the latest outcome of this approach to the Holocaust is Angela Merkel’s reference to the existence of Israel as a part of German ‘Staatsräson’. But the Germans discovered yet another surprising advantage of relating to the Holocaust as a part of their evolving present: the intensive work of memory and repentance, the ubiquitous presence of the memory of the Holocaust (for example, the Stolpersteine, or the commemoration of the Kristallnacht on 9th November every year) are interpreted by the observers of this society as clear signs of strength, respectability and honesty. Even in China there is widespread admiration for Germany thanks to its policy of ‘coping with the past’ and reconciliation with the historical victims of the Germans, the Jews. Chinese thus wish that Japan would behave in the same way towards China, Korea or any other victim of Japanese belligerence in the first half of the twentieth century. In other words, as paradoxical as it may sound, the Holocaust is at the present an instrument of good public relations for the Germans. This paradox is not necessarily acknowledged or welcome in all segments of German society. Some Germans (about 40 per cent of the population according to recent public opinion polls, compared to more than 50 per cent about 20 years ago) plead for a Schlußstrich – drawing a line between the Nazi past, especially the Holocaust, and the German present. Some try relativising the Holocaust by referring to other victims of Nazism as victims of other Holocausts – such as the Gypsy Holocaust, the Holocaust of the

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Homosexuals and so on – or by referring to catastrophes caused by non-Germans as Holocausts (The Indians in America, the Chinese in Nanjing 1937, etc.). More intriguing was the attempt made in 1998 to declare Auschwitz, i.e. the Holocaust, as a kind of a hypocritical ‘Moralkeule’, a moral whip (or stick) frequently used as a tool to intimidate the Germans, whereas constructive criticism or normal attitude should have been the right approach. Martin Walser’s use of the idiom ‘Moralkeule’ or Günter Grass’ poem (written in 2012) ‘That Which Must Be Said’, hinting at the exterminatory potential of Israel’s fight against Iran, provoked heated debates just because this tactic of ceaselessly confronting the Holocaust in the present became a part of Germany’s real Staatsräson. What makes the Holocaust so special is thus not only its monstrosity but its ever growing presence in societies that search for guidelines in their past and aim at shaping their collective identity accordingly. The Holocaust, in this sense, is the clearest case of saying something ‘is history’ and meaning not only that it is unforgettable, but that it is omnipresent, and must remain such in order to underline society’s credo. This is the answer contemporary societies are giving to the question “What is the Holocaust”. FURTHER READING

Assmann, Aleida, Der Lange Schatten der Vergangenheit. Erinnerungskultur und Geschichtspolitik (München: Beck, 2006). Bauer, Yehuda, On the Holocaust and other Genocides (Washington, DC: US Holocaust Museum, 2009). Brenner, Michael and Maximilian Strand (eds), Der Holocaust in der deutschsprachigen Geschichtswissenschaft (Göttingen: Wallstein, 2012). Diner, Dan, Beyond the Conceivable (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2000). Dinur, Benzion, Remember. About the Lessons of the Holocaust (Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 1958) (Hebrew). Elkana, Yehuda, ‘In Favor of Forgetfulness’, Haaretz (2 March 1988). Fulbrook, Mary, German National Identity after the Holocaust (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1999). Fuchs, Anne et al. (eds), German Memory Contests (Rochester: Camden House, 2006). Michman, Dan, Holocaust Historiography: A Jewish Perspective: Conceptualizations, Terminology, Approaches, and Fundamental Issues (London and Portland, OR: Vallentine Mitchell, 2003). Steininger, Rolf (ed.), Der Umgang mit dem Holocaust (Wien: Böhlau, 1994). Weiss, Yfaat and Gilad Margalit (eds), Memory and Amnesia (Tel Aviv: Hakibutz Hameuchad, 2005) (Hebrew).

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Welzer, Harald, ‘Die Deutschen und ihr Drittes Reich’, Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte 14/15 (2007): 21–8. Zertal, Idit, Israel’s Holocaust and the Politics of Nationhood (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005). Zimmermann, Michael, ‘Negativer Fixpunkt und Suche nach positive Identität’, in Holocaust: Die Grenzen des Verstehens, ed. Hanno Loewy (Reinbek: Rohwolt, 1992): 128–43. Zuckermann, Moshe, Shoah in the Sealed Room (Tel Aviv: 1993) (Hebrew).