May 2011 Journal

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(Mis)understanding the Holocaust

There are fashions in history, as there are fashions in art, politics or miniskirts. The public image of historians as austerely devoted to trawling through dusty archives in pursuit of the holy grail of truth is misguided. The academic profession is as keen as any other to jump onto the latest bandwagon, to seize on the fashionable buzzwords and to deploy the latest tools of theory and analysis. Historians’ approaches to the Holocaust have accordingly varied very considerably over the decades, as one dominant current of historical interpretation has been succeeded by another. Of course, this is an integral part of the process of history-writing: only through the introduction of new ways of seeing, analysing and writing history can our understanding of historical events, figures and processes progress.

The present consensus is that before the 1960s historians, in particular German historians, ignored National Socialism and the Holocaust to an almost culpable extent. The first general history of National Socialism to sell widely was William L. Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (1960); the author was an American journalist who had been stationed in Berlin until December 1940. The first major studies of National Socialism in Germany were by Karl Dietrich Bracher, a political scientist, not a historian. And what is usually regarded as the first, seminal study of the Holocaust was Raul Hilberg’s The Destruction of the European Jews (1961); the author was an Austrian-born Jewish refugee working in America, and almost alone in his field. One should not, however, overlook the work that appeared in the 1950s, like that on Nazi anti-Semitism by Eva G. Reichmann, a Jewish refugee from Germany for many years associated with the Wiener Library, and that on Theresienstadt by H. G. Adler, a camp survivor from Prague who also settled in Britain.

The upswing in interest in National Socialism in the 1960s among historians and social scientists coincided with the rise of the New Left, when the neo-Marxist orthodoxy of the day dictated a concentration on class conflict, especially the struggle of the working class against the ruling capitalist system. An article of faith was the primacy of economic factors as the essential motive force behind history, following the Marxist model that saw economic conditions - the basis - as determining the entire social superstructure of political, cultural and ideological phenomena. Anti-Semitism, an ideology (of sorts), was thus accorded only a secondary, subordinate part in the analysis of Nazism; and Nazism itself was subsumed under the wider category of Fascism, seen as a Europe-wide movement aimed at the suppression of working-class militancy at a time of acute economic crisis.

The New Left went back to the 1930s for its definition of Fascism as a desperate, dictatorial expedient adopted by the capitalist classes to defend their interests; in the classic phrase of the Bulgarian Communist Georgi Dimitrov, speaking for the Communist International, Fascism was ‘the open, terrorist dictatorship of the most reactionary, most chauvinist and most imperialist elements of finance capital’. Anti-Semitism became a mere diversionary tactic employed by the ruling elites to inflame racial passions and thereby distract the populace from the real conflict - that between classes.

Where this concentration on economic factors and class war at the expense of Nazi anti-Semitism could lead was graphically demonstrated in Bertolt Brecht’s play Round Heads and Pointed Heads (Die Rundköpfe und die Spitzköpfe, 1936). In this political parable, the ruling elites of the imaginary country of Yahoo call in the agitator Iberin, with his preposterous agenda of setting the two racial groups, Round Heads and Pointed Heads (Germans and Jews), against one another, so as to avert a workers’ uprising.

The strategy succeeds: the dynamic of revolution is blunted by Iberin’s racist ideology, the old order is re-established, and the play ends with the rich Round Heads and the rich Pointed Heads (all capitalists) feasting together while the workers of both groups are executed. The play has long languished in well-deserved oblivion; its conclusion in particular is insulting to the victims of the Holocaust. In The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui (1941), Brecht even managed the feat of recreating the rise of Hitler, in the guise of the Chicago gangster Ui, without a single mention of Jews, racial ideology or anti-Semitism.

The theoretical underpinning of much of the left-wing history of Nazism and the Holocaust written in the 1970s betrays a similar perspective. Martin Kitchen’s study Fascism (1976), for example, though its front cover is adorned with images of Hitler and Mussolini, has not a single index reference to the Holocaust, to Auschwitz or even to Jews (the reader is referred to ‘anti-Semitism’). This would be unthinkable today. Theories of ‘Fascism’ enabled fashionably inclined scholars to lump Hitler in with Mussolini and Franco, as key players in a Europe-wide anti-revolutionary counteroffensive; Kitchen’s book duly devotes whole chapters to ‘Fascism and Industry’ and ‘Fascism and the Middle Classes’.

Even Tim Mason’s studies Arbeiterklasse und Volksgemeinschaft (The Working Class and the National Community) and Sozialpolitik im Dritten Reich (Social Policy in the Third Reich), which were hailed in the 1970s as combining a neo-Marxist interpretative framework with a ‘flexible’ analytical approach that transcended Marxist economic determinism, have dated badly. For here, too, the German working class is the main protagonist, and the principal antagonist of Nazism. Though Mason took a more differentiated view of the role of capitalism under the Third Reich, he still claimed that the German working class remained broadly hostile to Nazism and that the pressures this created caused a ‘structural economic crisis’ that directly triggered Hitler’s decision to go to war. Mason adroitly described the events that followed as ‘genocidal war’, a phrase that allowed him to analyse the reasons for the war at length, while also appearing to encompass the Holocaust, about whose causes he had far less to say.

Since the 1980s, the history of the Holocaust has tended to fragment, moving away from a single framework of orthodoxy to a vastly more varied range of approaches, one of the most significant being the focus on victim groups. Here again, fashion has come into play. Some groups, like the Roma and Sinti (Gypsies), have belatedly received the attention they deserve as the target for outright genocide; they had largely been denied this after 1945 by their marginalised status in society, where they continued to be viewed as social undesirables. But changing social attitudes eventually led to a re-evaluation of their role as victims.

Other groups, like Soviet prisoners of war, of whom some 3,000,000 died in German captivity, have never achieved any significant public profile as victims, not least because the Soviet Union itself never recognised them as such (preferring to ship the survivors off to the Gulag after their liberation). Mentally and physically handicapped Germans, who were effectively wiped out in the so-called ‘euthanasia programme’, the ‘Aktion T4’ (from the address of its headquarters at Tiergartenstraße 4, Berlin), also remain a victim group without a voice.

Homosexuals, on the other hand, have come to occupy a place on almost all lists of the Nazis’ victims. This plainly reflects a widespread willingness to confront the discrimination that gays and lesbians experienced in the countries of Western Europe after 1945, where homosexuality continued to be illegal into the 1960s and beyond. The most celebrated, not to say sensationalised, expression of that new awareness was Martin Sherman’s play Bent, first performed in 1979 and filmed in 1997. But the fashionable emphasis on gay rights should not lead to distortions of history, as in the common assumption that homosexuals were targeted for extermination by the Nazis in a manner comparable to Jews.

That many homosexuals suffered and died under the Nazis is beyond question, but their complete extermination was never attempted. If it had been, then the numbers involved would have been very large indeed – there must have been more homosexuals in Germany, however defined, than Jews (who numbered about 1 per cent of the population). There is no evidence of transports taking thousands of homosexuals to extermination centres, as there is for Jews. The elimination of homosexuals from Germany would also have involved an investigation into the SA and SS, homoerotic organisations of the first order, as well as the persecution of huge numbers of Germans. And outside Germany the Nazis showed little interest in eliminating gays: in their eyes, homosexuality was a sign of weakness, so if it flourished in France or Poland, that was not necessarily to Germany’s disadvantage.

Behind the relative indecision that characterised policy towards homosexuals lay the Nazis’ inability to resolve a fundamental theoretical problem: was homosexuality an inborn condition that could only be eradicated with its bearers, or was it acquired, through seduction or some other influence on a person’s sexual development, and therefore reversible? In the absence of any answer, Nazi persecution of male and female homosexuals remained unsystematic. Nevertheless, it is only right that changing attitudes have allowed the suffering that it caused its victims to be recognised.

Anthony Grenville

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