An audio commentary: http://www.radio4all.net/index.php/program/82622
A sort of companion piece to the article “The Refugee Crisis and the New Holocaust” which explores the political misuse of Holocaust exceptionalism and Judeocide exceptionalism to mask the genocidal nature of empires past and present.
Partial transcript with hyperlinks:
Jews and Genocide
Zionists like to lay special claim to the term genocide on behalf of all Jews, but now anti-Zionists have taken to supporting this. Some anti-Zionists and supposed anti-imperialists have repeated the false claim that the term was invented to denote the killing of Jews. The only reason that I can see for this is to maintain a false image of genocide as an act of exceptional villains. In fact genocide is a normal behaviour of imperial and colonial powers. Despite many attempts to rehabilitate empires as being on some level noble – all imperial and colonial projects are inescapably genocidal.
However, a number of Jewish nationalist ideologues claim that the only true genocide was that carried out by the Germans against Jews. These people are called “Holocaust exceptionalists”, and their claims are broadly understood by genocide scholars as being nonsense supported by falsehoods. It is fair to surmise that Holocaust exceptionalists are generally ardent Zionists. That is why I have been alarmed to see their most central and fundamental lie being spread by anti-Zionists, anti-imperialists, and antiwar writers. That lie is the idea that the word genocide was ever in any way meant to be a way of describing Judeocide in particular.
One writer went so far as posting that the word genocide “was invented… in order to stress the difference between murdering Jews and killing lesser breeds.” This lie is so easy to disprove that it is laughable. Anyone can spend 30 minutes reading Chapter 9 of Raphael Lemkin’s Axis Rule in Occupied Europe (which can be found here) and they will know that there is no way that Lemkin meant the “genocide” term to be exclusively applied to Jews or to the Judeocide that was happening even as he wrote.
When people refuse to accept or even to re-examine a demonstrably false claim it is because it is an essential foundation of a much larger lie. For Zionists the obvious need is to make Israel morally immaculate and incapable of doing wrong. Holocaust exceptionalists have to perform serious mental contortions to avoid confronting the fact that genocide was not intrinsically related to Judeocide, but apparently the Zionists are not alone in this. When I have tried to correct others on this issue I am met with resounding silence and even censorship. The question is why don’t these antiwar and anti-Zionist people want to face up to a very simple truth? What do they have to hide? Or what are they hiding from?
Genocide is an incredibly important word. That is the reason that the meaning of the word is suppressed. It is a term, like “terrorism”, that is thrown around with great passion by people who would never in a million years be able to explain what they actually mean when they use the term.
Many people bandy the term genocide about with great emotion and no thought. However, there are also people who scorn others for inappropriately using the term when they too would be completely incapable of giving a real definition. The whole discourse between these two sides is even more idiotic than the sum of its parts because it is like a debate without any reasoning. The conflict is invariably between a party who believes that it is a badge of passion, courage and moral engagement to claim that something is genocide, and another that believes labelling something as genocide is premature, rash, irrational, partisan or lacking in scholarly standards.
You might wonder how this widespread idiocy came to pass. It is very simple. At the end of World War II a traumatised world wanted to know how the events they had lived through had come to pass. They wanted to criminalise the German and Japanese leaders and they wanted to understand what had led these societies to cause such violence. People wanted to understand this as criminality and pathology. But there were two areas into which inquiring minds might wander which were metaphorically signposted with skull-and-crossbones and the legend “STAY OUT!”
The first area relates to the war that had just been. The victors in this “Good War” were in reality drenched in the blood of the innocent and that was a very delicate matter. We have just passed the 70th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and there is still a suppression of the fact that those bombings were not military in intent. They were not aimed at winning the war against Japan. Nor was the even more deadly campaign of firebombing that preceded the atom bombs. In fact most of the “strategic” bombing carried out by the US and UK in World War II was simply mass murder of civilian populations, and it was militarily counterproductive – a misuse of resources that hindered military progress. I could illustrate this in detail, but let me try to save time and effort by using a comparison. The Soviet Union produced more armaments than anyone else in the war. They did not build bomber fleets to bomb German cities. To do so would have been an unthinkable, nigh suicidal, waste of resources. The Western Allies had the luxury of wasting their most valuable materiel and personnel on a project of mass murder, but the underlying strategic calculus is the same – it was militarily counterproductive.
With the deaths of millions of civilians weighing on the consciences of leaders and on the collective conscience of the people’s who had fought against the greater evil of Axis, the last thing anyone would want would be the suggestion that the actions of the Allied leaders in killing civilians were in some intrinsic and essential way linked to the atrocities committed by Japan and Germany. Both collectively and individually, both consciously and unconsciously, people knew not to explore any notion that would suggest that mass killings of civilians by Allies had any fundamental and immutable connection to the mass killings of civilians by Axis powers.
This is best summed up by Justice Robert Jackson’s opening statement at the Nuremberg Trials, “…the record on which we judge these defendants today is the record on which history will judge us tomorrow. To pass these defendants a poisoned chalice is to put it to our own lips as well.” Please note that he is not talking about a future trial of a future regime, but the way “history” will judge “us” – meaning Jackson and his contemporaries. The discourse of aggressive war that was created at Nuremberg was closely and precisely shaped to construct a crime of which the Germans were guilty but of which the Allies were not. That is why Hermann Göring at times shouted out “What about Hamburg?” and “What about Hiroshima?” Göring knew that wasn’t a legal defence in and of itself, he was trying to fracture the narrative framework with which his prosecutors and judges legitimated themselves.
And then there is another no-go area – another place from which the collective consciousness (and most individual consciousnesses) shied away in fear. In addition to avoiding any suggestion that Axis atrocities might bear any resemblance to the Allied habit of incinerating innocent human beings by the tens of thousands, it was also imperative that there be no suggestion whatsoever that Japanese and German conquest and occupation might in any way resemble the colonial and imperial policies of Britain, France and the US.
The Frightening Truth
To be very clear: the Allies killed millions in World War II, but the Axis powers killed tens of millions. Within reason, aggression can justly be called “the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.” Thus, to suggest that there is a moral equivalence between Axis and Allied crime is not really acceptable. (It is equally unacceptable to claim a moral equivalence between Nazi crimes and those of Communist regimes in the USSR or China).
That said, however, the atrocities that the Germans and Japanese committed against the peoples of Europe and Asia inevitably resemble the crimes of other colonising and imperially hegemonic powers. Both of these Axis powers, along with Italy, consciously wanted to repeat the imperialist and colonialist conquests of the British and French. The difference is that with changes of technology the intensity and speed were unprecedented. What would have been 50 years of killing for the British Empire was squeezed into 5 years. Yet the principle was the same, and I cannot help but think that the main reason that people saw a moral distinction between German imperial expansion in Europe and, say, British expansion in Africa was that most of the victims of the Germans were White.
Meanwhile policies of deliberately and systematically killing civilians came to dominate the so-called “strategic bombing” of the UK and US during the war. They too bore chilling similarities to the policies of mass killing pursued by the Germans and Japanese. Eric Markusen and David Kopf published a book called The Holocaust and Strategic Bombing which documents parallels in the way the Germans and the Western Allies were justifying ever greater mass killings with pretensions of clinical detachment and inevitability, along with eerily similar euphemisms – such as the German “evacuation” and the British “dehousing”.
The fact is that there is an essential and fundamental connection between the actual extermination of peoples, such as the Aboriginals of Tasmania, the “hyperexploitation” such as lead to millions of deaths at Potosí and 10 million in King Leopold’s Congo, and the social and cultural destruction accompanying the economic and political subjugation of imperial or neocolonial domination. Within that framework there are also practices of ethnic cleansing and of any systematic attempt to reduce a non-military population through killing, preventing births, or reducing material wellbeing to lower lifespans.
The Germans did, or attempted to do, all of the above to various peoples under the Nazi leadership of the “Third Reich”. In many ways this project was inchoate and even contradictory, and yet viewed from enough distance it had a distinct singular form. One man, Raphael Lemkin, saw it and recognised in it “a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups.” He called that “genocide”.
Lemkin had a profound insight which had three things in common with other fundamental changes in paradigmatic thinking. The first is that it had a long gestation. Lemkin didn’t just base his idea on German policies under Hitler, he had been researching and thinking about these issues since he was a teenager nearly three decades earlier. He was horrified by the Armenian genocide and spent his early adulthood trying to understand and encapsulate that violence, with the particular aim of making it an “international crime”.
The second is that its significance was much greater than the originator himself understood at the time. Later, Lemkin himself, much to the detriment of his career and political standing, made a clear link between genocide and settler-colonialism. He spent a great deal of his time writing about the genocidal destruction of indigenous peoples in the Americas. In my opinion he did this despite wishing to think the best of his new home in the United States. Had he lived longer he would have been forced to confront the fact that imperialism is inherently genocidal even when it is not engaged in settler colonial expansion. Rather than seeking to impose the “national pattern” of the imperial centre it seeks to impose an “imperial pattern” which is equally alien to the victim group but which also cements their subjugation in an ethnoracial imperialist hierarchy. This is achieved with exactly the same social, political, cultural and economic destruction and the same forced displacement, concentration and mass killing that characterises settler-colonial genocides. This is true regardless of whether the empire is predominantly formal, informal, or neocolonial.
The third thing that happens when new revolutionary ideas arrive is that people try to cling on to outmoded beliefs and ways of thinking. They are resistant, and in the case of genocide this resistance has been nourished by political interests and given a fertile discursive medium by the historical experiences of the internal and external relations of Germany’s Third Reich. The nature of genocide was obscured from the very genesis of the term by a strident and loud imagery of Nazi exceptionalism.
An exceptionalist emphasis was one of two opposing reactions to the unprecedented suffering inflicted on the world by the Nazi regime. The other emphasis was to try to understand what conditions had led to members of our species doing or allowing things that seem to be unvarnished evil from the outside. A lot of good and bad things came out of line of thought, but I would argue that it greatly profited societies to think of the German experience as one to be studied and avoided. It is from this tradition, which is always at least partly relativistic, that sprung concepts like Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil” and our understanding of the psychology of authoritarians. I think that a very frightening aspect of contemporary life is that our understanding of these Nazi traits fades, and as the understanding fades the traits themselves become more and more manifest in ever more shamelessly inhuman official discourse. Two recent examples being the US “Law of Warfare” field manual which authorises the killing of journalists and the West Point professor who wants the military to kill lawyers and scholars who oppose US military actions to the list of targets – not to mention attacking mosques and various other enemies of US military freedom.
In contrast to those who sought deeper understanding of Nazism, all forms of exceptionalism involve taking supposedly unique aspects of something and presenting them as essential and defining characteristics. This vastly overstates the substance of those aspects that are claimed as being exceptional and, if accepted, makes comparisons impossible. This exceptionalist approach can be seen in the famous Disney wartime propaganda film “Education for Death”. It is understandable that there was a desire to dramatise the oppressive and invasive nature of the Nazi regime, but it encapsulates a fetishistic approach that is literally a cartoon version of reality. As propaganda this is to be expected, but after the war it is not as if people said to themselves: “Now that that is over I need to take a more nuanced view of the National Socialist government in Germany if I am to truly grasp the nature of that regime and its atrocities.”
The danger of exceptionalist narratives is that they deny context and refuse to allow comparisons. The upshot of this is that people emphasise the wrong things in the fetishistic and cartoon manner which I mentioned. Thus US exceptionalists create a fetish out of surface aspects of their constitution that they are formally and informally indoctrinated at a young age to view as essential parts of “democracy”. In reality, the excessive focus and attention then given to the “democratic” nature of US governance actually makes it far easier for undemocratic power relations to develop and entrench themselves.
Similarly, an exceptionalist narrative about Nazi Germany emphasises surface appearances and destroys any ability to learn and to avoid repetition. To use a reductio ab Hitlerum analogy, it is like saying that everything will always be okay as long as the highest political office is not occupied by a man with a funny moustache.
Here is a multi-choice question:
The US has just won a war against the forces of darkness embodied by Germany and Japan. There is a new word around called “genocide”. Are you inclined to think that this word means a) what Hitler did to the Jews, b) what Hitler did to the Jews and what was done to the indigenous people of North America in order to create the US – illustrate your answer with reference to the screen appearances of John Wayne.
Clearly no ordinary citizen of the victor states would want to think that the crime of genocide, which saw millions of Jews systematically murdered, was a very prominent part of their own proud national heritage. Canada, Aotearoa, the US, and Australia didn’t want to see their origins as stained by comparison to the roving mass-murders of the Einsatzgruppen. The USSR didn’t want to see the Terror Famine in Ukraine or Stalin’s ethnic cleansing transmigrations as bearing any resemblance to the Camps in which so many of their own died. And the old imperial powers, France and Britain, didn’t want to see their bejewelled traditions of civilising hegemony equated in any way to gassing children.
In the fertile ground of Nazi exceptionalism that was already established it was inevitable that Holocaust exceptionalism take root, not just as the explicit belief of hardliners, but also as the default starting point for general layperson’s discourse. The base belief is that the Holocaust is the defining archetype of what genocide is and that other events are “genocidal” to the extent that they can be compared to the Holocaust.
What is this Holocaust that they are talking about? Part of the problem is that this is an extremely slippery concept. The real problem is that people don’t want a robust definition of the Holocaust. They want to be able to know what it is without having to cogently delineate that knowledge. For most people the Holocaust is emotive but vague. It is misunderstood not in the manner that one might misunderstand historic events like the War of the Roses or the reign of Emperor Qin Shi Huang, but rather the impressionistic imagery is so powerful as to drown out actual detail. This is understandable, but still regrettable.
The Holocaust is so overwhelming that a film like Schindler’s List had to be made in monochrome because even the sombre and washed-out cinematic tones that are conventionally used for Eastern Europe in World War II are insufficient for an actual concentration camp. Genocide is literally made to be black-and-white. Our sensitivities to the issue are so high that misters used to cool visitors to Auschwitz today caused an international outcry because they were reminiscent “the Holocaust showers” (as one news bulletin called them). There were, of course, no actual “Holocaust showers”. The realities are not any less horrifying than the nightmare images, but they are more complicated. In fact, the realities are more horrifying than the symbolic beliefs, and once you know them you can’t unlearn them. That is why people create a totemic imagery of the Holocaust. They can feel all of the horror, grief and outrage without the crippling depression. Most of all, they don’t feel the burden of obligation to end suffering. Instead, steeped in the dark cartoon visions of “Holocaust showers”, they are more able and more likely to inflict suffering because they are artificially separating the suffering of certain human beings from other members of the same species.
The symbolic or cartoonish approach to conceptualising the Holocaust has the advantage that you do not have to be categorical about something to make it a defining character. It is possible to retain the notion that the Holocaust is encapsulated in the conspiracy of the Final Solution, in the Judeocide, and in the gas chambers of death camps. Everything that is not part of that vision is either forcibly incorporated or essentially ignored.
To clarify my point, let me draw your attention to the role of a) gas chambers and b) the Final Solution. These things are synonymous with genocide in most people’s minds, but Lemkin never included them in his description of genocide for the very simple reason that he didn’t know about them. Moreover, if these things had not existed it might have meant that many more Jews would have survived in relative terms, but most European Jews would still have been killed by the genocide policies that Lemkin described. Those Jews who died were joined by many millions of others who died as a result of genocide. The Final Solution and the gas chambers are clearly linked to genocide in that they are a way of enacting genocide that is entirely consistent with the logic of genocide take to its greatest extreme – that of extermination. These things are linked to genocide, but they do not typify let alone embody genocide.
The end result is that the paradigmatic exemplar of genocide, the Holocaust, is a misrepresentation of itself, let alone genocide as a whole. For some that means that the Holocaust was the only genocide. For most, however, it means that when one decides to use the “g-word”, one constructs the newly acknowledged genocide as being a reflected image of that mythologised Holocaust. By maintaining that exceptionalist purity one never needs to accept something as genocide if one does not want to. In fact, people can get very angry when someone labels something genocide on the basis that to do so is to accuse the perpetrator of being as bad as the worst atrocities of German mass murder. Conversely you can appropriate the imagery of the Holocaust for anything you don’t like, particularly if you can label it anti-Semitic. In an extreme example a man was filmed at a rally opposing the “Iran nuclear deal” recently where he yelled that Obama was releasing money to “the terrorist Nazi regime which is building nuclear gas chambers!”
If you are attempting establish the moral validity of acts by refuting any comparison to Hitler’s acts, you are defending the indefensible.
Most readers will probably be familiar with Godwin’s Law: “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches”. The most common corollary is that the party that makes the analogy has lost the argument. It is dated now, and perhaps it was always more inclined to be used against critical thought than to promote it. I propose instead that what we need now is a “law” that states that if you are attempting establish the moral validity of acts by refuting any comparison to Hitler, you are defending the indefensible. This is true whether the reaction is the gut reaction of an Israeli who spits and yells with genuinely distraught anger at the suggestion that Israel is committing genocide; or whether it is the snide put-downs of a pundit, politician, bureaucrat or academic who sneers at those who claim that the US or UK or France has committed genocide.
The corollary of Kelly’s Law is that not only must the person refuting the Hitler comparison be defending the indefensible, but they are almost certain to be demolishing a straw man in doing so. To say that someone has committed genocide is not the same as saying that they are morally equivalent to Hitler in the same way that saying the we evolved through processes of natural selection is not the same as calling someone a monkey. For example, in his book Empire Niall Ferguson first himself compares the actions of British forces during the Indian Mutiny to those of the SS against Jews, but then concludes that the British weren’t actually as bad as the SS as if that somehow makes things better.
Nazi exceptionalism and Holocaust exceptionalism are the gift that keep on giving. As long as you avoid building death camps with giant gas chambers and crematoria then you can incinerate and starve hundreds of thousands. It is like teflon coating for genocide perpetrators. It shields them from all serious accusations of intentional wrongdoing because any attempt to suggest a systematic purpose behind Western mass violence is delegitimised as being an invalid attempt to equate our leaders with the Nazis. I fear that this will continue until the point where it Western governments, particularly the US, actually do become the moral equivalent of the Nazis – and that moment does get closer over time.
A New Holocaust
People don’t want to face up to the reality of genocide, because they will then have to admit that Western states are committing massive acts of genocide right now. The Western interventions most apparent in the Middle East, Africa and Central Asia have created mass destruction and mass death.
The tempo of violence that exists now does not even match that of the bombing during the Korean War, let alone the enormous scale of violence of World War II. However, this violence never ends. It seems destined to continue for eternity and the scale of death continues to creep upwards. Western interventions of many types have sowed conflict and instability and they keep tearing at these open wounds, often blaming the victims. I cannot shake the feeling that if Germany had not been at war, Nazi genocide policies would have been enacted at the same slowly accumulating pace.
The destruction and the violence are often meted out by enemies of the United States, but I think people are beginning to grasp that to greater or lesser extents the US is often the creator and sponsor of these enemies. Moreover these enemies are often materially dependent on the US either directly or through allied regimes. That is the new reality, or at least one of the new realities. Lemkin’s understanding of genocide was of disparate acts that could only be related to each other when you grasped the underlying strategic reasoning,
That is why anti-Zionists are embracing Holocaust exceptionalism. Israel provides such easy cartoon villains, Netanyahu and a cabinet of political colleagues that seems unable to go two months without a minister openly calling for the extermination or ethnic-cleansing of non-Jews. They might as well have a leader with a funny moustache. It is facile and comforting, but it is stupid. Israel does not have the power to effectuate all this destruction, nor does it control the US. Everything the US has done has followed a trajectory it has clearly been on since 1945. Trying to explain it current genocidal actions is like trying to explain the trajectory of a cannonball by a stiff gust that arose during its flight without any suggestion that there might have been a cannon involved at any point.