An American Holocaust? The Structure of Denial
Socialism and Democracy Online
Vol 17, No. 1, Issue #33
The first question people ask about my book A Little Matter of Genocide1 is where it came from or why I wrote it. My purpose was to be able to really stretch out, explain, and fully contextualize my use of the term genocide and the appropriateness of its application to the question of what happenedand is still happeningto American Indians over the past five centuries. And part of my objective is always to bring consideration of American Indians into the main currents of global intellectual discourse, rather than playing to the idea that were an exotic sideline, of relevance only to specialists of one sort or another.
This brings up a personal hook in addition to my intellectual motives. It comes with the fact that I am myself of Muscogee and Creek descent on my fathers side, Cherokee on my mothers, and am an enrolled member of the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians. Im also married to an Ojibwe woman of the Lynx clan, from the Onegaming Reserve in Northwestern Ontario. The truth is, although Im best known by my colonial name, Ward Churchill, the name I prefer is Kenis, an Ojibwe name bestowed by my wifes uncle. So theres that, and I suppose it speaks for itself.
There were also a few galvanizing experiences which help explain what propelled this particular book into being. The first was something that happened during the run-up to the 1992 Columbian Quincentennial Celebrationto use the official designatorwhile I was working as a visiting professor at Alfred University. I wrote a little op-ed piece for the campus newspaper that was picked up by the paper in Rochester, in which I made a comparison between Columbus and Heinrich Himmler,2 and received two very interesting responses on the same morning. One came by mail from an official of the Anti-Defamation League of Bnai Brith in Rochester. The other was by telephone from a visiting faculty member from Germany. Both individuals were absolutely livid and wanted to stand me corrected with regard to the comparison Id made.
The letter argued that the comparison was invalid since Himmler was in a position of power, a highly placed official with policy-making prerogatives who implemented that policy with catastrophic results for a targeted group of human beings, while Columbusas we all knowwas merely an adventurous explorer, a common seaman who happened upon the so-called New World. While the results of his discovery may well have proven catastrophic for those discovered, the results themselves were not personally attributable to Columbus. The German, who at an earlier stage of his career had been a member of Rudi Dutschkes SDS, said virtually the same thing. So basically we have a politically conservative Jewish individual and a radical-liberal German expressing a precise confluence of opinion on this particular question. And I had to stop myself and, since they are not only both wrong but wrong in exactly the same way, I had to ask why? So theres one catalyst.
Another came with the publication in 1993 of a book by Deborah Lipstadt, a fairly prominent Judaic scholar at Emory University, entitled Denying the Holocaust.3 It deals with Holocaust deniers of the neonazi persuasion. I found two things especially striking about the book. One was the system of classification Lipstadt uses. I found that very useful, and entirely applicable to the context with which I deal. So, if thats all there were to it, Id have relied upon her method with thanks and attribution, and that wouldve been the end of it. In the second half of the book, however, she goes into a sort of extended polemic having to do with the inappropriateness of suggesting that there might be other peoples who have suffered experiences in any way comparable to that of her own during the nazi genocide.
Here, she focuses on denouncing Afrocentrism, including, presumably, its characterizations of the effects of the transatlantic slave trade on American blacks as genocidal4interestingly, she fails to discuss the impact on the societies of subsaharan Africa5and repudiating the idea that the camps in which the U.S. placed Japanese Americans during World War II might be comparable to some of the nazi concentration camps. A couple of points are worth highlighting here, beginning with the fact that a page after theyre first mentioned the Japanese Americans have somehow been transformed into Japanese. From there, they quickly mutate into a sort of racial fifth column, real or potential, at least in the quite reasonable perception of U.S. policymakers, and thus their mass internment is presented as an unfortunate but entirely justifiable national security measure.6 Unfortunately for Lipstadt, the nazis often used an identical rationalization, picked up by postwar deniers like Harry Elmer Barnes, to explain why it was necessary to intern the Jews.7 At another level, she appears to deliberately conflate concentration camps and death camps, thus setting up a straw man to rebut. Its true, as she implies, that comparing Manzanar to Auschwitz would be absurd. But Im unawareand she offers no examplesof anyone whos actually made such a comparison. To compare Manzanar and Dachau, on the other hand, which several serious scholars have done,8 is another matter entirely.
What to make of this? One is left to conclude either that Lipstadt is abjectly ill-versed in her subject mattera possibility the quality of her performance in the first half of the book renders utterly implausibleor that shes quite consciously engaging in exactly the same pattern of obfuscation, distortion and outright deception she so ably exposes, and quite rightly reviles, as the stuff of neonazi pseudoscholarship. In other words, it wasnt accidental or mere sloppy scholarship. She knew what she was doing. Her goal, of course, is different from that of the neonazis. Where they deny that the Holocaust occurred at all, she wants people to believe that it happened, but that it happened only to Jews, uniquely so, and that for any other people to contend that any aspect of their historical experience is in any way genuinely comparable, is to degrade and dishonor the memory of the nazis Jewish victims, and thus to be objectively guilty of antisemitism, and thus on the same moral footing as the neonazis. 9 Wow!
What Ive found is that this is very much a standard theme in responsible or respectable Holocaust scholarship. Where the neonazis deny a single genocide, those embracing the exclusivist posture of Jewish uniqueness deny many. Indeed, they deny everybodys holocaust but their own. With this in mind, I couldnt wait to see how Lipstadt dealt with the destruction of indigenous peoples which attended the U.S. exercise in nation-building. I mean, she had to deal with it, right? Shes an American scholar purporting to explain why the concept of genocide is inapplicable to the understanding of American history. So, youll understand why, when I reached the end of Denying the Holocaust, I thought maybe Id been too eager, that Id read too fast and somehow missed the part about the campaigns of exterminationthats an official term, not something I made up for effectconducted against American Indians. I didnt want to go back and reread the whole second half of the thing, so I flipped through the index, trying to figure out where I should look. Nothing under American Indians. Nothing under Native Americans. Were never dignified with so much as a passing reference anywhere in the books 250-odd pages. Were treated as if were either nonexistent or utterly irrelevant. Im not sure which, and I really dont care, because I submit to you that, either way, its impossible to conceive of being any more denied than that.
A third galvanizer was Steven Katzs Holocaust in Historical Context,10 which was published a year earlier than Lipstadts, but I didnt get into it until after Id read hers. I think its both fair and accurate to describe this tomeit comes to about 600 oversize pages of dense-packed proseas the definitive formulation of the Jewish exclusivist position. All 600 pages are devoted to elaborating in excruciating detail exactly why were supposed to conclude that there has been one, and only one, true genocide in all of human history, that it was inflicted by the nazis upon the Jews during the period 1941-45,11 and that while other peoples have suffered horrendous persecution from time to timehe runs down a whole series of examples, from Carthage to Cambodia, and, yes, he does stop off to visit the fate of American Indians12the conclusion in each case is that whatever happened was something other than genocide, per se. In substance, Katzs bottom linelike Lipstadts, and using the same methods, only much more sois that if you werent at Auschwitz, you didnt suffer genocide. Of course, in order to make it appear that his thesis holds up, he has to radicallyand, given the way he does it, one dares say duplicitouslyalter the definition of the word itself (he calls it a phenomenological definition).13
Finally, theres a statement by Edward Alexander which snapped the whole thing into focus for me. Sufferance of genocide, he said, can be considered as moral capital in the political arena.14 His implication is that there is only a certain amount of this moral capital, and that sharing the fact of genocidal suffering with anyone else would thus correspondingly diminish the quantity of this capital available to Jews. You have to admire his honesty in a way. His is a make no bones about it articulation of the motives underlying uniqueness scholarshipthat is, the insistence that the Holocaust was the only real genocide, and that the Holocaust happened only to Jewsand the quasi-official adoption of this historical interpretation by the State of Israel.15 Alexander, by the way, is none too shy about equating Jews to Israel, so theres a great deal of consistency in his position.
Im going to challenge this the Holocaust happened only to Jews business right now. You see, theres this little matter of the Gypsies (Sinti and Romaor Romanias they call themselves). Katz and Yehuda Baueran acknowledged dean of Israeli Holocaust scholarsand others have spent quite a lot of time and energy trying to explain why the Gypsies, who were exterminated by the nazis in numbers proportionally as great or greater than the Jews, usually in the same camps and by the same methods, should not be viewed as coequal victims of the Holocaust. Their arguments are truly arcane: The Gypsies were not defined in precisely the same way as the Jews (of course not, they were Gypsies), not slated for total extermination (actually certain groups of Jewsthe Karaimes and Tats, for example, and there were otherswere exempted as well),16 and so on. You really have to read this stuff to believe it, and even then its hard to wrap your mind around the idea that respectable scholars are producing it. The punctuation mark on this is that its all and patently false. Theres a 1938 Himmler decree placing the Gypsies on precisely the same legal footing as the Jews, to be processed by the SS in precisely the same way.17 End of distinction.
There is something else that needs saying in this regard. Every Gypsy who turns to a standard reference work like Louis Snyders Encyclopedia of the Third Reich must feel just like I felt when I finished Lipstadts book, because theres not a single mention of Gypsies, Sinti, Roma, Romani or anything remotely related to them.18 The same is true in cinematic depictions. Take Escape from Sobibór, for example. Thats a death camp in which thousands upon thousands of Gypsies, as well as Jews, were exterminated. Yet, in the movie, the inmate population is composed exclusively of Jews. The only reference to a Gypsy is the name of a dog.19 An entry on Gypsies is included in The Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, but Yehuda Bauer was selected to write it, and its devoted mainly to explaining why Gypsy victims shouldnt be seen as genuine counterparts to Jewish victims.20 Small wonder, given this sensibility, that when it came time to conduct the official Israeli/Polish commemoration of the Holocaust at Auschwitz in January 1995, a group of Gypsies whose ancestors had died there, and who therefore wished to participate, were actually locked out.21
Obviously, Holocaust denial takes a few forms Deborah Lipstadt neglected to mention. Maybe thats why theres no more reference to Gypsies than there is to Indians in Denying the Holocaust. The point is that the neonazis hold no monopoly on Holocaust denial. The sort of Holocaust scholarship Ive been talking about, and its the predominating mode, also comprises a form of denial. And its an especially ugly and insidious form, consciously undertaken by one people victimized by genocide at the direct expense of another, a smaller, weaker people victimized in the same genocide. If youre gathering the impression that I feel a great deal of affinity for the Gypsies, youre correct. I do. And thats true not only on the basis of what Ive been saying, which is I suppose rather academic, but also on the basis of direct experience.
I was in Germany in 1994, along with another AIM member, Bob Robideau, when the Germans set out to deport the Sinti and Roma, en masse, to Romania. To make a long story short, Bob and I ended up standing with a caravan of Gypsiesmen, women, babies, old people, little kidsin the pouring rain on a blacktop road outside the Neuengamme concentration camp, near Hamburg. Neuengamme was the camp where the nazis sent Gypsies for transshipment to Auschwitz and Sobibór and Chelmno.22 Now, 50 years later, these people we were with were trying to find sanctuary inside the same camp, to use the symbolism of it in a desperate effort to forestall deportation as social undesirables. And, of course, the Germans locked them out. Posted guards, in fact. Ill never forget the look in one little boys eyes as he sat there shivering in the rain. Such deep hurt. Anguish. Bewilderment. Ive seen that same look in so many of our own kids eyes. It haunts me. And then, a year later, having been locked out of Neuengamme by the Germans, the same people were locked out of Auschwitz by Jews, for gods sake. Can you imagine how that felt?
At this point, the meaning of the confluent views expressed by the German and the Jew with regard to my Himmler/Columbus comparison??and by extension to the idea that there was an American holocaust starts to reveal itself. But first you need to understand why, beyond the obvious reasons, the Gypsies were trying so hard to resist deportation. I mentioned that they were being sent to Romania. Actually, Germany was paying Romania to take them. Part of a nice little ethnic cleansing program they were conducting in Germany at the time, and, for that matter, still are.23 You had gangs of skinheads running around all over the place, beating up immigrant workers, Kurds and such, torching worker housing complexes, burning a few people alive, sending the message that Germany is for Racial Germans only, and the fact of the matter is that the government wasnt doing much to stop them because the government itself was busily passing laws and implementing policiesremoving Gypsies being only one part of itgoing in exactly the same direction.24 Any of this sounding familiar?
Anyway, bad as things were, and are incan I start to call this the Reich now?they were at the time much worse in Romania, where what amounted to a nationwide anitigypsy pogrom was going on. So, the Gypsies were being put on trains in Germany, whole trainloads of them, and shipped to Romania whereand everybody knew this, not least the Gypsiesthey were being met at the stations by large groups of men armed with axe-handles and such. And, from there, they were funneled into prearranged ghettos or Gypsy camps, where, presumably, they remain.25 All this was common knowledge, but nobody much was talking about it. The U.S. raised no protests, nor did Israel, nor did the Jewish organizations, many of them with offices in Berlin, that are ostensibly guided by the principle of never again. About the only serious attempt to oppose what was going on came from a fairly narrow sector of the radical German left taking antifascism/antiracism as its paramount concern.26 Everybody else pretty much just yawned and looked away while the trains rolled.
This is not all thats going on in post-unification Germany. Theres a generalized desire, and its important to emphasize that this isnt some weird nostalgic fantasy on the part of the radical right, to recreate what the nazis called Grossdeutschland, the Greater Germany. That is, to merge Austria into Germany, and to reacquire the Ostmark in Polandmainly Silesia and contiguous areasas well as the portions of Prussia lost at the end of World War II.27 And it should be clear from what Ive already said that they see Germany, in whatever configuration, as being ethnically cleansed. So you end up with this massive and thoroughly aryanized geopolitical bloc in Central Europe. They actually believethis is usually not stated openly, but it comes through clearly enough in casual conversationthat this is their destiny as a people, that the obvious superiority of their culture, their economy and so on entitles them to territories and assets belonging to peoples who failed to utilize them properly.28 Rhetorical trappings aside, the substance is no different from what was espoused not-so-long ago by Alfred Rosenberg, Hans Frank and Adolf Hitler himself.29
Everything is articulated by way of euphemism, couched in terms of progress and democratic ideals, and under a veneer of false humility. Skinheads notwithstanding, you dont have brownshirts as a literal arm of the government out there terrorizing nonaryans these days, or the SS herding them into camps and ghettos. Instead, Berlin pays the Romanians to do it for them.30 And theyre not going to invade Poland with panzers and Stukas. The takeover, which has already begun, will be undertaken in a much more insidious manner, using checkbooks instead of cannons, asserting hegemony through investment. That way, they can pursue what to all intents and purposes are nazi policiessome of the recent legislation concerning immigrant labor and the like reads almost like a recapitulation of the Nuremberg Laws31while pretending that the opposite is true.
The differences really boil down to matters of style, not substance. I dont say this to diminish the importance of style. Quite the reverse. Style is absolutely essential. It serves as the mask behind which substance is disguised and thus concretized to general applause, or at least without significant opposition. But for this stylistic subterfuge to work, there has to be a very clear benchmark against which the differences can be discerned, even measured. And, for a lot of reasons having to do with the all but universal revulsion with which it has been perceived since the Second World War, that benchmark is nazism, or rather nazism in the specific form of its practice during the period of the Third Reich. The premise is that unless youre doing whatever youre doing in exactly the same way the nazis did it during the 1930s and 40s, you must be doing something else. So the Nuremberg Laws arent really the Nuremberg Laws unless theres literally an SA, an SS and a Gestapo there to enforce them. And racial resettlement isnt really racial resettlement, unless the trains are dumping people in the Warsaw and Lódz ghettos. Dumping them in Bucharest must be something else. So much for never again!
The key to the whole enterprise concerns the casting of that aspect of the Hitlerian version of nazism which is deemed most evil and repugnant, its defining characteristic, so to speak. And here, unquestionably were now talking about the Holocaust.32 On this, there is consensus, although there probably shouldnt be, given that the Holocaust itself couldnt have happened minus the nazis ideological apparatus as a whole, and the entire sweep of nazi policy formation/implementation from the early-30s onward. In other words, that which is most evil and repugnant about nazism is nazism itself, in all its guises, not one particular aspect of it. Be that as it may, however, youll not get an argument from the direction of Deborah Lipstadt, Steven Katz and Edward Alexander if you state that the Holocaust was far and away the most awful and unforgivable crime the nazis committed. And, irony of ironies, the same view is held by the neonazi Holocaust deniers. Thats why theyre deniers. Theyre accused of being antisemitic, and thats probably a correct assessment, at least in most cases, but its not their primary motivator. Theyre neonazis, after all. What they want most is to be able to rehabilitate the public perception of nazism in its most overt form. And they cant do it without debunking the knowledge that nazism produced the Holocaust.33
David Irving, who, along with Ernst Nolte,34 stands out as one of the most sophisticated and accomplished of all the neonazi scholarsIrvings a Brit whos long been considered a leading respectable World War II historian?has recently laid things out very clearly. Everything about nazism was pretty much A-okay, he says, except the Holocaust. But, of course, the Holocaust didnt happen. So, were all kind of morally-bound to reconsider our views of Hitler and his projects, giving the guy proper credit for his many accomplishments. You know the rap: Hitler pulled off an economic miracle by lifting Germany out of the Great Depression, reinstilling pride and bringing the German people together at a time when it seemed Germany might come completely apart; without him, wed not have expressways or Volkswagens, and just look at all those advances in genetics and rocket science he instigated, etc. etc.35
Irving and his ilk are irrelevant for our purposes other than to demonstrate a bizarre kind of agreement joining the two most extreme poles of what we can call, for lack of a better designator, the Holocaust debate. And from there it becomes unsurprising to find that agreement prevails at every point along the continuum from pole to pole. Now, inject the rest of the logic weve been discussing. After accepting that genocide (the Holocaust) was definitive of nazism in its Hitlerian form, everybody can claim one or another level of moral high ground by the vociferousness with which they condemn Hitlerism and, it follows, genocide. But, and heres where the really slippery part comes in again: genocide and the particular mode of genocide embodied in the Holocaust end up being treated as synonyms.36 Thats why so much Holocaust scholarship ends up being devoted to listing the criteria of what constitutes an actual genocide. To be considered such, so it is argued by people like Katz, a process of group eradication must devolve upon killing, not other methods. And the killing must be done systematically, on a certain scale, affecting a certain proportion of the target group, and pursued with an express intent to annihilate every last member of it.37 Often, the question of killing techniques is also introduced, which is why Holocaust deniers like Arthur Butz and Robert Faurisson expend so much effort trying to prove that there were no gas chambers at Auschwitz.38 Ive even seen the argument advanced, apparently in all seriousness, that genocide is genocide only if the victims fail to physically resist their victimization.39
Maybe its time we took a deep breath, because weve plainly ventured a long way into the domain of lunatic discourse. And, as should be patently obvious, thats true on both sides of the equation. On each side, the lunacy has a purpose, but one side is plainly ascendant over the other, and, equally plainly, the ascendant side is not that of the Irvings and the Faurissons who seek to rehabilitate nazism by denying the Holocaust (no matter how greatly their influence may exceed their minuscule number40). Nope. Such laurels go to their opponents; that is, to those who discredit nazism by their totalizing focus on the Holocaust, thereby narrowing the definitional parameters of the word itself to the point where it can be asserted in all seriousness, and popularly believed, that genocide isnt really genocide unless its a veritable duplicate of the Holocaust. And, since there are no exact duplicates of the Holocaust
Lipstadt can relax. The votes are in, long since, and her side won by a margin so decisive that she neednt lose another moments sleep over the largely imaginary inroads made on her turf by the likes of David Irving. The whole world has bought into the twin-track paradigm of Holocaust uniqueness and Jewish exclusivism. The official view is pretty much the way Steven Katz and Yehuda Bauer have formulated it, in close paraphrase: genocide has happened only once in history, and to only one people.41 How neat. How tidy. How utterly self-serving.
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