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26 January 2001Printer-friendly versionEmail a friend

Felipe Fernandez-Armesto on the Holocaust
'It's very improper, very impertinent, to say that there's only one right way to understand and discuss the Holocaust.'

by Brendan O'Neill

'I defend people's right to deny the Holocaust and to utter lies - so long as the rest of us remain aware that what they're saying is a lie.'

It is rare to hear these words today, when so many are keen to censor Holocaust denial. But Felipe Fernández-Armesto, professor of history at Oxford University and author of Truth: A History and a Guide for the Perplexed, which aims to set the record straight on historical facts and how we understand them, thinks that open, lively debate is the best way to challenge Holocaust deniers:

'The great defence against falsehood is a rational, critical and accurately informed intelligence, not censorship. When people lie about the Holocaust we should stand up to them with the facts, rather than being frightened of debate.'

Fernández-Armesto is concerned about the pious and prescriptive way in which the Holocaust is discussed today - where anybody who falls out of line soon finds that 'tolerance' has its limits. 'It's very improper, very impertinent, to say that there's only one right way to understand the Holocaust and discuss it', he says. 'I feel very strongly that debate and comparison enliven our understanding of everything.'

Comparison? Fernández-Armesto is surely right when he says that historical debate is essential and that 'our perception of historic events changes all the time - that is par for the course with history'. But is it right to compare the Holocaust with other historical and contemporary tragedies, such as the war in the Balkans and the Rwandan conflict?

'The real problem for me', says Fernández-Armesto, 'is when the Holocaust is regarded as being in a category which is quite unique, and you're not allowed to compare it with other acts of genocide because it is somehow morally special, as if it's worse to massacre Jews than it is to massacre blacks or whites or Irish, or any other race. That is very problematic'.

Yet in 1999 Fernández-Armesto was critical of the abuse of Holocaust imagery, when he went against the grain to chastise NATO and Western journalists for describing Serb actions in Kosovo as genocide. He wrote that: 'The wickedness of this language is that it warps the facts about the real Holocaust. Serb policy is repulsively viscous….but it is not genocide. The sufferings of the Jews in the Second World War were special: effectively without precedent, almost without parallel.' ('Crimes against truth', Independent, 4 April 1999) Has he now changed his mind about the uniqueness of the Nazi Holocaust?

'The thing is, I don't believe there was any attempted genocide in Kosovo', responds Fernández-Armesto, 'despite what ministers and the media said. What happened was that two communities inflicted massacres and atrocities on each other, without the conscious, planned intention of exterminating an entire people as the Nazis did'. As for NATO's 'abuse of language', Fernández-Armesto says we shouldn't be surprised: 'NATO is a political organisation, a highly self-interested one, which has got a big problem justifying itself in the post-Cold War era, so it falls back on the abuse of rhetoric.'

But still Fernández-Armesto argues that we should not 'stop people locating massacres of Jews, attempted genocide of Jews, in the context of other massacres and other attempted genocides' - referring to 'close parallels' such as 'imperialism, about which there has been a lot of revisionism of late'. 'What I disdain', says Fernández-Armesto, 'is the sense of moral superiority attached to the memory of the Holocaust, above everything else, which you can't question'.

Fernández-Armesto is reacting against something real: the way in which the Holocaust has been turned into a moral absolute which nobody can question or criticise - or make jokes about. When US comedian Scott Capuro uttered the words 'Holocaust Schmolocaust' at the Edinburgh Festival in August 2000 he found himself on the receiving end of what Capuro described as 'some heavy shit'. Even Roberto Begnini's Holocaust epic Life is Beautiful was criticised by some for daring to seek out the comic elements of life in a Nazi concentration camp.

And many are now trying to use the Holocaust to create a contemporary sense of right and wrong, good and evil - the one issue around which we can all agree and be morally coherent. But this 'moralising' of the Holocaust doesn't have the effect of making it unique, a special case, as Fernandez-Armesto imagines. Rather, the use of the Holocaust as a moral sermon robs the Nazi genocide of its uniqueness by turning it into a lesson about everything from bullying and racism to human rights and democracy - where people see 'holocausts' happening all around us, from Rwanda to, Fernández-Armesto's bugbear, Kosovo.

Fernández-Armesto disagrees: 'We are making the Holocaust this unique event in history and that is dangerous.' He recognises that 'clapped-out organisations like New Labour' often have to 'fall back on the abuse of language and rhetoric to justify their aims', pointing out that during the Kosovo conflict 'Robin Cook used the word "genocide" six times in a five-minute BBC interview, following the principle from the Scam-man's Handbook: if you repeat nonsense often enough, people will believe it'.

But now he sees the problem as one of Holocaust uniqueness - because there is a danger we will become 'dangerously complacent' about the possibility of another holocaust: 'The more you crack the Holocaust up to be unique the more you desensitise people to the danger of it happening again. If it's unique then it's not likely to happen again - the problem is that it's not unique and it is likely to happen again.'

Brendan O'Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.

Read on:

The 'second generation' of Holocaust survivors, by Frank Furedi

I'm right're a Nazi, by Josie Appleton

Howard Jacobson: Holocaust day is 'all so Blairite'

spiked-issue: The Holocaust

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