Netanyahu isn’t the only one exploiting history
Last week, the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, claimed that the Holocaust was not the result of any deliberate plan on the part of Nazi Germany. Instead, Netanyahu declared, the mass murder of European Jews took place at the insistence of a Palestinian national hero.
Contrary to academic consensus, Netanyahu stated that Adolf Hitler was apparently persuaded to carry out the Final Solution by the grand mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini. According to Netanyahu, Hitler merely wanted to expel the Jews – but Husseini convinced him to exterminate them. Not only does this claim fly in the face of historical evidence, it also represents an outrageous intervention by a head of state into an issue of deep international tension.
German chancellor Angela Merkel refused to accept Netanyahu’s claims, rightly dismissing them as historically illiterate. She reiterated the fact that responsibility for the Shoah rested firmly at Germany’s door, and not with some long-dead Middle Eastern cleric.
At best, it seemed Netanyahu wanted to knock down a Palestinian national figure. At worst, he sought to vilify the Palestinians collectively. In any case, both motives reek of opportunism, as well as historical illiteracy. However, Netanyahu’s comments are in keeping with a growing trend in Western Europe, and the West more broadly, whereby public figures use and abuse the Holocaust for political ends. It is within this context that we should situate Netanyahu’s cheap falsehoods.
Various European countries have banned Holocaust denial, motivated in part by a desire to communicate a message of tolerance. Meanwhile, public figures in the UK, the US and Canada continue to use events such as Holocaust Memorial Day as an opportunity to campaign against all sorts of contemporary societal ills, from homophobia to the modern refugee crisis. Here, the Holocaust is deployed as a moral parable, loaded with ‘lessons’ about how we should behave today. Even for those in countries that weren’t affected by the Holocaust, it is used to boost authority and proclaim that particular individuals or nations are on the ‘right side of history’.
This deployment of the Holocaust is distasteful and distracting. It results in a tragic genocide being turned into a set of digestible moral precepts, so simplistic that they can be expressed in soundbites: Never Forget; Don’t Hate; Embrace Difference. It is also a puerile and dishonest approach history, where individuals pretend that events that happened long before they were even born linger in our lived, collective memory, so that we all might look back and reflect on them.
Such constructed ‘memories’ are susceptible to exploitation, where people seek to shape them to suit their own political and moral aims. But this willingness to exploit history is seen as much in the scholars and politicians of Europe and the West as it is in Netanyahu’s comments last week. The Holocaust is no longer with us, but the project of trying to forge a way forward for all of humanity very much is. Let’s direct our political imagination towards that goal, and leave history to the historians.
Chris Lynch is a postgraduate student at the University of Edinburgh.