The rise and rise of Holocaust envy

A new generation drunk on victim politics is desperate for a piece of the Holocaust action.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Identity Politics UK World

Britain’s Socialist Workers Party (SWP) is not famed for its astuteness. These omnipresent public-school leftists, who rock up to every radical demo to holler facile chants in fake accents they learnt from EastEnders, are about as far from scholarly as you can get. Yet a few years ago they did something that was world-beatingly dumb, even by their famed low standards. They handed out a leaflet about the Holocaust that described it as an unspeakable tragedy in which ‘thousands of LGBT people, trade unionists and disabled people were slaughtered’. Spot the omission?

Yes, they forgot the Jews. They forgot the Jews. It was 2008 and the SWP was skulking around a festival organised by the far-right British National Party (BNP). They handed their leaflets to anyone who’d take one. The leaflet denounced the BNP for ‘deny[ing] the Holocaust’, which was apparently an act of mass murder against gay people, trans folk and the disabled. No one else. Just them. The irony of the SWP slamming the BNP for ‘denying the Holocaust’ while simultaneously erasing from the record the six million souls obliterated by the Nazis was too much to take.

Their omission of the very people the Holocaust was designed to destroy did not go unnoticed. Even other radical leftists were appalled. The SWP seems to have discovered a ‘Jew-free Holocaust’, swiped the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty. Perhaps the SWP is keen to appeal to people who think it was ‘all right that Hitler killed six million Jews, but think it too much that he also killed LGBT people’, the AWL said. Then came the AWL’s keenest observation: yes, the omission of the Jews was probably ‘a slip’, it said, ‘but for such a slip to pass unnoticed through writer, typesetter, printer, organisers and distributors, without anyone at any stage picking it up, must say something’ (my emphasis).

Indeed it must. And indeed it did. It spoke, at some level, however subconsciously, to one of the most disturbing trends of recent times: the ideological assault on the Jewishness of the Holocaust. The slow but sure divorcing of the Holocaust from the Jews and the Jewish experience. The transformation of the Holocaust from the mass burning – literally – of the ‘Jewish race’ into a tragedy that befell all sorts of people. The SWP’s ‘Jew-free Holocaust’ may have been ‘a slip’, but it also foretold a future in which the Holocaust would be ‘liberated’ from the Jews, turned from a concrete and unique crime against the Jewish people into a generalised sad event that any victim group can lay claim to. We’re in that future now.

In a sense, that small SWP scandal spoke to a passing of the baton from one form of Holocaust denial to another. Inside that BNP festival in 2008 there will have been many an old-style Holocaust denier: anti-Semites of the hard-right kind who think the death camps were dreamt up by the powerful Jews who puppeteer world affairs. Yet outside the festival, in the ranks of lefty anoraks handing out the SWP’s Jew-free leaflet, there was something new: not racist deniers of the Holocaust but relativistic minimisers of it. Not people who accuse the Jews of lying about the Shoah but people who think the Jews should relinquish their moral ownership of that historic calamity and let others have a piece of the action, too.

Since Hamas’s pogrom of 7 October, the extent to which the Holocaust has become everybody’s plaything, a de-Jewified event we can all claim a connection with, has become terrifyingly clear. Witness the talk of a ‘Shoah’ in Gaza, as Al Jazeera referred to it. ‘Gaza Holocaust’ has trended on X. Masha Gessen infamously likened Gaza to a Holocaust-era Jewish ghetto in an essay for the New Yorker. ‘The ghetto is being liquidated’, he said, as if Israel’s war on Hamas were more akin to the Nazis’ transportation of ghetto Jews to the ovens than, say, Britain and America’s war on ISIS. On anti-Israel demos, Israelophobes gleefully wave placards accusing the Jewish State of carrying out the kind of genocide its own people once suffered.

South Africa’s cheap stunt of dragging Israel to the International Court of Justice to answer charges of ‘genocide’ provoked yet more spasms of Holocaust relativism. The court’s ruling – that Israel must take all necessary steps to prevent genocidal acts in Gaza – has given real ‘meaning to “Never Again”’, crowed a South African official. This use of post-Holocaust terminology to damn the Jewish State in the here and now speaks to how unanchored from history the Holocaust has become. It confirms the extent to which the Holocaust has been abstracted from its own historical circumstances – those circumstances being the Nazis’ efforts to vaporise every Jew on Earth – and reduced to a catch-all moral gesture anyone can make.

In part, the use of words like ‘Shoah’, ‘Holocaust’ and ‘Never Again’ against Israel is just Jew-baiting. There are some people out there who relish the pain it inflicts on the descendants of the Jews who were gassed by the Nazis to imply that they are guilty of similar crimes today. To say ‘Never Again’ about Israel’s war on the army of anti-Semites that butchered more than a thousand Jews on 7 October is not a considered political critique – it’s racist gloating, Jew-taunting. Yet there is more at play, too. That the Holocaust can be weaponised against the Jews themselves is a testament to its wholesale extraction from historical reality and its transformation into a general tool of political posturing.

Anshel Pfeffer put it well in a piece for Haaretz. The ‘de-Judaisation and universalisation of the Holocaust’ made it inevitable that it would ‘become a stick to beat up Jews themselves’, he said. Old-style Holocaust denial has become a ‘distinctly fringe belief’, says Pfeffer, but it’s been replaced by something equally problematic: the transformation of the Holocaust into a ‘historic brand’, a generalised feeling rather than a specific event. This, he says, has come at the price of ‘a hollowing-out of the Holocaust’s unique significance’. Where once racists accused the Jews of inventing the Holocaust, now the demand is that the Jews share the Holocaust. Yes, the Jews can have remembrance of their genocide, says Pfeffer, but first they must agree to ‘share it’ with other victim groups.

He’s right. We’ve seen a stubborn insistence on the ‘sharing’ of the Holocaust time and again in recent years. Who can forget when the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) boycotted Holocaust Memorial Day on the basis that it was ‘too narrowly focussed on Jewish suffering’? It needs to be more inclusive of ‘recent genocides such as that in Rwanda and of Muslims in Srebrenica’, the MCB insisted. In short, share your victim status, Jews. Give us a taste. Pool your historic suffering. This call for a sharing of the Holocaust has been glimpsed everywhere in recent years, from PETA’s vile description of fried chicken as a ‘Holocaust on your plate’ to the treatment of every horrid war – in Yugoslavia, Darfur, Gaza – as another Holocaust.

Today, humanity’s memory of the Holocaust is assaulted less by the noisy denialism of racist scum than by the jealous claims of victim groups who want some of that glow of victimhood that they think the Jews have been keeping to themselves. How else to explain the MCB’s tantrum over society’s ‘narrow focus’ on Jewish pain? So the Holocaust is not denied, at least not by respectable people, but it is shared, which is to say diluted. Every time a modern event is inserted into the moral universe of the Holocaust – whether it be a horrible war, factory farming or whatever – the Holocaust itself is diminished, dismantled, rendered ordinary rather than extraordinary. We go from ‘Holocaust denial to everyone having their own preferred Holocaust’, says Anshel Pfeffer, ‘and I’m not sure what’s worse’. Me neither.

The motor of today’s dismantling of the specificity of the Holocaust – which is to say, the truth of the Holocaust – is not fascism or racism. It’s victim politics. Ours is an era that validates victimhood above all else. Which grants moral authority to those who ‘suffer’. Where you can accrue both social standing and state resources through advertising your wounds, through bigging up your experiences of hate speech, oppression, etc. And so it just won’t do for the Jews to have a singular claim to the greatest, vilest act of victimisation in human history. No, they’ll have to share it. They’ll have to let us all on to that hallowed territory of a thing called ‘Holocaust’. The truth of the Holocaust is now erased not by the frontal assaults of racist deniers, but by the thousand cuts of victim groups who want their pound of Holocaust flesh.

Welcome to the era of Holocaust envy. The fashionable thing to do in the 2020s is not to deny the Shoah but to covet it – covet its pain, covet its historical enormity. From the trans lobby to Muslim activist groups, they all want some Holocaust. ‘If [I had] been in Nazi Germany, I would have been murdered for saying that I was trans’, says comedian Eddie Izzard. This, surely, is the nadir of victim politics: a wealthy, privileged man in a dress fantasising that, like the Jews, he’d have been marched to the gas chambers. You, a white-skinned, blond-haired bloke who is the darling of the bourgeoisie? Fuck off.

This Holocaust Memorial Day, it’s clear that vast numbers of people have no understanding of what the Holocaust was. Gaza is another Holocaust, they say, unforgivably unaware that more people were killed in a week in Hitler’s camps than have died in four months of this war that was started by the fascists of Hamas. The alleged death toll in the Israel-Hamas War is 25,000. That many Jews were gassed in Auschwitz every single week for four years. More than a million in the end. Pregnant women, children, the elderly. Poisoned and then burnt to a cinder. It wasn’t war – it was the industrialised slaughter of a people on the basis of their race. Nothing like it had happened before, and nothing like it has happened since. And anyone who says otherwise is a Holocaust denier, the end.

Brendan O’Neill is spiked’s chief political writer and host of the spiked podcast, The Brendan O’Neill Show. Subscribe to the podcast here. His new book – A Heretic’s Manifesto: Essays on the Unsayable – is available to order on Amazon UK and Amazon US now. And find Brendan on Instagram: @burntoakboy

Picture by: Twitter / X.

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Topics Identity Politics UK World


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