The Politics of Auschwitz
Sixty years after liberation, Auschwitz became an international political event. It is no coincidence, and I feel that we should spare a moment asking ourselves: why now, why Auschwitz?
Living in a scientific technological environment, it is natural for most commentators to judge any given narrative reflecting on its positive contents, i.e. the story it tells, the facts it picks up on and the message it conveys. When it comes to Auschwitz, it is always the terrifying numbers, Mengele and the selection, the clinical mass murder, the Gas Chambers, the trains, the famous Arbeit Macht Frei above the front gate, the death march just before liberation etc. And yet, I would argue that it is at least as enlightening to expose that which the Auschwitz narrative is there to conceal. Every historical tale can operate as a smoke screen; narratives are very effective in encouraging collective blindness. Auschwitz and the Holocaust narrative, in this sense, are no different.
As it seems, without engaging ourselves with the many questions
Concerning the validity of the widely accepted holocaust narrative, we can safely ask what the Auschwitz Narrative is there to serve. Who benefits from the Auschwitz account? We are entitled to ask why the official holocaust narrative is so widely promoted by different and opposing political institutions. Is it a result of a highly sophisticated orchestrated Jewish propaganda? I am not so sure anymore.
On the surface, the answer to these questions is simple, the devastating image of the Auschwitz and the Nazi Judeocide is a self-sufficient argument against nationalism, racism and totalitarianism. Within the state of acceptance of the holocaust tale, any of these three is regarded as an enemy of humanity. But then, one must admit that it neither nationalism, racism, nor totalitarianism that killed so many innocent human beings in Auschwitz. Ideologies do not kill, it is always people who kill, regardless of their ideologies.
But it goes a bit further, with the image of Auschwitz in the back of our minds, our western liberal thinkers and politicians are enthusiastically depicting a naive vision of our social reality, presenting us with a simplistic binary division. On the one hand, we find the open society, on the other, we find its many enemies. Following this world view, there is only one open society, but many different enemies; and yet, it is important to mention that the open society is an empty signifier, in practice it means very little, not to say nothing. As it seems, in order to become a member in the exclusive open club, one simply must join the right wars. President Bush, a man who is far from being eloquent when verbal capabilities are concerned, was unexpectedly articulate in presenting that very post Auschwitz western axiom: you are either with us or against us.
Being with us, namely being amongst the open, means that you believe that it was us who liberated Europe, it was us who liberated Auschwitz, it was us who saved the Jews, and it is us who still bring the notion of democracy to the most remote corners of this boiling planet. Being with us means that you accept the fact that we are the voice of the free world. It means as well that you know that you are unconditionally free. It is basically a new form of tautology: you are free even if you aren’t. Being with us means that you believe that the world is rapidly progressing towards a greater divide, namely a cultural clash, in which you are a good innocent Judeo-Christian enlightened being, and the rest are dark fundamental evils or at least potential evil. Being with us means that you are not supposed to ask too many questions about our own immoral conduct. For instance, you don’t ask why Bomber Harris & co. murdered 850,000 German civilians, targeting German cities rather than Nazi industrial infrastructure.
Being a free being in an open society means that you should never raise questions about Hiroshima. In case you are stupid enough to raise the issue, you had better be clever enough to accept the official lie: it was the best way to bring this horrible war to an end. Being a free being you won’t raise questions regarding the morality behind leaving 2,000,000 fatalities in Vietnam. Being with us means that you don’t have to ask all those silly annoying questions because Auschwitz is the ultimate in evil. Auschwitz is the bedrock of human wickedness and don’t you ever forget that it was us who put it to an end.
Let us put the truth in place, Auschwitz was beyond doubt a horrible place, but unfortunately it isn’t the ultimate evil, just because evil has neither limit nor scale. But, to be historically accurate, it wasn’t even us who liberated Auschwitz. As it appears, it was Stalin, the other evil. It was Stalin who gave so many Jewish, POWs, political prisoners, gypsies and inmate the chance to see daylight. But again, being a free being in an open society you don’t really have to pay attention to minor historical details.
It would seem that Auschwitz is essential within our righteous western self image. When Iraqi oil is in demand, the American president will equate Saddam with Hitler. Next we will learn that the Iraqi people should be liberated from their ‘Auschwitz’. We already know the inevitable consequences.
Since Auschwitz is so crucial for the American policy makers, it isn’t surprising that not too far from the residency of the American president, there is a big Holocaust museum dedicated to the memory of the Jewish people and their heroic liberators. This museum is not about people or even about crimes against humanity, it is about the maintenance of the illusion of the open society. It is about the maintenance of a very specific narrative. It is all about how we are right, and they, who ever they are, are categorically wrong.
This museum is not really about Jewish suffering. I assume that there will be some basic facts that the museum won’t share with its visitors: for instance, it will not tell the passing crowd that the American government adopted a highly restrictive immigration policy that was never modified between 1933-1944, in order to block Jewish immigration. It will avoid the fact that the American government refused or obstructed German offers of negotiation to remove Jews from Nazi controlled territories. Mostly important, it will hide the clear fact that the US air force was not instructed to disrupt the Nazi killing machine. Neither railways to Auschwitz nor Auschwitz itself was ever bombed neither by the RAF nor by the American Air Force. It seems as if a real murderous negligence was involved in the American decision making on the issue along side the war. For instance, on 20 August 1944, 127 flying fortress escorted by one hundred Mustang fighters successfully dropped their bombs on a factory less than five miles from Auschwitz. Not a single plane was diverted to attack the death camp.
These stories won’t appear in the American Holocaust museum. They simply don’t fit into the heroic and righteous American self image. The history of Auschwitz is in fact a story of brutal Anglo American negligence. The acceptable Auschwitz narrative is basically a myth that is there to support the American expansionist practice. Auschwitz is the moral pillar of the American ideology.
The Holocaust museum is there to tell Americans what may happen when everything goes wrong. As sad as it may sound, in contemporary America everything is going wrong, despite of the museum. The reason is simple, when the image of evil is brewed within your cultural heritage as the discourse of the other, you may as well become blind to the fact that you yourself are already evil. Like their Israeli brothers, the Americans forgot how to look at themselves.
In the case of America, the Holocaust narrative serves the right wing expansionist philosophy. In order to prevent another Auschwitz, the Americans will send their armies to Vietnam, Korea, Iraq. They are always the liberators. Till the end of the cold war, there were communists to fight with, a real concrete evil; but now the evil is becoming more and more abstract. In fact, the only way to materialise the vague enemy is to equate it with Hitler.
Europe’s case is slightly different. As strange as it may sound, in Europe it is the parliamentary left that is capitalising on Auschwitz. As long as Auschwitz is there deeply entrenched within the daily discourse, the right wing can never raise their heads. The European mainstream left is totally dependent on the Holocaust narrative and the Auschwitz tale. As it seems, Auschwitz is the last left barricade against the possibility of right wing revival. In Europe, any sense of national aspiration, or even just a demographic concern that may sound like xenophobia is immediately addressed as an awakening of Nazism. Within this oppressive world view, people are not allowed to express any affection towards their land. Furthermore, being politically dependent on the image of the Jewish innocent victim, the European mainstream left can never fully support the Palestinian cause.
As it may seem, Auschwitz stands as a symbol of partnership between the European parliamentary left and the American expansionist right. For both, Auschwitz stands as an icon of threat against the image of open society, within the prospect of this fatal bond, any European genuine left is destined to be pushed to the margin. Any form of genuine left inspired by red aspirations is doomed to be presented as a subversive and radical outlook. In March 1998, Robin Cook, then the British foreign minister, paid a diplomatic visit to Israel. While there, Cook rightly refused to visit Yad Vashem, claiming that he was concerned with the future rather than with the past. It wasn’t long before Cook lost his job. The refusal to bow to the Auschwitz tale cost Cook his job. It wasn’t the Jews who ousted him out of the foreign ministry. It was the Labour party that kicked him out, a parliamentary European left institute.
So, Auschwitz is there to maintain the myth of open society; it is there to present an illusion of liberated Western identity. As long as Auschwitz is there, in the core of our discourse, we are everything but liberated. There is life after Auschwitz and this life belongs to us. We had better do something with it. If there is something we should never do, then that is taking other people’s lives in the name of Auschwitz. And apparently, this is exactly what we are doing.
GILAD ATZMON was born in Israel and served in the Israeli military. He is the author of the new novel A Guide to the Perplexed. Atzmon is also one of the most accomplished jazz saxophonists in Europe. His recent CD, Exile, was named the year’s best jazz CD by the BBC. He now lives in London and can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org