The jailing of Holocaust denier David Irving in Austria is a reminder of how easy it is to imitate evil even as one excoriates it. The law that convicted Irving is of the sort the Nazis would have invoked, albeit for far different purposes, and was a routine offense in Orwell’s 1984.
Many fail to see this irony because they are engaged in the greatest Holocaust denial of all: a refusal to look seriously at why there was a Holocaust in the first place. To blame it all on anti-Semitism is as dangerously ahistorical as to deny its existence. Yes, Jews were the victims, but why did an ancient and widespread prejudice produce such an extreme result in this case?
We avoid this question because it takes us places we don’t want to go. Like the role of modern bureaucracy and technology in the magnification of evil. Like the commingling of corporate and state interests in a way the world had never seen before. Like the failure of Germany’s liberal elite to stand effectively against wrong eerily echoed today in the failure of America’s liberal elite to do likewise.
Some of the most important lessons of the Holocaust are simply missed. Among these, as Richard Rubenstein has pointed out, is that it could only have been carried out by “an advanced political community with a highly trained, tightly disciplined police and civil service bureaucracy.
In The Cunning of History, Rubenstein also finds uncomfortable parallels between the Nazis and their opponents. For example, a Hungarian Jewish emissary meets with Lord Moyne, the British High Commissioner in Egypt in 1944 and suggests that the Nazis might be willing to save one million Hungarian Jews in return for military supplies. Lord Moyne,s reply: “What shall I do with those million Jews? Where shall I put them? Writes Rubenstein: “The British government was by no means adverse to the final solution, as long as the Germans did most of the work. ” For both countries, it had become a bureaucratic problem, one that Rubenstein suggests we understand “as the expression of some of the most profound tendencies of Western civilization in the 20th century.
How many school children are taught that, worldwide, wars in the past century killed over 100 million people? In World War I alone, the death toll was around ten million. Much of this, including the Holocaust, was driven by a culture of modernity that so changed the power of institutions over the individual that the latter would become what Erich Fromm called homo mechanicus, “attracted to all that is mechanical and inclined against all that is alive. Becoming, in fact, a part of the machinery — willing to kill or to die just to keep it running.
Thus, with Auschwitzlike efficiency, over 6,000 people perished every day during World War I for 1,500 days. Rubenstein recounts that on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, the British lost 60,000 men and half of the officers assigned to them. But the bureaucratic internal logic of the war did not falter at all; over the next six months, more than a million British, French and German soldiers would lose their lives. The total British advance: six miles. No one in that war was a person anymore. The seeds of the Holocaust can thus be found in the trenches of World War I. Individuals had became no better than the bullets that killed them, just part of the expendable arsenal of the state.
But we don’t talk about this do we? We don’t teach our children about it, do we?
The problem with using the outcome rather than the origins of the Holocaust as our metaphor and our message is that we are totally unprepared for those practices, laws, and arguments that can produce similar outcomes. We study the death chambers when we should be learning about the birth places.
SAM SMITH is the editor of the Progressive Review.