Global Affairs

The Holocaust as political prop

The latest attempt by Israel's Prime Minister to politicise genocide dishonours him and those who died.

LONDON • The Holocaust, the mass extermination of six million Jews by Nazi Germany during World War II, is regarded as such a heinous, vile crime that in many countries, those who question whether it ever took place are liable to prosecution and lengthy jail sentences.

However, that has not prevented the Holocaust from being used and often abused as a propaganda weapon by generations of politicians throughout the world. And this dubious practice even extends to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who recently had to be rebuked by none other than the government of Germany for attempting to reinterpret the Holocaust to suit his own purposes.

The extraordinary sight of the leader of the Jewish state being called to order for failing to be factually accurate about one of the most horrific episodes ever to have befallen his people is a good example of what should by now be self-evident: that few traps are more treacherous for politicians than the temptation to use history in order to justify their current actions, and no trap is bigger or more dangerous than that of using the Holocaust as a political prop.


The political abuse of the Holocaust started almost immediately after the troops of the Allied nations, which defeated Adolf Hitler's Germany, liberated the Nazi extermination and concentration camps almost exactly 75 years ago this year.


But the first attempts to misuse the Holocaust were more sins of omission rather than commission, efforts to cover up inconvenient facts by pretending that the Nazis, and they alone, were responsible for the erection of the gas chambers and crematoria, for elevating mass murder to the status of an industry.

In narrow practical terms, that was, of course, true: the "Final Solution" and the entire infrastructure of murder was conceived, constructed and controlled by Nazi Germany. But many of the Jews were sent to their deaths by Germany's other willing European collaborators.

It was only with the end of the Cold War and the collapse of communist regimes in Eastern Europe, a full 40 years after the Holocaust, that the nations of all Europe fully came to terms with their own, albeit partial moral responsibility for mass murder; until then, they had spent decades suffering from a "selective amnesia" of history.

Conspiracy theorists and a variety of pseudo-historians who claimed that the Holocaust never happened, that Hitler supposedly never authorised the murder of Jews because no order paper to that effect bearing his signature was ever found, or that "only" a "million or two" Jews were murdered, have cropped up periodically since the end of World War II.

But they were rightly dismissed for what they were: either malevolent individuals seeking to cloak their own anti-Semitic prejudices in the language of "historic research", or just crackpots.

Still, as time went by and the initial pain and shock of the Holocaust subsided, the event returned to being used as a political pawn by politicians and governments. Some of the attempted uses of the Holocaust were from the best of intentions: a desire of other nations to highlight their own suffering, alongside that of the Jews.

That was the case with Ukraine's so-called Holodomor (a composite, invented Ukrainian word which means "hunger" and "plague"), the man-made famine which Josef Stalin, the Soviet leader, imposed on Ukraine during the 1930s with the deliberate intent of destroying the Ukrainian nation. The number of people who perished is disputed, but a High Court in Ukraine concluded in 2010 that an estimated 3.1 million died as a direct result of the famine, with a further six million Ukrainians succumbing to various diseases thereafter.

Since Ukraine regained its independence in 1991, its leaders have often tried to equate the Holodomor with the Holocaust, not because they wished to belittle the Jews' suffering, but because they wanted the world to comprehend the enormity of Ukraine's own disaster, which took place more or less at the same time. The Armenians, who may have lost up to 1.5 million people in a series of massacres organised by the Turkish authorities exactly a century ago this year, have also attempted to equate their suffering to the Holocaust, for similar reasons.


But other politicians had more malign intentions in using the Holocaust's memory. The most recent example of this is Mr Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who served as President of Iran until 2013, and who specialised in claiming in public that the Holocaust was nowhere near as big as alleged and that, if Europeans wanted to "atone" for their past deeds, they should have created Israel in Europe.

However offensive Mr Ahmadinejad's comments sounded and however counter-productive they were for the reputation of Iran, they served clear political purposes. For the belief that Jews deliberately exaggerated the numbers killed in the Holocaust in order to get Western support for the creation of Israel is shared by large numbers of people in the Middle East. So is the idea that, as the Europeans were responsible for murdering Jews, they should have created Israel on their continent, rather than carve up a piece of the Middle East as a "compensation".

Historically, this is nonsense. Zionism, the nationalist movement which led to the creation of a Jewish state, based its claim on the Bible, and identified Israel as the only home during the 19th century, well before the Holocaust. True, large numbers migrated from Europe after World War II. But just as many Jews came from neighbouring Arab countries, where no Holocaust took place. And finally, the West did not "create" Israel.

Britain, the colonial power, opposed Israel's establishment right until the last possible day, and even the Americans were initially undecided about the need for the Jewish state.

One would have assumed that, with Mr Ahmadinejad now happily forgotten, the temptation to misuse the Holocaust would be largely over.

But to everyone's surprise, it was none other than Mr Netanyahu, the Prime Minister of Israel, who recently engaged in the same reprehensible, manipulative practice.

Addressing a worldwide conference of Jewish community representatives, he made the claim that Hitler did not initially "want to exterminate the Jews" but "merely to expel them", and that it was a Palestinian religious leader, Mr Hajj Amin al Husseini, the Mufti of Jerusalem, who met Hitler in December 1941 and urged him to "burn the Jews".

Like Mr Ahmadinejad's hallucinations, Mr Netanyahu's claims are nonsense.

Nazi troops were already shooting Jews throughout Europe well before 1941, and Hitler hardly needed encouragement from a Palestinian to embark on mass murder. But it's clear what Mr Netanyahu sought to achieve with his claim: to infer that Palestinians are the source of the destruction of Jews and cannot, therefore, be partners for a peace deal in the Middle East.

It was, as the respected Holocaust Professor Christopher Browning put it, a "shameful and indecent" attempt by the Israeli Prime Minister to delegitimise the Palestinians' entitlement to their own state.

And so, it fell to the Germans to do what nobody ever thought likely: rebuke an Israeli Prime Minister on the subject of the Holocaust. Characteristically, the Germans did this with tact, grace and humility: "We know that responsibility for this crime against humanity is German, and very much our own", read a statement from Chancellor Angela Merkel. Few phrases were so curt, and yet so stinging.

Still, some good may come from this bizarre episode. For it is right and proper for people to constantly research and even reinterpret the Holocaust.

It is also right to set the Nazi genocide as part of wider destructive movements such as racial hatred and xenophobia, as relevant today as they were in the past.

In this case, therefore, history cannot be left entirely to historians. But politicising genocide is not only an insult to the memory of those killed in the Holocaust; it also brings disgrace to those trying to do it.

The only people who emerge with full honour from this are the leaders of modern Germany, who accepted that their predecessors were the culprits, drew the necessary lessons and refused to veer from these conclusions since then.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 02, 2015, with the headline 'The Holocaust as political prop'. Print Edition | Subscribe