Link between Holocaust and founding of Israel is weak says eminent scholar
Yehuda Bauer (born 1926) is a historian and scholar of the Holocaust. He is a Professor of Holocaust Studies at the Avraham Harman Institute of Contemporary Jewry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He was the founding editor of the Journal for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, and served on the editorial board of the Encyclopaedia (of the Holocaust), published by Yad Vashem in 1990. He was awarded the Israel prize in 1998. Click the link below to acess his 25 minute discussion
As tensions grow between ultra-Orthodox Jews and the Israeli state, the scholar discusses Jewish identity and extremism.
Talk to Al Jazeera
When ultra-Orthodox Jewish protesters recently clashed with Israeli government officials over gender segregation in public places, many of the demonstrators played on a link between Israel and Nazism by dressing up as Nazi concentration camp inmates.
Such clashes have become more frequent in recent years, as ultra-Orthodox Jews, who make up 10 per cent of the country’s population, are said to be growing increasingly aggressive in their attempts to impose their conservative ways on others. So is the religious divide in Israel growing? And is there a link between the Holocaust and the existence of the state of Israel?
Earlier last year, before the recent demonstrations, Talk to Al Jazeera met Yehuda Bauer, a prominent Holocaust scholar at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, who says that the foundation of the state of Israel and its link to the Holocaust is weak. In fact, he says, the Holocaust almost prevented the establishment of the state by destroying much of the population the Zionist movement had expected to move to Israel.
On the question of how to achieve peace with the Palestinians as Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, stands firm on his demand that the Palestinians must recognise Israel as a Jewish state, Bauer says: “I think that is proof of his [Netanyahu’s] internal insecurity. If you are secure in your Jewish identity you do not need Abu Mazen or Saeb Erekat to tell you that you are a Jew. Do they need me to fortify their belief that they are Palestinian?”
Bauer believes Palestinians and all other minorities living on Israeli soil should be given equal rights to Israelis, because a national state “should grant absolutely equal rights, not just formal rights, to the minorities that are within it”.
On this episode of Talk to Al Jazeera, Yehuda Bauer talks to Teymoor Nabili about being a historian in a region where there are as many versions of history as there are people telling them, Jewish identity and extremism and navigating between conservative Jews and Palestinians.
“There is a certain closeness in attitudes, in outlooks, in social psychology …. We are cousins. Cousins very often quarrel in a very unpleasant way, but I think that we could arrive at an arrangement where live and let live could become a viable option – it is not now, obviously, but it could become that. There is a danger of a violent Jewish radical, genocidal nationalism with a minority of Israeli Jews. There is such a minority, it’s very dangerous, I think we have to exert great pressure on these people to limit that, and finally to conquer it. This group of radical Jewish nationalists, genocidal radical Jewish nationalists, are a mirror image of radical Islam that wants to annihilate all the Jews in the world. But on both sides there is a danger. Here it is a minority, but that could change ….”
This address was given before the German Bundestag on the Day of Remembrance for the Victims of National Socialism, January 27, 1998.
Yehuda Bauer, Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism (SICSA)
On January 27, 1945 the Soviet Army conquered the Auschwitz complex of camps. Still, less than 7,000 people were liberated, of which the majority were ailing people whose lives had been spared by the S.S. The other 58,000 had left a few days earlier on the Death March.
Those on the Death March were followed, during the four months leading to the end of the war, by many hundreds of thousands from almost all of the concentration camps, marking the last spastic and endlessly brutal impact of the cruelest regime that the world has ever seen. On January 27, the horror was still not over by far, though of course Auschwitz was no longer in the hands of the murderers.
Have we learnt anything? People seldom learn from history, and the history of the Nazi regime constitutes no exception. We have failed, as well, to understand the general context. In our schools we still teach, for example, about Napoleon and about how he won the battle of Austerlitz. Did he win it all on his own? Maybe somebody assisted him in this? A few thousand soldiers, perhaps? And, what happened to the families of the fallen soldiers, to the wounded on all sides, to the villagers whose villages had been destroyed, to the women who had been raped, to the goods and possessions that had been looted? We are still teaching about the generals, about the politicians, and about the philosophers. We are avoiding the recognition of the dark side of history — the mass murders, the agony, the suffering that is shouting into our faces from the whole of history. We do not hear the wailing of Clio. We still fail to grasp that we will never be able to fight against our tendency toward reciprocal annihilation if we do not study it and teach it and if we do not face the fact that humans are the only mammals that are capable of annihilating their own kind.
The Bloody Twentieth Century
The American sociologist Rudolph Rummel arrived at the conclusion that between the years 1900 and 1987, 169 million civilians were murdered by governments and by government- like organizations, apart from the 34 million fallen soldiers. Who committed those crimes? Mainly non-democratic regimes. Even though demo- cracies committed crimes as well, those were responsible for only a fraction of one percent of the number of civilian victims.
These statistics are only partially useful. Actually, they do not reveal the tragedy but cover it up. We do know that it is people who were tortured and murdered, not statistics — but it happened to an impossibly vast number of people who were just the likes of you and me.
The war which was instigated by National-Socialist Germany, mainly for ideological reasons, cost the lives of about 49 million people, most of whom were civilians. If we adopt the United Nations’ definition of genocide, then what happened to the Polish nation and to the “Roma,” called by others “Gypsies,” was indeed genocide. The Polish nation as such was to have disappeared; this was accompanied by mass murders. Polish intellectuals had become the target for annihilation. Universities and schools were shut down; the ranks of the clergy were decimated; all the important businesses were confiscated, and children of Polish families were deported to Germany in order to undergo “germanization.” The Sinti and the Roma of Germany were to have disappeared by means of mass murder and by means of sterilization. Nomadic Roma were supposed to be murdered wherever they were in Europe (those of whom were “settled,” as it was termed, would be tolerated). Millions of Russians and other Soviet peoples — as well as Western Europeans, Italians, Balkan peoples and even Germans — became victims of the regime.
Why, then? I think that one has to be clear that a radical revolution had been planned — a mutiny against everything that had been before. It was not a new order of social classes, of religions, or even of nations that was envisioned, but a completely new hierarchy — one constructed of “races” — in which the one invented “master race” not only had the right, but the duty, to master the others and to enslave or to murder all those it considered different from itself. This was a universal ideology: “Today Germany belongs to us and tomorrow the entire world,” as the Nazi song had it.
How was it possible for a people of culture that lived in the midst of Europe, and which had developed one of the greatest civilizations ever, to subscribe to such an ideology, to go to a war of annihilation because of it, and to stick to it until the very bitter end? That was not only terror; it was a consensus based on a promise of a wonderful utopia — an idyllic world — governing a single people’s community, devoid of friction, without political parties, without democracy, one to be served by slaves. In order to achieve such a goal, it was necessary to revolt against everything that had been before: middle-class and Judeo-Christian morality, individual freedom, humanitarianism — the whole package of the French Revolution and the Enlightenment in general. National-Socialism was, in fact, the most radical revolution that had ever taken place — a mutiny against that which was, up until then, thought of as humane.
The nucleus of the strategy of annihilation of anybody thought of as different was the Holocaust, the plan for total annihilation of the Jewish people and the murder of all the Jews the murderers could lay their hands on. And the most horrible thing about the Shoah is, actually, not that the Nazis were inhuman — the most horrible thing about it is that they were indeed human, just as you and I. When we claim that they were different from us and that we can sleep in peace since the Nazis were devils and we ourselves are not devils because we are not Nazis, that is sheer cheap escapism. Escapism of the same cheap kind is when we say that the Germans were somehow genetically programmed to execute such mass murders. Since most people are not Germans, many tend to think that whatever happened then can never be repeated by anyone else and that it can happen only in Germany. This is reverse racism.
The Holocaust’s Singularity
All this happened almost sixty years ago. One would have thought that the famous bottom line should have been drawn long ago, that the interest in this specific genocide would have slowly petered away. Yet the opposite is the case: hardly a week goes by without a new book being published somewhere in the world, or memoirs, or a novel, or a scientific debate, without plays being staged, without poetry appearing, without television films, or other movies being released, and the like. Quite a lot of it might be kitsch, but a lot of it is of value. Again, it is necessary to ask why — why is the Holocaust the central issue, and not Cambodia or the Tutsi or Bosnia or the Armenians or the natives of North America?
I am not at all sure whether my answer to this central question is better than any other but I would, nonetheless, like to present it. I do not think the sadism and the brutality with which the victims were maltreated offers an explanation, because suffering, agony, and torment cannot be graded. I have published, in English, the testimony of a Sinti woman who lost her husband and who saw her own three children die in front of her very eyes. How is it possible to compare this with the tragedy of a Jew, or of a Russian peasant, or of a Tutsi, or of a Cambodian Khmer? It is, surely, impossible to say one mass murder is better or worse than another, that the suffering of one person is greater or less than that of another. Such a statement would be repulsive. If so, is it the brutality and the sadism that makes the Holocaust so singular? Indeed, National-Socialist Germany enriched this tragic repertory in an extraordinary manner, but brutality was no novelty in history. Is the distinguishing factor possibly the fact of it having been a state-initiated mass murder carried out with the aid of modern technologies and bureaucratic thoroughness? I do not think so. The genocide of the Armenians was carried out with the aid of the then-available technological and bureaucratic tools, and the Nazis themselves carried out their crimes against the Poles and against the Roma with the aid of the same means that they used against the Jews.
No, I think the answer lies elsewhere. You see, for the first time in the whole of history, people descended from three or four of a particular kind of grandparent — in this case Jewish — were condemned to death just for being born. This, the mere fact of their having been born, was by itself their deadly crime that had to be avenged by execution. This has never happened before, anywhere. Secondly, anybody of Jewish descent was to be caught wherever in the world Nazi Germany exercised influence, be it directly or through allies, which means all over the world, a world that tomorrow would belong to “us.” The murder of Jews was not directed against the Jews of Germany or the Jews of Poland or even the Jews of Europe, but against all the 17 million Jews scattered throughout the entire world in 1939. All other cases of genocide had been perpetrated on definite territories — though they sometimes may have been very wide — whereas the murder of the Jews was construed to be universal. Third, we must examine the National-Socialist ideology. Numerous colleagues of mine have analyzed the structure of Nazism, its bureaucracy, the day-to-day character of the murder apparatus. All this is surely correct, but why did the bureaucrats, who were shipping German school children by train to summer camps, and Jews by train to death camps with the same administrative means, do the latter? Why murder all the Jews that could be found and not, let us say, all the green-eyed people that could be found? To try and explain this away by looking at the social structures — though they may have been very important — is something I can not accept.
An Ideology Based on Fantasy
The motivation was ideological. The racist/ antisemitic ideology was the rational out- come of an irrational approach, an approach that was a cancer-like mutation of the Christian anti- semitic ideology that had sullied Christian-Jewish relations throughout their two millennia of existence. Nazi antisemitism was pure ideology which had minimal relation to reality: the Jews were accused of a worldwide conspiracy — an idea stemming from the Jew-hatred of the Middle Ages, whereas in reality Jews were not capable of achieving unity, not even on a partial basis. Between you and me, they are still not capable of it now. There existed indeed a conspiracy, but it was not by the Jews but by the National Socialists.
The Jews were accused of being revolutionary agitators as well as capitalists, which means that all the various phobias were reduced to one single denominator. Naturally, most of the Jews belonged to neither of these categories, but were lower- or middle-class people. They did not possess territories nor did they command military might, nor did they control any national economy, if only because they did not constituan entity, but observed their tradition, as individuals, in mutually contradictory interpretations, within the framework of small religious/ethnic communities. When secular or atheistic, they did not even belong to communities.
In all the other cases of genocide known to us, the motivation was, somehow, realistic, like in the case of the murder of the Armenians, where there was a nationalistic motivation, or in the case of Rwanda, where there is a deadly conflict over power and territory. In the case of the Shoah, the ideology at the base of the genocide was, for the first time in history, pure fantasy.
One can add a fourth element to the unprecedented characteristics of the Holocaust: The Nazis may not have invented the con- centration camp, but they surely brought it to a totally new stage of development. Not only the murder and the suffering in those camps should occupy our minds, but also the elevated level to which they brought the art of humiliation through the control they exercised over people through their physiological needs. This is without precedent in human history. True, this was not perpetrated against the Jews alone, but Jews were the ones positioned on the lowest rung of that Hell. What the Nazis achieved by that was not the dehumanization of the Jews, but the dehumanization of themselves — as, by doing so, they positioned themselves on the lowermost possible rung of humanity.
What did the Nazis leave behind? Where are their literary, their artistic, their architectural, their philosophical achievements? The Nazi Reich dissolved into nothingness. It left only one memorial: the ruins of the concentration camps and, crowning it, the only great achievement of Nazism — Auschwitz and the mass murder.
It is this lack of precedent, so characteristic of the Holocaust, I think, that is beginning to be understood all over the world. A very special case of genocide took place here — total, global, purely ideological. It might be repeated. Certainly not in the exact same form, but possibly in a similar, maybe even very similar manner, and there is no way of determining who will be the Jews and who the Germans might be the next time.
This menace is universal and at the same time — as it is founded on the experience of the Holocaust — very specifically connected with the Jews. The specific and the universal cannot be separated. It is indeed the extreme character of the Holocaust that allows it to be compared with other cases of genocide and to be presented as a warning. It has, indeed, been already copied — not in the same form, but in similar forms. Should the warning be ignored? Should the Holocaust serve as precedent for others who would like to inflict the same onto yet others?
How then, could it have happened? I think that one must look at that ancient tradition included in the book that stems from my ancestors. In that book it is written that mankind has the choice between Good and Evil, between life and death. This means, at the same time, that mankind is capable of both, that both exist within the self — both God and the devil. Expressed in a more modern fashion: that the urge for life and the wish for death — our own or that of others, is inside of us. Under certain conditions we might become Eichmann, or rescuers.
Germany then: we are not discussing guilt here; we are talking about the responsibility towards the future of a culture within which this monster could have developed. Because “death was a master from Germany” — although the Jews were never enemies of the Germans or of Germany. Quite the opposite. German Jews were always proud of how much good they had achieved for German civilization.
So how can the Nazi regime be explained? I think that there was a pseudo-intellectual elite who took over power in Germany, and it did so not because the masses supported their potentially genocidal ideology, but because there was a situation of grave crisis, within which the potentially genocidal layer of leaders offered a way out, in the form of a wonderful utopia. The determining factor was that the layer of intellectuals — the academicians, the teachers, the students, the bureaucrats, the doctors, the lawyers, the churchmen, the engineers — joined the Nazi party because it promised them a future and status. Through the fast-growing identification of the intellectual layers with the regime, it became possible to have the genocide easily presented as an unavoidable step towards the achievement of a utopian future. When Herr Doctor, Herr Professor, Herr Director, Herr Priest or Pastor, Herr Engineer became collaborators with genocide, when a consensus evolved, led by the semi-mythological figure of the dictator, it became easy to convince the masses and to recruit them to carry out the murders.
Something similar could happen elsewhere as well, but in Germany, where at least part of the elite had absorbed a radical antisemitism and on top of it a general racist ideology during the nineteenth century, it proved easier for the genocidal Nazi layer of leaders to turn the majority of German society into accomplices. The major role in this was played by the universities, the academics. I keep returning to the question of whether we have indeed learnt anything, whether we do not still keep producing technically competent barbarians in our universities.
And what about the churches? The Holocaust has brought to light a profound crisis in Christianity. 1900 years after the Christian messiah spread the gospel of love, his own people were murdered by baptized heathens. The churches, insofar as they did not collaborate, kept their silence.
On the other hand, one definitely cannot say that within German society a radical antisemitic norm had prevailed. There was, though, a general queasiness regarding the Jews, even among the non-antisemitic or even anti-antisemitic mass movements of the social-democrats, the communists, and the Catholic Center that constituted the majority of the German voting population up to the end of 1932. This queasiness made it practically impossible for a general protest against the murder of Jews to develop. It was not as if the dictatorship was so fully totalitarian as to make protest movements impossible at all. This was proven not only by the opposition to the murder of German handicapped that brought about the stoppage, in August 1941, of the so-called euthanasia, at least partially, but also the demonstration of the German women in the Rosenstrasse in Berlin, in February 1943, which led to the freeing of their Jewish husbands. The fragility of the famous German-Jewish symbiosis came to light through the fact that a mass movement for the protection of the Jewish minority, which was at the least unpopular, was totally outside the sphere of possibilities.
It seems to me that yet another factor is involved. European culture is composed of two pillars: Athens and Rome on the one side and Jerusalem on the other side. An ordinary citizen of two hundred years ago, if he owned any book at all, it would probably be the Christian Bible, which, as we all know is composed of two parts — the Old Testament and the New Testament. Both were written mainly by Jews.
Greek and Roman literature, law, art, and philosophy are and surely have been as important as the prophets and the moral commandments of the Jewish Bible. Still, modern Italians and modern Greeks do not use the same languages anymore, do not worship the same gods, do not create the same kinds of art, do not write the same kinds of literature as in ages past. Different peoples live there now. But my granddaughter reads what was written 3000 years ago, in the original, needing no dictionary. Try this out with “Walter von der Vogelweide” — and this was written only a few hundred years ago.
When the Nazis wanted to carry out their rebellion against Western culture, was it not the Jews, those still living reminders of the source of that culture, whom they had to annihilate? The Jews, whether they want it or not, are a central component of Western self-perception. This is spread all over the world by means of so-called Western civilization, as well as by means popular kitsch culture — which also originates in the West.
There is an Auschwitz museum in a suburb of Hiroshima. Holocaust literature is read in South America. The Holocaust has assumed the role of universal symbol for all evil because it presents the most extreme form of genocide, because it contains elements that are without precedent, because that tragedy was a Jewish one, and because the Jews — although they are neither better nor worse than others and their sufferings were neither greater nor less than those of others — represent one of the nuclei of modern civilization.
The Historian as Storyteller
The way I see it, a historian is one who not only analyzes history but also tells true stories. So let me tell you some. In Radom in Poland there lived a woman with two sons. Her husband had gone to Palestine in 1939 for the purpose of preparing the immigration there of his entire family. The war broke the family apart. The husband became a Palestinian citizen and tried to save his family by exchanging them for German settlers in Palestine.
In October 1942, when the woman was already familiar with what awaited her and her children, a Gestapo man summoned her to his headquarters and told her she was going to be exchanged. Within one hour she was supposed to turn up with her two sons at his office. Yes, said the woman, but my elder son is working outside of the ghetto, asking the man how she was supposed to summon her son. This was none of his business, said the Gestapo man, they had to show up in one hour. And if not? The woman was desperate. Should she and her younger son share the fate of her first-born? Or should she at least save herself and her younger son? At that moment her neighbor approached her and said: Look, you cannot save your son. Why, then, don’t you take my son in his stead? My son is of the same age as your elder. Shocked and in tears, the woman showed up at the Gestapo headquarters with two boys. On November 11, 1942 she arrived in Haifa. The two boys became, in time, prominent Israeli citizens, with children and grandchildren.
The woman spoke little after that. She was a proud person and would not live supported by the pity of others. Until the end of her life she ran a small stall opposite the great synagogue on Allenby Street in Tel Aviv. It was said she was a survivor of the Holocaust. Had she really survived? I am not sure.
The Holocaust, and also all other horrible things that the National Socialists perpetrated, shows not only the evil that Humankind is capable of, but also — at the margin, so to speak — the opposite, the good. Oscar Schindler has become a controversial figure, through the well-known movie. But look, when you strip off the myth, something does remain. Schindler was not only a member of the Party, he had been a spy as well, a womanizer, an alcoholic, and a ruthless exploiter and liar. There are few people to be found on whom you could pin more negative characterizations. And yet he saved the lives of more than a thousand people, while risking his own safety. He personally carried severely sick and dying Jewish slave laborers from a freezing train in order to try to save their lives. He did not have to do that, but he did. He went to Budapest to warn the Jews there about the Holocaust. He did not have to do it, but he did. Why, then? Because he was a human being — as bad as he was, so good was he.
His story shows that one could, even as a German, even as a member of the Party, behave in a different way. Schindler and the likes of him, like Otto Busse in Bialystok, who supplied the Jewish resistance with weapons, show us that it was possible to save. The deeds of these people prove, on the one hand, the guilt of the others, but also show, on the other hand, that hope is not lost.
You see, there is the story of Maczek. Actually his name is Mordechai. His name is the only thing that he knows about himself. Before the war, at the age of three, he had been handed over by his mother to a Jewish orphanage in Lodz. This is what he was later told. Then came the war and he was raised in Krakow by a Polish woman by the name of Anna Pawlowa. Naturally he thought she was his mother.
At the age of six, while playing on the street, he was hit by accident by a car full of German soldiers. The soldiers wanted to take him to the hospital but Anna opposed it with all her might. She knew he would be murdered instantly if it was found out that he had been circumcised.
Then the war was over and a woman presented herself at Anna’s. Anna told Maczek that this woman was his mother. Both women took the boy and put him in a Jewish orphanage in Lodz. The mother disappeared, never to be seen again. Maczek was brought to Israel. Anna, who had saved him, passed away shortly thereafter. Maczek does not know till this very day who he is. All he knows is that a Polish woman saved his life because she loved him — a Jewish boy orphan.
There were the Annas and the Schindlers, but they were few, very few. Most were like in the next story. I do not know if the story is true or not, but here is how it goes: An S.S. man told a Jewish woman that he would spare her life if she guessed which of his two eyes was of glass and which one was live. Without hesitating, the woman pointed at one of the eyes and said: “this is the glass eye.” “Correct” said the S.S. man, “but how did you find out?” Answered the woman: “Because it looked more human than the other.”
What Have We Learnt?
I then return to the question of whether we have learnt anything. Pretty little, so it seems to me. But hope still persists, even with the traumatized people to which I belong. You, Ladies and Gentlemen, just like members of other democratic parliaments, carry a very special responsibility — especially as Europeans, especially as Germans.
I do not have to tell you that what happened in Rwanda or in Bosnia, happened right next door. To be reminded, as a consequence, of the Holocaust, constitutes only a first step. To teach and to study about the Holocaust and everything that transpired during the Second World War and after concerning racism, antisemitism, and xeno- phobia — that constitutes the next responsibility. We Germans and Jews depend on each other in this. You can not perform, without us, the task of remembering, and we must be sure that here, from where the disaster came, an old-new, humane and better civilization is being constructed, on the ruins of the past. We both, together, carry a very special responsibility towards the whole of humanity.
There might be one further step. In the book of which I spoke before, are the Ten Commandments. Maybe we should add three additional ones: “you, your children and your childrens’ children, shall never become perpetrators”; “you, your children and your childrens’ children, shall never ever allow yourselves to become victims”; and “you, your children and your childrens’ children, shall never, but never, ever, be passive onlookers to mass murder, genocide, or (let us hope it may never be repeated) to a Holocaust-like tragedy.