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Right and wrong lessons to draw from the Holocaust

Gilbert Achcar

Never again

Gilbert Achcar, MEMO

For a person of Jewish descent, there are two ways of drawing lessons from the Nazi genocide of the European Jews: one leads to saying “Never again to us, the Jews”; the other “Never again” tout court.

The former conclusion stems from a narrow ethnic outlook, reversing the Nazi perspective by taking the side of “the Jews” against the rest of the world. In both cases, “the Jews” are singled out as a particular group of people with extraordinary features: whereas the Nazis saw them as the embodiment of evil to the point of trying to annihilate them, the holders of the Jewish ethnocentric perspective believe that the defence of “Jewish” interests – which like all brands of collective interest, whether national or class or whatever, is a hotly disputed notion, with rare occasional unanimity on what it could mean – is a value superseding all others. In the name of this defence, they end up denying the humanity of the victims of Israel, the purported “State of the Jews”, just as most oppressors throughout history have denied their victims’ humanity.

The latter conclusion – “Never again” tout court – is the only true repudiation of the Nazi Weltanschauung; not its symmetric reversal, but a radical rejection of all its underlying assumptions. It implies awareness that what happened to the Jews happened in different forms and on different scales to different people throughout history, and will happen again and again as long as ideologies of racial and ethnic superiority and hatred find their way to embodiment in superior armed force. However particularly appalling the Nazi genocide of the Jews was, it is part of a long series of genocides, which sadly continued after the end of the Second World War. Therefore, the lessons from Auschwitz must be understood from a radically anti-nationalistic, anti-racialist and anti-ethnocentric perspective, as a tragic illustration of the necessity of upholding staunchly the values of liberty, equality and humanism in the fight against all forms of collective and individual oppression.

Likewise, for a person who was enrolled in the Nazi enterprise at any point between 1933 and 1945, or for a descendant of a Nazi parent, or for any German or Austrian – since popular majorities in the two countries subscribed to the Nazi perspective until Hitler’s defeat – there are the same two ways of drawing lessons from the Nazi genocide of the European Jews.

“Never again for the Jews” stems from a sense of guilt towards the specific victims of the Nazis, without a clear repudiation of the generic dimension of their crime and ideology. Thus, it reverses the Nazi perspective in taking the side of “the Jews” against their enemies, whoever and wherever they may be. Anti-Semitism is thus replaced with “philosemitism”. As the historian of anti-Semitism, Eleonore Sterling, whose parents were murdered in a concentration camp during the Second World War, put it very aptly in Die Zeit twenty years after the end of the war:

“Antisemitism [sic] and the more recent idolization of the Jews have a good deal in common. Both are symptomatic of a sort of hypothermia of complex human relationships and derive from a mental incapacity truly to respect the ‘other’. Jews remain foreigners for anti-Semites and philosemites alike.” (1)

Whereas the Nazis saw “the Jews” as the embodiment of evil, the German holders of the philosemitic perspective believe that the defence of “the Jews” – whom they see represented in the State of Israel, notwithstanding the fact that this representation is highly contested by a vast number of people of Jewish descent – is a duty superseding all others. In the name of this duty, they end up supporting the oppressive acts committed by Israel’s government against the Palestinian people, and applaud the provision of the Israeli state with means of mass annihilation. They do so moreover at a time when Israel’s government is dominated by forces which the founders of the State of Israel themselves did not hesitate to label as fascists; nay to compare to Nazis, however outrageous such comparisons may be. (2)

On the latter conclusion – “Never again” tout court – Germans join persons of Jewish descent and indeed any human being who regards this principle as superseding all national, ethnic or “racial” groups, in a common fight for universal humanistic values. Upholders of such values, on the other hand, whether Germans or Jews or to whatever ethnicity they belong (or are seen to belong), believe that their supreme moral duty is to fight against the core exclusivist and nationalistic set of views that characterized Nazism, and to warn against any project of inflicting a collective punishment on any people in the name of defending another; be it “the Jewish people” or any other.

Günter Grass chose this latter path, rather belatedly as he himself recognised. The massive outcry from those who attacked him in Germany for expressing elementary truths about the responsibility that the German state is incurring for the possible perpetration of an act of mass destruction by the Israeli state, through its military support for the latter’s nuclear strike capability, only shows that there is still a long way to go before all Germans assimilate correctly and fully the lessons of their terrible recent past.


(1) Eleonore Sterling, „Judenfreunde – Judenfeinde. Fragwürdiger Philosemitismus in der Bundesrepublik”, Die Zeit, n° 50, 10 December 1965 – available on the Internet here .
(2) See for example David Ben-Gurion’s opinion on Menachem Begin, the founder of Likud, presently the ruling party in Israel, as related in Tom Segev’s excellent The Seventh Million. The Israelis and the Holocaust [published by Henry Holt/Picador].

Gilbert Achcar is Professor of  Development Studies and International Relations and Chair of the Centre for Palestine Studies (CPS)at the School of Oriental and African Studies , University of London. His most recent book is the highly praised ‘The Arabs and the Holocaust: The Arab-Israeli War of Narratives ‘ published by Saqi, 2010.

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