In The House of the Dead the late historian Tony Judt explains how the Holocaust is the formative and foundational event of modern Europe. The unimaginable horrors of the Nazi death pits, death camps and death marches haunted the continent for the next 60 years in unpredictable and unmistakable ways.
Twelve years on, even Judt would probably be surprised by Benjamin Netanyahu hijacking the six million victims of the Holocaust for short-term political expediency.
In a speech on Tuesday, the Israeli Prime Minister argued that Hitler had no plans for the Final Solution until he was persuaded by an Arab cleric called Haj Amin al-Hussein, who – concerned about the growing number of Jewish settlers in what was then the British protectorate of Palestine – suggested the Nazi leader should “burn them”.
This is such an egregious act of historical revisionism that, were he to repeat this claim as he visits Germany, Netanyahu could be liable to arrest and prosecution. Under the German code of incitement anyone who "denies or downplays" the role of Nazism in the holocaust can face a prison term of up to five years.
For the avoidance of all doubt, there is no evidence that the Grand Mufti had any impact in Hitler’s long held hatred of Jews, or his plans to eradicate them and other native populations. For the best account of Hitler’s racist imperial vision, Tim Snyder’s recently published book, Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning, shows the ideological foundations to Nazism were neo-Darwinian theories of racial competition.
The ultimate goal of all of Hitler’s policies was the extermination of all the "subhumans" to the east to create "Lebensraum", or living space for pure German Aryans in a new Reich. The Jews, because of their cross-border ubiquity, were the first targets of Nazi ferocity (after homosexuals and the physically handicapped), as they embodied in their ideology all the diseases of modernity, from modern art and psychiatry, to Bolshevism and Capitalism. But they weren’t alone. The Nazi’s killed an even higher proportion of Central Europe’s Roma population, and had the invasion of Russia succeeded, they had plans to starve most the Slavs under occupation to death.
Of course, Netanyhu’s revisionism has nothing to do with actual history, and everything to do with the political demands of the present. By overplaying the role of an Arab cleric, he is trying to use the Jewish dead to undermine Palestinians, who have recently become locked in a deadly back and forth with Israelis on the streets of Jerusalem. Some are already calling the violent cycle of retributions that are taking place on the streets the "third intifada".
This misuse of history is a desperate gamble to turn the various separate conflicts over land rights, property ownership, access to water and the al Aqsa Mosque, into a binary conflict of good against ultimate Swastika-bearing evil. By making Muslims the original proponents of genocide against the Jews, both revenge and pre-emptive retaliation are justifiable. By claiming that Palestinians were responsible for the Final Solution, Netanyahu can gather all his enemies under single banner of evil, and kill or expel them with moral authority.
The reality of Israel and the occupied territories is somewhat different. Most Jews do not live in Israel. Many Israeli citizens aren’t Jewish. And many Palestinans aren’t Muslim. But demagoguery always requires summoning up a last apocalyptic battle. Traducing history is the least of Netanyahu’s concerns.
Strangely, the importance of history, and learning the lessons of the past, is best exemplified by what was once the worst example: Germany
In response to Netanyahu’s bizarre claim, the German chancellor Angela Merkel was forced to wrest back “full responsibility” for the Holocaust: “This is taught in German schools for good reason, it must never be forgotten,” Merkel’s spokesman Steffan Seibert said on Wednesday: “And I see no reason to change our view of history in any way.” He added: “We know that responsibility for this crime against humanity is German and very much our own.”
Once famed for Prussian militarism, brutal secret police and a surly sense of national victimhood, Germany has now become a beacon of liberalism. As Merkel spokesman has pointed out, a lot of this has to do with education. That the realities of history, however unpleasant, should be taught in all schools was a principle established in the 50s by the then German Chancellor, Konrad Adenauer. The rise of Nazism has been a compulsory subject ever since because, as Judt puts it “the health of German Democracy required that Nazism be remembered rather than forgotten.”
Any visitor to Germany can witness this openness about the past. While Brits are now embarrassed to bring up the subject of Hitler, Berlin cab drivers with raise the subject without apology. To Germans, the past is a nightmare which needs constant analysis and recollection to stop it recurring.
Netanyahu’s intervention shows, at least at the top of its political class, Israel is doing a very bad job at learning the lessons of the past. As the saying goes, it will therefore be condemned to repeat them, while Palestinians are accused of crimes they’ve never committed. As far as cases of mistaken identity go, it could well be one of the worst.