Thursday, March 17, 2005

Joschka Fischer on the Holocaust (2)

After printing the full English text in the previous post, I thought I would comment separately on parts of it: Speech by Joschka Fischer, Federal Minister for Foreign Affairs, at the Inauguration of the New Museum at Yad Vashem, Jerusalem, 16 March 2005.

It is a place of remembrance of the victims of a barbaric crime – the Shoah. A place of remembrance of the names of the murdered. A place of memorial to true heroes, to those who saved Jewish lives and thus also to those who preserved humanity. And it is a place of deep shame for any German, because the name of my country, Germany, is and will forever be inseparably linked to the Shoah, the ultimate crime against humanity.

Shoah is a Hebrew word that's often applied to the Nazi's attempted destruction of the European Jews.  German politicians like to recognize the heroism of "good Germans" and others who helped save individual Jews from death, Raul Wallenberg and Oskar Schindler being two of the most famous.  But Fischer also has problem with calling it "deep shame for any German" and "the ultimate crime against humanity."  (If you really want to dig into nuances, there's some argument over whether the common German formulation that the Holocaust was done "in the name of" Germany, a variation of which Fischer uses, isn't a bit of a rhetorical evasion.)

Just as the Auschwitz extermination camp has become a symbol of the Shoah, of the murder of six million Jews at German command and at German hands, the name Yad Vashem has come to stand for the remembrance of this crime against humanity.

The six million figure orginally came from Adolf Eichmann, one of the main organizers of the Holocaust, who was presumably in a position to know.  Historians have carefully checked records of Jewish populations prior to the war and combined them with emigration figures and validated that around six million Jews must have died in the Holocaust.  Some historians will specify that the number of clearly confirmed dead may be more as "low" as 5.2 million.  But no serious historians seriously challenge the six million figure as being realistic.

A Holocaust Q&A at the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Web site says the following:

2. How many Jews were murdered during the Holocaust?

Answer: While it is impossible to ascertain the exact number of Jewish victims, statistics indicate that the total was over 5,860,000. Six million is the round figure accepted by most authorities.

 3. How many non-Jewish civilians were murdered during World War II?

Answer: While it is impossible to ascertain the exact number, the recognized figure is approximately 5,000,000. Among the groups which the Nazis and their collaborators murdered and persecuted were: Gypsies, Serbs, Polish intelligentsia, resistance fighters from all the nations, German opponents of Nazism, homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses, habitual criminals, and the "anti-social," e.g. beggars, vagrants, and hawkers.

Back to Fischer:

The Shoah stands for evil – pure and simple. People were murdered because they were born Jews. Infants, mothers, children, parents and grandparents – none were spared. An entire people. And a wonderful culture. And we must not forget that it was anti-Semitism that sparked off and remained the driving force behind this genocide.

Bush's preventive war in Iraq and his apocalyptic talk about Good and Evil has conditioned me to step back and ask what is really being said when people talk about "evil" in a political context.  But I'm perfectly confortable with Fischer's version here.

Strange as it may seem, in some studies of the Holocaust the role of anti-Semitism as such is has often been downplayed.  If there was anything good that came out of the debates sparked several years ago by Daniel Goldhagen's eccentric book Hitler's Willing Executioners, it was to renew a focus on how the widely-held ideology of anti-Semitism was important to conditioning ordinary citizens to accept, and at times to participate in, actions that were part of the Holocaust.  So Fischer is makinga particular point in emphasizing this.

One shouldn't assume, though, that those who have focused on other processes than anti-Semitic ideology are being frivolous or malicious.  Within Holocaust studies, there has been an divide between those who offered an "intentional" theory of the Holocaust versus those who held a "structural" view.  Without going into it much at all, the intentionalists stressed the role of anti-Semitic and other ideologies, while the structuralists looked at the process that evolved in the Nazi handling of the "Jewish question."  While I lean heavily toward the intentionalist view myself, the structuralist view can't be dismissed out of hand.

Our relationship with Israel is therefore an issue that touches the very heart of the identity of the new, democratic Germany. That is why we are fully committed to the State of Israel's right to exist and to the security of the State and its citizens.

Despite superficial Republican complaints about supposedly rampant anti-Semitism in Europe - I heard that fool Michael Savage say on the radio one day that Germany was now a completely anti-Semitic country - those of us in the reality-based community can still note that the lessons of the Second World War give Germany and other EU countries a real emotional as well as pragmatic commitment to the existance of Israel as a country.  It does not stop them from being openly critical of issues like the West Bank settlements that stand in the way of an Isreali-Palestinian peace agreement.

The fact that the Shoah was possible must serve as a constant warning and impose a lasting obligation on us all across the globe. We must banish all forms of anti-Semitism, as well as xenophobia, intolerance and racism, and fight them with determination. This is but a sign of respect to the legacy and memory of those killed by the National Socialist regime of terror, whose fate is commemorated here at Yad Vashem.

It's common in German political and historical writing to refer to the Nazi also by the name of National Socialists, which we don't see as often in American writing.  The official name of Hitler's Party was the National Socialist German Workers Party, abbreviated from the German as NSDAP (Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiters Partei).  The "socialist" in the name didn't mean much more than that they were attempting to appeal in part to the working-class base of the Socialist and Communist Parties in Germany at that time.

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