Terra Incognita: The Holocaust: Between dilution and equivalence

Janusz Korczak and the children, memorial at Yad Vashem. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Janusz Korczak and the children, memorial at Yad Vashem.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
It is the worst form of Holocaust denial, wrote Dovid Katz at The Jewish Chronicle in 2015: “Across Eastern Europe, the notion of a ‘Double Genocide,’ the idea that there were two equal holocausts, Soviet and Nazi, has been pushed by governments and nationalist elites in the media and arts.”
In a January statement by the Canadian Prime Minister’s Office this year Jews were not even mentioned as victims of the Holocaust. The statement paid “tribute to the memory of the millions of victims murdered during the Holocaust. We honor those who survived the atrocities of the Nazi regime.”
From Western countries to the east, there has been an attempt to either dilute Holocaust memory, universalize it, or equivocate about it.
In recent years there has been a tendency to revise the history of the Holocaust. In the West this takes the form of universalizing it and diluting its meaning. For instance a statement by then EU high representative for foreign affairs Catherine Ashton in 2014 didn’t mention Jewish victims when it sought to “honor every one of those brutally murdered in the darkest period of European history.”
It’s convenient to paint this as just a “mistake” or to respond that of course it’s obvious that Jews were the majority of the murdered victims so therefore the statement encapsulates them. But a statement commemorating the “victims of slavery” in the United States would be remiss if it did not remind readers that it was African-Americans who were the victims.
Yes, there were white indentured servants, but when we speak about the dehumanizing, mass murder and the terror of slavery in America, we’re talking about Africans transported to the New World. When we talk about the Armenian genocide, we talk about Armenians, not the Pontic Greeks, not the Assyrians, who were also victims of similar assaults in the period.
When people talk about the Nakba, they talk about Palestinians, not the German Templars who apparently also lost their homes during the Israeli War of Independence. And, in point of fact, they don’t talk about the Jews expelled from the Arab world during 1948.
So why does every other group in the world get to have its victimhood, its time of mourning, its catastrophe, but little by little Jews must be removed from the story? “We all know Jews died in the Holocaust, but why must Jews always be so self-centered, so dominant, so ethnocentric, in the telling of the Holocaust and the lessons learned,” people quietly whisper.
Former Knesset Speaker and onetime Jewish Agency head Avraham Burg wrote a book about the Holocaust in which he sought to universalize it. There was an Armenian holocaust, he wrote, and a Herero holocaust. The mass murder of Herero people was carried out by the Germans in Africa between 1904 and 1907.
“This victim displacement appropriates the most traumatic experience in Jewish history, pointedly erases the specificity of the events supposedly being commemorated and then harshly chides Jews for inserting their own particularlistic concerns into the discussion,” wrote James Kirchick at Tablet in May.
Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial, has even been criticized for not including enough about other victims. Prof. Dan Micham and Prof. Dina Porat responded to the critique by noting that “if the Holocaust is stripped of its distinctive aspects in order to fit into a pattern of genocide, it indeed remains ‘only’ the murder of the Jews and, therefore, is not unique.”
All the damage done by the universalizing and diluting of the Holocaust can be seen in surveys of Europeans.
A 2012 study found that 48 percent of Germans believed Israel was carrying out a “war of extermination” against Palestinians. Similar figures were found in Portugal, the UK, Hungary, Holland and Italy.
You’d almost think the Germans are the real victims of “Holocaust guilt” today to read the way people write about it. Erik Kirschbaum claimed in a Reuters article that “Germany has clearly become more and more a normal country in recent decades and less and less burdened by the guilt over its horrific past.” Those “even indirectly” responsible for “the Holocaust and Nazi crimes” are dying, the author noted.
As we move forward Germany and Western countries will increasingly ignore Jewish victims of the Holocaust and turn it into a universal message, they will remove any guilt over their role, even as they increasingly compare Israeli actions to those of the Nazis.
The recent story of a Belgian teacher who received a prize from the Iranian Holocaust denial cartoon contest, while at the same time comparing Israel’s actions to those of the Nazis is an example of the end goal of universalization: there was no unique Holocaust, but Israelis are like the Nazis. So Israel’s actions are unique, but the Nazis were not.
THE DOUBLE genocide concept being advanced in Eastern Europe appears slightly less pernicious than that of universalization. Whereas universalization turns every atrocity into a “holocaust” and accuses Jews of being “particularist” or “judeo-centric” for caring about the Shoah, the double genocide view accepts that there was a Holocaust but then wants to add another pillar of victims beside it, not totally dilute the two. However Efraim Zuroff has noted that this amounts to “claiming that Communist crimes were just as bad as those of the Third Reich and in fact constitute genocide, and the glorification of Lithuanians who fought against the Soviets.”
The result is that in countries across Eastern Europe there is an attempt to lionize those like Stepan Bandera, the Ukrainian nationalist who fought the communists.
But what happens when those local nationalists were also antisemites or when the local narrative is that, yes, the Nazis killed many Jews, but “we” lost many more to the Soviets. For them commemoration of the Jewish victims palls in comparison to their own historic memory.
Double genocide is built on local nationalism that wants the country’s suffering to come first, not Holocaust memory. Universalism is built on disappearing the Jewish victims of the Holocaust and replacing them with everyone. Universalism constitutes a second genocide, aimed at memory and taking away of Jewish rights to memorialize their own people, a right taken away from no other group.
Double genocide risks memorializing antisemites. Which is worse, to memorialize a few antisemites, or to pretend that there was no antisemitism and unique Jewish victims of it? Within a generation we shall see which is truly worse as antisemitism rises among the progressive Western Europeans while it likely will remain the same or be reduced in the East.