In the surreal course of less than 24 hours, a controversy featuring the leaders of Israel and Germany over the history of the Holocaust has gone full circle.
On Tuesday evening, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ignited a firestorm with comments made at a Zionist Congress meeting suggesting that Haj Amin al-Husseini, a Palestinian religious leader who held the title of Grand Mufti of Jerusalem in the 1920s and 1930s, had inspired Hitler to enact the Final Solution, a policy that led to the deaths of more than 6 million Jews during World War II. Here is the remark in question:
Hitler didn’t want to exterminate the Jews at the time, he wanted to expel the Jews. And Haj Amin al-Husseini went to Hitler and said, “If you expel them, they’ll all come here.” “So what should I do with them?” he asked. He said, “Burn them.”
The assertion was quickly denounced by Israeli historians and politicians as well as Palestinian leaders. Inevitably, the remark also spawned a Twitter hashtag #bibihistorylessons, which included responses like this:
On Wednesday, remarkably, Germany responded as well. When asked about Netanyahu’s comments, Steffen Seibert, a spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, reiterated German culpability for the Holocaust:
All Germans know the history of the murderous race mania of the Nazis that led to the break with civilization that was the Holocaust.
This is taught in German schools for good reason, it must never be forgotten. And I see no reason to change our view of history in any way. We know that responsibility for this crime against humanity is German and very much our own.
It is true that Haj Amin al-Husseini was both an important ally of Hitler and a vicious anti-Semite. Writing in The Atlantic last week, Jeffrey Goldberg noted how al-Husseini’s anti-Jewish incitement regarding the status of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem has echoes in the ongoing violence in Israel and the West Bank.
On Wednesday, as Netanyahu sought to clarify his remarks, he explained that he never intended to give Hitler a pass for the Holocaust:
I had no intention to absolve Hitler of responsibility for his diabolical destruction of European Jewry. Hitler was responsible for the Final Solution to exterminate six million Jews. He made the decision.
Netanyahu also doubled down on his claim that al-Husseini bears some responsibility for enabling Hitler:
It is equally absurd to ignore the role played by the Mufti, Haj Amin al -Husseini, a war criminal, for encouraging and urging Hitler, Ribbentropp, Himmler and others, to exterminate European Jewry. There is much evidence about this, including the testimony of Eichmann's deputy at the Nuremberg trials, not now, but after World War II.
Regardless, Netanyahu, a historian’s son, may have squandered his credibility here. As The New York Times noted, Israeli historians were among the most strident in rejecting Netanyahu’s speech. Professor Meir Litvak of Tel Aviv University called the remarks “the height of the distortion of history.” He added:
Hitler did not need Husseini to convince him. Hitler spoke of the destruction of the Jews in his famous speech in 1939, in which he prophesied that if war will break out and the Jews started it, the result will be the destruction of the Jewish race. He repeated these declarations.