End the Misuse of Holocaust History

It is more than accuracy that is under assault. It is the ability to identify contemporary culprits, and see clearly the damage that they are doing.

Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

With apologies to Mel Brooks, it’s springtime for Hitler and Nazi Germany.

Comparisons to the Third Reich are blooming. History is being instrumentalized and mangled. More than wrong, it is dangerous.

The past week alone brought three examples. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer has been universally ridiculed for saying that Assad was worse than Hitler because even Hitler did not use chemical weapons on “his own people.” A sympathetic reporter tried to throw him a lifeline. Ignoring it, he dug himself in deeper with a reference to “Holocaust centers” and the assertion that Hitler did not strike “innocent” victims. To his credit, he later apologized. Repeatedly.

Spicer’s inept historical analogies may have attracted the most media attention in the United States, but they hardly constituted the worst recent such transgression. Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London and a long term Labour party stalwart, engaged in a far more premeditated attempt to manipulate World War II history. For the third time in a year, he repeated his claim that Zionists and Nazis engaged in “real collaboration” in the 1930s. According Livingstone, the Nazis did the Zionists’ bidding, including forcing rabbis to stop giving sermons in Yiddish, setting up training camps for Jews who wanted to go to Israel, and selling them arms.

Livingstone’s claims so lack any historical accuracy that one is loath to refute them. (Would we ask a scientist to refute claims that the earth is flat?) He has spun this historical fantasy on the back of the Ha’avara agreement, made between the Nazis and German Zionists in August 1933. German Jews were prevented by Nazi regulations from taking their savings out of Germany. Under the agreement, the Palestinian Jewish community bought German agricultural equipment with some of the blocked funds. Jews who came to Palestine from Germany were able to claw back a portion of their funds upon arrival. This agreement generated controversy among Jews and some Nazis. The former were trying to organize a boycott of German goods, which this agreement contravened. The latter disliked anything that helped Jews. To call it collaboration or to say it proves Hitler was a Zionist, though, stretches those terms beyond any meaning.

Livingstone’s attempt to rewrite history has a contemporary political purpose. He is trying to draw a direct line between Nazism and Zionism by equating the two, to claim that today’s supporters of Israel are heirs to the Nazis. Israel becomes more than a place to compensate Jews for their suffering. It becomes a place that flourished thanks to their suffering.

But Livingstone was not alone in his revisionism. Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right French National Front, who stands a chance of winning the presidency in the forthcoming elections, contended that France bore no responsibility for the Val d’Hiv roundup of 13,000 Jews in the summer of 1942. The Jews were held for days in searing heat and horrific conditions—little food, water, or facilities—until they were deported. Most ended up in Auschwitz, where they were gassed.

For over two decades French leaders from across the political spectrum have acknowledged that this roundup was instigated by French authorities, conducted by French police, and supervised by French officials. In 1995, French President Jacques Chirac unequivocally declared: “France, the homeland of the Enlightenment and of the rights of man, a land of welcome and asylum—France, on that day, committed the irreparable. Breaking its word, it handed those who were under its protection over to their executioners.” To their credit every French president since Chirac has reaffirmed responsibility for this blot on France’s history.

In contrast, Le Pen attacked the fact that French children are taught of their nation’s complicity. “I want them to be proud to be French again.”

In making this claim she echoed her father, Jean Marie Le Pen, the former party leader and a man with a long record of anti-Semitism, who has resurfaced in recent weeks with his oft-repeated statement that the Holocaust and gas chambers were just “details in history.” His assertion that the mechanisms designed and built solely for mass murder are unimportant raises the question: Why then do we hear so much about them?

Livingstone, Le Pen, and a myriad of others from both the right and the left ends of the political spectrum throw not just nuance but historical truth to the winds for their own political purposes.

But my call for an end to this misuse of history is not just rooted in my desire for historical accuracy. This instrumentalization of Hitler, the Holocaust, and the Third Reich blinds people to another danger. Making someone such as Hitler, an exterminationist anti-Semite, the preeminent model for anti-Semitism, makes it harder to see other kinds of anti-Semites. Livingstone is an anti-Semitic provocateur, but he is no Hitler. He says things that he knows will garner him media attention and make him the center of conversation. That he does so by vilifying Jews seems to almost delight him.

Similarly, Le Pen has given no indication of an exterminationist loathing. In fact, she is trying to win the support of French Jews. (This may be a strange way of doing so.) But she is clearly willing to rewrite a shameful episode in France’s history for her own political purposes. She is essentially blaming Jews for making French kids ashamed of being French.

Both Le Pen and Livingstone are engaging in soft-core Holocaust denial. They do not deny the facts but they rewrite them to serve their own ends. They may not propose any physical harm to Jews but their verbal assaults give others the green light to do harm.

It is more than history that is under assault. It is the ability to identify contemporary culprits, and see clearly the damage that they are doing.

Enough already. Or, in the spirit of the song which is a staple of the Passover seder: dayenu.