8 January 2003, Volume 5, Number 1
THE 'COMPARATIVE TRIVIALIZATION' OF THE HOLOCAUST (Part 1)*
By Michael Shafir
By "comparative trivialization" of the Holocaust, I understand the WILLFUL distortion of the record and of the significance of the Holocaust, EITHER THROUGH THE 'HUMANIZATION' OF ITS LOCAL RECORD IN COMPARISON WITH ATROCITIES COMMITTED BY THE NAZIS OR THROUGH COMPARING THE RECORD OF THE HOLOCAUST WITH CYCLICAL EXPERIENCES OF MASSIVE SUFFERING ENDURED BY LOCAL POPULATIONS OR BY MANKIND AT LARGE AT ONE POINT OR ANOTHER IN RECORDED HISTORY.
In so doing, I am expanding on the concept of "comparative trivialization" first used by U.S. historian Peter Gay. Gay employed "comparative trivialization" to describe, in reaction to Ernst Nolte's 1974 book "Germany and the Cold War," the production of conscious or unconscious arguments for a "sophisticated apology" of the Nazi record, through the device of "humanizing" it via "pointing, indignantly, at crimes committed by others -- crimes presumably as vicious as those perpetrated in the Third Reich." The "sophistication" of the "technique," the U.S. historian wrote, rested in its "appeals to liberal guilt arising from real inhumanities committed by Frenchmen, or Americans, in other parts of the world." Its "historical function," according to Gay, is "to cover up the special horror of German barbarity between 1933 and 1945, and to divert attention from studying that barbarity in its own -- that is to say its German -- context" (Gay, 1978, pp. XI-XII). In other words, "comparative trivialization" involves a great measure of "back finger-pointing." Where I diverge from Gay is not only in the extra-German context but also in the focus on the objects of comparison. "Comparative trivialization," as employed here, refers not only to the Holocaust vs. other atrocities, but also to its banalization both by comparing it to REGULARLY occurring events involving violence and by obliterating the difference between the victims of the Holocaust and victims of those regularly occurring events. In the closing part of this section and of the study, I address the question of whether the assumption of Holocaust uniqueness is tantamount to the attempt to impose on the world at large a Jewish monopoly over human suffering.
Holocaust trivialization is not the monopoly of Holocaust deniers. People might, indeed DO, indulge in it either because, like money, words suffer from "inflation" or because politicians use them to promote or justify immediate goals. Israeli historian Yehuda Bauer has pointed out that in that country it is not rare for a person stopped by police for a traffic offense to shout back to the officer, "Gestapo," and that politicians from both left and right invoke the Holocaust for their own purpose "WITHOUT REALIZING THAT THEY ARE DOING SO." It is not uncommon, Bauer writes, for right-wingers in Israel to call Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat "Fuehrer," and it is not rare that left-wingers accuse the Israeli Army of being cast in the model of the WEHRMACHT when acting in the occupied territories (Bauer, 2001, p. XII. Emphasis added). Unfortunate as all these (and many other) forms of Holocaust trivialization might be, they certainly do not stem from Holocaust-denying motivation. It is for this reason that I have emphasized above that, in order to qualify for the category of comparative Holocaust trivializer, one must WILLFULLY distort its record. Which does not, of course, imply that all comparative trivializers engage in their pursuit for the same reasons, nor that they pursue their objective with the same recurrent intensity.
Both deflective negationists and selective negationists (see "RFE/RL East European Perspectives," Vol. 4, Nos. 18-20, 22, and 25) indulge in trivializing "COMPARISONS" OF CONDITIONS IN OWN-COUNTRY RUN CAMPS WITH THOSE IN CAMPS RUN BY THE NAZIS. Outright negationists (see "RFE/RL East European Perspectives," Vol. 4, No. 12) might also join this crowd, although when doing so the comparative side of the equation is missing. The common ground in this case renders the camps (whether they were in actual fact enforced labor or extermination camps) as nothing short of some "Garden of Eden," and sometimes the argument goes as far as to claim that, compared with what the ethnic majority had to go through during the war, the Jews were in fact privileged.
Slovak historian Milan Durica claims that Jewish leaders thanked the Slovak authorities, praising conditions in the Novaki labor camp and that the Sered carpenter factory "was one of the most modern and most efficient factories in Slovakia." According to Ludovit Pavlo, in 1944 "the Novaki labor camp had bath tubs, a swimming pool and a sport ground. A very unusual feature of the Slovak Jewish labor camps was that they had nurseries and elementary schools" (cited in Mestan, 2000, pp. 197 and 160, respectively). Even the deportation to German concentration camps, according to Durica, had been carried out with humanitarian considerations figuring high; and due to such considerations, as of 11 April 1942, entire families were deported together "so as not to sever family ties" (cited in Mestan, 2000, p. 146). And according to pro-Tiso emigre Frantisek Vnuk, who is often present in Slovak publications, conditions in the camps in Slovakia were so excellent that they suffer no comparison with the camps set up by the Communists after 1945 (cited in Mestan, 2000, p. 163). Vnuk's comparative reference is already sliding into the "double-genocide" arguments discussed below.
Between 40,000 and 45,000 Jewish labor servicemen perished under the Horthy regime in Hungary. Yet "established" Hungarian historians contribute to trivializing those losses, claiming that the system of enforced labor imposed on the Jews was quite equitable, their treatment tolerable, and their losses far fewer than generally claimed (Braham, 2001).
In Romania, Ion Coja denounces as "a lie" that Jews were sent to the camps in Transnistria "just because they were Jews." Only two categories of Jews ended in Transnistria: those who were not "Romanian citizens" and had "illegally crossed the border," which was "normal due to wartime conditions"; and "the Bessarabian and Bukovinian Jews, who were suspected of pro-Soviet sympathies." But such camps, according to Coja, had also existed in the United States during the war, for Japanese suspected of disloyalty to the country. It might be true, Coja conceded two years later, that the "identification" of "traitor-Jews" had been carried out "with a certain amount of approximation." It may have led to the inclusion among those deported of Jews who had been loyal to Romania, while possibly leaving out disloyal Jews. But again, this is to be explained by wartime conditions. "A la guerre comme a la guerre!" [War has its own laws], he commented (Coja, 2001a). The camps in Transnistria, Coja claimed, "never were extermination camps, since practically any Jew could leave for whatever destination, except Romania proper" (Coja, 1999, p. 183). Or, as he put it at the 2001 symposium, "those CONCENTRATION CAMPS (how lugubrious this denunciation sounds!)...were nothing but villages. No barbed wire, no military watch. They only had a few gendarmerie, patrolling only during the night, IN ORDER TO DEFEND THE JEWS against Ukrainian civilians who, for various reasons, could have acted violently against the Jews" (Coja, 2001a. Author's emphasis).
Although no swimming pools are attributed to the camps in Transnistria, one of the most infamous among them, Vapniarka, was described in an article published by one Tudor Voicu in "Romania mare" in August 2000 as having a movie house (Voicu, T., 2000). Antonescu, Tudor Voicu wrote, had been the "savior" of Romanian Jewry, only to find himself accused after the war by the ungrateful Jews of anti-Semitism. The "savior" argument was by no means novel, having been extensively heralded on the pages of a weekly edited by Adrian Paunescu as far back as 1996 (see Shafir, 1994, pp. 349-350). According to Tudor Voicu, Antonescu had in fact deported the Jews of Bessarabia and Bukovina to Transnistria in order to save their lives from the population's wrath, triggered by Jewish displays of enmity in 1940-41. In other words, Jews should have been grateful for having been deported. Paunescu (in "Totusi iubirea," No. 12, 2-9 April 1992) did even better: Antonescu had sent the Bessarabian and Bukovinian Jews to Transnistria to save them from the famine that Romanians elsewhere had to endure.
Nor has the argument been embraced only by ROMANIAN Holocaust deniers. According to Larry L. Watts, the marshal had been the "DE FACTO" protector of Jews against plans to implement the "Final Solution," because he shared the "Western standards...concerning human and fundamental civic rights [sic]" (Watts, 1993, pp. 392-393). The alleged Vapniarka movie house also figures in a Radu Theodoru volume dedicated to the marshal's memory, but in the significantly altered form of "deflecting Holocaust blame onto Jews." Those who had committed atrocities in Vapniarka and elsewhere in Transnistria were "Jewish commissars made prisoner" and "Communists whom the authorities had failed to identify ahead [of their internment]" (Theodoru, 2001, p. 38). Coja, on the other hand, in 1999 was still willing to admit that Jews DID die in the Transnistria camps of hunger or illness but added that Antonescu rightly saw no reason to spend the country's war-strained budgetary resources on Jews who were not Romanian citizens at a time when hundreds of thousands of Romanians "were confronting hunger and a lack of medicine on the Eastern front" (Coja, 1999, p. 184). By 2001, as we have seen, no such "concession" was still made by Coja.
The transformation of wartime leaders into "saviors" of their country's Jewry is not singular to Romania. Sandor Puski, a publisher who returned from emigration, claimed in December 1988 that the Horthy regime had even ENTERED the war in order to save Hungary's Jewry and that, moreover, the reason for Horthy's failure to end the alliance with Hitler was that the regent had wanted to save a few hundred thousand Jews but "did not care about the interests of 14 million Hungarians." As Ivan T. Berend commented in an article in which he cited Puski, this was a quite staggering statement concerning a regime that had "initiated Nazi-type anti-Jewish legislation, entered the war against the Allies to gain back territories with the help of Hitler, and assisted in the deportation and murder of more than half of Hungarian Jewry" (Berend, 1993, pp. 127-128).
Ion Coja's "A la guerre comme a la guerre!" seeks, of course, to demonstrate that Jewish suffering during the war had been due to its being an armed conflict and nothing more. As Paunescu had formulated it as far back as 1992 ("Totusi iubirea," No. 12, 2-9 April), under wartime conditions it would have been impossible for Jews not to be among victims, as indeed everyone else was. This second form of trivializing comparison rests in the TRANSFORMATION OF JEWISH VICTIMS INTO REGRETTABLE but BANAL CASUALTIES. Perpetrators disappear, for the only great perpetrator is the war itself. There is no difference between a soldier who fell while obeying, say, Antonescu's orders at Stalingrad and a Jew killed by that hero's fellow-soldier, who was carrying out the CONDUCATOR's orders at, say, Sculeni, in Bessarabia in June 1941 in a massacre that produced 311 victims (see Ioanid, 1997, pp. 129-130). Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, etc., had all been at war, and how could the war spare victims on grounds of ethnic identity? If it did, Jews must be thankful to their respective alleged "saviors" who headed the war effort.
In Hungary, the effort to gear in this direction debates on the Holocaust can be directly attributed to the country's neo-conservative governments. Addressing a largely Jewish audience on Holocaust Day 1994, former Foreign Minister Geza Jeszenszky remarked that -- apart from having over half a million Holocaust victims -- Hungary also gave refuge to Jews. According to Jeszenszky, Hungary has also had its traumatic, Holocaust-like experience in the 1921 Trianon Treaty, which tore apart large segments of the Hungarian nation from the motherland (cited in Kovacs, 2003). Not surprisingly, the audience protested against Jeszenszky's implied "comparative trivialization." As Randolph L. Braham observes, on many memorials erected in the postcommunist period by local communities, victims of the Holocaust are being amalgamated with losses among the military and the civilian populations during the war and thus "transmogrif[ied]...into war casualties." The U.S.-based historian of the Holocaust notes, "The equation of martyrdom of armed soldiers, who died as heroes in the service of their country, and of Christian civilians, who were killed in the wake of the hostilities, with that of Jews, who were murdered irrespective of their age or sex, is often politically motivated." Among other things, in some local communities, it makes it possible to "demonstrate that the combined military-civilian casualties incurred during the Holocaust by the Christian population far exceeds those suffered by the Jews." A memorial book put out in Somogy County, for example, amalgamates Jews and Gentile victims among civilians and then separately presents figures for soldiers, "civilians," and Jews who perished during the war in that county. The end result is that Christian victims (soldiers and "civilians") appear to be three times as numerous (5,916 plus 4,498) as Jewish ones (3,539) (Braham, 2001).
Hungarian-like manifestations of trivialization can perhaps be labeled as TRIVIALIZATION BY PAROCHIAL COMPARISON. They stand apart from TRIVIALIZATION BY GENERALIZED COMPARISON, in which East-Central Europeans are no different from their counterparts in the West. The basic argument here -- even among Jewish scholars in the West -- is that between advocates of the uniqueness or singularity of the Holocaust (Katz, 1994) and their critics (such as, for example, Peter Novick, 1999). The terms of comparison here are other known instances in history of mass murder, starting from biblical times and antiquity and continuing through instances such as the annihilation of the Indians in America (by Spanish colonists and later by the future "American" whites); the Armenian genocide at the hands of the Turks before, during, and after World War I; the Cambodian massacres perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge; the more modern genocides of the Tutsis in Rwanda; the "mutual genocides" of postcommunist Yugoslavia; and, above all, Communist mass murders. Since the last debate is particularly heated in postcommunist East-Central Europe (the former Yugoslavia is, of course, different due to its RECENT genocidal past), I shall focus on them in the last part of this study.
* This article is part of the study "Between Denial and 'Comparative Trivialization': Holocaust Negationism in Post-Communist East Central Europe," originally published in "ACTA," No. 19/2002 and is reproduced with the permission of the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
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Braham, R. L., 2001, "Assault on Historical Memory: Hungarian Nationalists and the Holocaust," in "Hungary and the Holocaust: Confrontation with the Past" (Washington, D.C.: Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum), Symposium Proceedings.
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