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History
Holocaust
Trump

Against Trump: Politicising the Holocaust

International Holocaust Remembrance day this year seemed to be the most controversial in recent memory. The reason for this comes down to two words: Donald Trump. On the same day that Trump signed his executive order immediately banning people from certain majority Muslim countries from entering the United States, his office released a statement for International Holocaust Remembrance Day that somehow eschewed mentioning the words ‘anti-Semitism’ or ‘Jewish’ or ‘Jews’ completely. When challenged on this lacking statement, a White House spokesperson responded that, ‘Despite what the media reports, we are an incredibly inclusive group and we took into account all of those who suffered’. There was no correction or apology.

Trump’s statement on the Holocaust in fact echoes one of the two dominant twentieth century interpretations of the Holocaust.

The first one is the Jewish exclusivist interpretation, very often tied to a Zionist narrative. In this rendering, the Holocaust exclusively targeted Jews and was only the most extreme manifestation of an ahistorical and intractable global antisemitism. The end of this narrative is Israel, a project to make the Jews into a ‘normal’ people, with a class society and state of their own. A Jewish state is seen as the only means to stave off future Holocausts.

The second interpretation is just as apolitical. It is the liberal interpretation that sees the Holocaust as a particularly egregious and universal example of ‘man’s inhumanity to man’. Here the particular logic of the Nazis’ genocide becomes indistinguishable from the general horrors of war. As some in the US have already dubbed it, the Trump administration’s statement followed this ‘all lives matter’ line.

‘All lives matter’ of course is the white supremacist slogan that utilises impeccable liberal logic to counter the message of the Black Lives Matter movement. In this rendering, there is no such thing as structurally entrenched racism. In a classic liberal rhetorical move, the focus is moved from a materialist analysis of actually existing racism and its effects on Black lives, and indeed Black deaths, to an insistence on the abstract, formal, idealised equality envisaged in liberal ideology. There is a denial of the historical effects of slavery, mass incarceration and systematic exploitation of Black lives in the US.

This is key to understanding how Trump can at once decry the horrors of the Holocaust and both halve the US refugee intake and ban permanently Syrians, who are fleeing the worst humanitarian crisis and human displacement since the Second World War. In Trump’s de-Judaised version of Holocaust remembrance we are left with an empty piety which refuses to adorn the Holocaust with any political or historical understanding. The Holocaust here becomes an almost naturalised fact. As Corey Robin pointed out, the White House’s response of ‘inclusivity’ is an echo of Ronald Reagan’s famous statement that he made when visiting the graves of the Waffen-SS troops buried at Bitburg cemetery: ‘They were victims, just as surely as the victims in the concentration camps’.

 

We should discard arguments that suggest that Nazism was some sort of entirely ahistorical, anachronistic moment of madness or somehow a uniquely German production. In fact it was a consciously transnational, racially based movement with ideological roots in political antisemitism, pan-germanism and colonialism. Nazi totalitarianism was both something radically new and an intensification, a recombination and a reconfiguration of existing social and political movements and tendencies. To remember the victims of the Holocaust, we need to remember them as individuals with names, with faces, with lives, with friends, families, lovers, and futures that were brutally annihilated. We also need to understand that they were victims not simply of ‘the forces of evil’ or of the ‘horror’ of the Nazi genocide. Above all the Holocaust was a political choice made by people who, as Hannah Arendt put it of Adolf Eichmann, ‘supported and carried out a policy of not wanting to share the earth with the Jewish people and the people of a number of other nations – as though [they] had any right to determine who should and who should not inhabit the world’.

Against this ‘all lives matter’ interpretation of the Holocaust, how should we respond? It cannot be to fall back on an exclusivist understanding of the Holocaust as a uniquely Jewish tragedy – as the most egregious example of an intractable ahistorical antisemitism. As those on the international Jewish left understood the Holocaust in the post-War years, we should understand the Holocaust as a political and historical phenomenon carried out by a Fascist regime. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed by the Nazis because they were Romani, disabled, homosexual or political dissidents. To pretend that Jews were the only victims does a disservice to the memory of all those killed by the Nazis as well as obscuring our understanding of Nazi politics and ideology. As I have previously argued, the Jewish left understood the Holocaust’s specificity within a wider anti-colonial, anti-racist comparative framework. We need to follow their lead in understanding the Holocaust as a product of a transnational fascism, intimately related to a wider understanding of racism and colonialism worldwide.

Understanding this history should make us alert to the most terrifying thing about Trump, which is not that he represents a narrow nationalism, but that his rise is accompanied by a transnational Trumpism. This is echoed by fascist and ‘alt-right’ groups in the US, Australia and internationally who celebrate the rise of the Far Right across the world, including enthusiasm for America’s ‘rival’ Vladmir Putin. Infamous alt-right figure Steve Bannon, who many are now suggesting is the power behind the throne, once famously disclaimed a nationalist label instead calling himself a Leninist who intended to ‘destroy the state’. An essential part of an analysis of twentieth century Nazism is the understanding that it was based in a transnational racial ideology – nation-state institutions, when not destroyed, were only a means to an end. This insight may yet be key to fully understanding the unfolding of Trumpism.

In the overall context of the Trump presidency his de-Judaised statement on the Holocaust will probably soon be long-forgotten, but I suggest it may hold vital clues for understanding his political trajectory. For Trumpism too should be understood as both a radically new politics, and a continuation and intensification of ideologies and policies already in place.

The ‘all lives matter’ Holocaust narrative draws on well-worn liberal tropes to obscure histories that now, seemingly more than ever, are vital to grasp in their specificity as political phenomena.

 

Image: jacobin / Auschwitz survivors from the camp’s leftist resistance

Max Kaiser is a PhD candidate at Melbourne University. He's currently researching histories of post-war Australian Jewish anti-fascism.

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Comments

  1. This article confuses several different themes/categories.
    Let’s just focus on the Holocaust, for example. Max Kaiser misses the Jew-specificity and selectivity of this industrial scale slaughter of the Jews. Thus, Kaiser makes no mention of Nuremberg 1935 which established the legal (Third Reich) definition of a Jew (i.e.anyone who has at least one Jewish grandparent) which provided the rational basis for the Third Reich to decide who shall live and who shall die. Second, Kaiser makes no mention of the Wannsee Conference (75th anniversary on January 20th) the aim of which was to formalise the “Final Solution” of the Jewish Problem. Comprised of 15 Germans (8 with PhDs and one Doctor of theology) with Reinhard Heydrich presiding, Wannsee (i) tabled in minute and precise detail the number of jews in each country….several of which such as Sweden and Ireland were “neutral”, and (ii) agreed on the industrial methods and logistics of how the Reich was going to murder every single Jew.
    Neither the chief of the Wehrmacht nor the Head of German Transport were in attendance….the latter might have suffered a heart attack because the Final Solution required the deployment of about 80% of European rolling stock between 1942 and 1944 in order to transport mainly Jews to the Death camps.

    “The Holocaust” is Jew-specific because of the Nuremberg 1935 Laws, Wannsee, and the massive “industrial scale” work required of the Germans and Hitler’s willing executioners to exterminate all Jews. Had Hitler won the war, most Jews would have been murdered. Neither Trump nor Max Kaiser understand this!

  2. While I don’t intend to debate George Fink any further since he called me a ‘Holocaust denier’ in another forum I will say that some elementary googling would prove the Nazis plans to enslave and destroy other peoples, most especially the Romani. See this review for instance. http://www.radoc.net/radoc.php?doc=art_h_review_lewy&lang=&articles=true . Those interested should also investigate the ‘Generalplan Ost’. Of course I recognise that had Hitler won the war all Jews in the territory conquered would have been murdered. I’m not sure why it is not possible to see that Jews were a unique target for the Nazis and formed a very important and particular part of their ideology and policy while also acknowledging that others were also targeted. As I said in my article , the insistence on the exclusivity of Jewish victimhood under Nazism reflects a dismissal of history and politics in favour of a Zionist ideology that the goyim will always be our enemies.

  3. Max Kaiser in his article and comment ignores the facts that (1) Hitler’s Mein Kampf blames the Jews alone for all evils, (2) the 1935 Nuremberg Laws were concerned almost solely with the genealogical definition of a Jew for the purpose of discrimination, and (3) the 15 pages of minutes of the Wannsee conference show that the meeting was exclusively concerned with tabulating the location of all Jews and agreement on how best to exterminate the lot!

    Neither I nor any formal Zionist concocted any of the above….the three factors that lead to the Holocaust …the industrial scale murder of the Jews….were generated by Hitler and his German Third Reich.

    Acknowledgement of the Jew-specific Holocaust in no way discounts let alone belittles the Murder of the Romani, disabled people and political prisoners. Neither does it in anyway diminish the appalling mass murder by the Third Reich of non-Jewish Russians, Poles, British, Americans, Australians and indeed all people involved in WWII.

    Finally, acknowledgement of the Jew-specific Holocaust in no way leads to the assertion that non-Jews “goyim” (sic) will always be enemies of the Jew. There is a long and dark history of persecution of Jews….but that is a separate issue.

  4. Slightly corrected version:

    Max Kaiser’s analysis of the Trump phenomenon and the broader meanings it represents in relation to classical fascism of the 1930-40s is perspicacious. Nonetheless, in my view, there is far too much emphasis on ‘ideology’ particularly in terms of the origins of classical fascism and Nazism.
    Hannah Arendt over-emphasised the ‘ideological’ autonomy of fascism and Nazism and this, to a certain extent, comes through in this piece by Max Kaiser.
    The materialist analysis that places the raise of fascism and Nazism within the context of the European counter-revolution was begun by Trotsky, as fascism and Nazism started to emerge. The continuation of the central tenets of his analysis have been continued by historians and political theorists such as Isaac Deutscher, Franz Neumann, Arno J. Mayer, Enzo Traverso, Perry Anderson and a number of other historians, philosophers and political theorists.
    This critical Marxist tradition gives a far greater understanding of the reasons for the raise of the mass psychopathology of classical fascism and provides, theoretically, far better tools for analysing the raise of contemporary far-right movements today than the left-liberal tradition began by Arendt.

    In essence, the classical Marxist analysis began by Trotsky and Deutscher emphasises that Nazism and fascism arose historically to combat the perceived threat by the bourgeoisie of world proletarian revolution. We are, to a certain extent, still living in this world in that the far-right is mobilising to defend capitalism.

    To understand contemporary far-right movements it is incumbent upon us that we thoroughly understand the historical trajectory of classical fascist movements in order to not only understand the continuities and discontinuities from the 1930s to today, but to have the analysis that will lead to the defeat of the contemporary far-right in its different nation-state contexts.

    ‘Ideas do not fall from the sky’ as a famous saying by another revolutionary goes. Classical fascism, Nazism and today’s far-right utilise racist tropes to befuddle and confound those being destroyed by the rapaciousness of capitalism whether it was during the Depression of the 1930s, or today, in its neoliberal form. We can, no doubt, trace racism to its Social-Darwinist origins, nonetheless, the key here is the structural need of capitalism as a system to utilise racism and ‘ideologies of confusion’ as defence mechanisms to mobilise sections of the petit-bourgeoise and backward sections of the working class.
    The tradtion I noted above, provides a far better guide to combat contemporary far-right movements than Hannah Arendt who, after all, was herself a left liberal, albeit my favourite one.

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