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.