Edwin Black’s Response

tags: Holocaust, Africa, colonialism, eugenics

Human rights writer Edwin Black is the New York Times bestselling author of IBM and the HolocaustWar Against the Weak and The Farhud. He can be found at www.edwinblack.com.


Herero prisoners of war in chains. C 1904

HNN Editor   In May HNN published an article by Edwin Black on the Holocaust:  "Before Germans Slaughtered Jews They Slaughtered Africans." This week we published a critique by historian Jeremy Best. This is Edwin Black's reply.

I have read the comments of Jeremy Best, Assistant Professor of History, Iowa State University. I do not know Prof. Best and do not know his background. It seems he has done good and important work in 19th century German missionaries. I saw no Holocaust-era books, articles, or lectures … and nearly all his five footnotes lack page numbers … so, I cannot tell where he is coming from with regard to the that topic. But I do know where I am coming from on the Holocaust.

Virtually everything Prof. Best wrote about my thoughts, intentions, writings, and efforts is completely wrong and should be totally ignored. If anyone got the same impression that he did, I disavow it. Now then, to some specifics.

First, Professor Best is correct when he states, "Black's article seeks to inspire African Americans to take an interest in the Holocaust, because as his title suggests, Germans also slaughtered Africans." This was indeed my intention, and here is some further background. The essay grew out of research originally done for an eminent civil rights conference held in February 2016 at Michigan State University in East Lansing, headed by a close colleague of Dr. Martin Luther King.

I did three other related events earlier that day to engage local Holocaust historians and students—including an open question-answer session about this and other topics. The public presentation, which was live globally streamed, and included approximately two dozen internet images. The presentation was repeated the next day at University of Michigan in Flint as part of a nine-lecture, four-day visit, plus media on that and related issues. I was honored to receive a plaque of commendation by the Michigan State legislature for my efforts on the black victims presentation. Specific links are here, here, here, and here. The full schedule is also shown.

Thereafter, I engaged my research team, located at Cambridge University in England, also in London, Stanford University in California, New York City and elsewhere, to pause their work on my next project involving the Middle East and join me in a vibrant research of the “Black Victims” topic. I and my team delved into archival documents in six countries spanning the oceans, undertook a robust contemporaneous publications search, as well as plenty of secondary works. I mention this because I did not write my work based on other people’s writings, but my own primary research after consulting and noting the secondary realm. Once my article was complete, as usual, competing footnoters and fact-checkers worked on the project to sharpen the documentation. Then, as is my custom, it was submitted to six other well-known historians published in Holocaust and/or genocide studies, to get their review and input. As those who know my work, this is SOP for me.

One would get the impression from Prof. Best that my article tried to trace the roots or origins of the Holocaust directly to Africa. This was never my intent. Not even remotely. I did not use the words "roots" or "origins" or even “continuity” in my article. Indeed, I intended to serve the African American and Holocaust scholar communities to help them understand a century of intersection with Nazi policy from Africa to Berlin to North Carolina. Hence, the actual title of my article was not "Germans Slaughtered Blacks Before They Slaughtered Jews," as was seen. Prof. Best referred to it as “my title.” I am sure he knows editors assign their own titles. My title was, in fact, this one — cut and pasted from the original manuscript:

Nazi Policy and Black Victims—Before, During, and After the Holocaust—from Africa to Berlin to North Carolina

The above title is similar to the lecture title, and indeed a forthcoming book on the topic, which I hope will come out before year’s end or early 2017. Global distribution in several languages is planned. This new book release is being announced here for the first time.

My work and the essay was never designed to show any roots, origins, straight lines, crooked lines, jagged lines, or imaginary lines … and no Sonderweg, frontweg, or backweg … from Southwest Africa to the causes of the Holocaust. Rather, my work was as it seems, an effort to explore a range of Nazi policy victimization and intersection issues effecting those of African descent and touching topics from Namibia to the Rhineland Bastards to King Kong and to post-war civil rights and eugenics in North Carolina and Connecticut.

When Raul Hilberg and more other Holocaust historians typically mentioned Martin Luther in 1543, they do so to trace the history of antisemitism in Germany and context, not because they believe the Holocaust was sketched out on the Wittenberg Door. Likewise, I am just adding a dimension to Holocaust study.

My article was syndicated in many sizes, from a 900-word condensed version to the massive 10,000-word version published by History Network News. Kudos to HNN, since 10,000 words is about 10x the size of any standard mass media article. See some examples of the 900 to 1200 word condensed versions, each edited by others in syndication—and note that many of the titles resemble my original. See here , here, here, here, and here.

The headline devised by HNN was completely appropriate and was designed as a mere launching pad for the discussion of a century of misdeeds. HNN worked with the full un-shortened essay. To be sure, I am fine with HNN’s decision. All editors create their own headlines. My titles can be staid and less appealing.

One should understand that without muscular outlets like History Network News, historians would not be able to run full and robust essays in mass media outlets to reach a wide audience. The fact that HNN went to the extreme extra trouble of adding the footnotes –a rare bonus-- only underscores why we should all recognize its role in expanding the public’s information. So if one goes beyond the HNN headline and actually reads the entire article, readers can see that the intent was to arouse interest and awareness in the African American community as Prof. Best has surmised. But please don’t jump into Prof. Bests’ factual delusion: “A certain segment of historians have gone elsewhere seeking evidence of Germany’s Sonderweg. And like some of them, Black has settled on Germany’s colonial history.” I have “settled on” no such thing. Most serious Holocaust historians know that many roads and rivers led Germany to the Third Reich and Auschwitz. I have spent a half century writing about those many routes which pass through the factories of IBM, General Motors, and through the capitols of Iraq, Palestine, France, Great Britain, and United States and many other way stations en route to the ultimate horrid destination.

This brings me to Professor Best's description of himself as a "white scholar." I hope he will withdraw this racial aspect. No one has ruled out the many non-Jewish writers who have investigated the Holocaust, no one has asked me not to write about Gypsies, Native Americans, Armenians, Appalachians, Chinese, Yazidis, Rwandans, Iraqi Shias, or ancient Babylonians because I am not from one of those groups. In fact, being an outsider only increases my objectivity. But in these racially charged times of identity politics, can we please dispense with this type of unhelpfulness in the world of genocide writers? Our role as historians is to write about history--period. Lose the racial stuff, Prof. Best.

I hope Prof. Best will also lose this phrase: “Germans were, in the main, no more or less brutal than any other colonial master.” Why is this mentioned? We all know the Belgians bestially amputated hands for inadequate rubber quotas and the Arabs delivered many thousands of defenseless Africans to their deadly Middle Passage. That does not diminish proto-Nazi acts in Southwest Germany. I did trace the development of concentration camps at Andersonville, Cuba, South Africa and elsewhere for context. But am I to believe I should not write about the Farhud because the Iraqis were not particularly more brutal than other killers of Jews elsewhere in the Arab world or because I am not Sephardic? I have, of course, published on this topic.

Indeed, as I read the text of Prof. Best, I could not figure out what he was trying to say or why he was forming my conclusions for me. My published works appear almost daily, and I do not need anyone telling me or my readers what I intended to write, especially when a publication such as HNN has been bold enough to allow 10,000 words so I can actually type the words. I am not shy about stating my own conclusions.

While I could not decipher his perspective, I did, however, see some facts recited by Prof. Best which should be addressed. First, Prof. Best diminishes Goering’s mindset connection. As is well known, Goering's father served before the onset of the worst killing in German Southwest Africa. That does not change the fact that Field Marshal Hermann Goering held the events of German Southwest Africa in high regard, per his sworn testimony at Nuremberg and his own official biography. So, in this case, we need to go with Goering's contemporaneous self-assessment over Professor Best's opinion more than a half-century later. I wrote this: “For his part, Hermann was captivated by his father’s exploits in Africa. Goering’s 1939 official Nazi biography records reveal that the young Goering “was even more thrilled by his [father’s] accounts of his pioneer work as Reichskommissar for South-West Africa … and his fights with the Herero.” Years later, Goering swore under oath that of the leading “points which are significant with relation to my later development,” he counted among the top four as “the position of my father as first Governor of Southwest Africa.” People can assess the Nazi Goering’s words as he expressed them.

Professor Best has pointed out that Von Epp finished his career in the Third Reich as an aging functionary. That is no reason for us to overlook his role in the formative years of the NSDAP. I wrote: “Franz Ritter von Epp was an early leading figure of the Third Reich.” Please note the word “early.” One can then note the rest of my paragraph. “He formed the Freikorps Epp in 1919, which was one of the many street fighting units that evolved into the Nazis. Indeed, von Epp’s personal aide was Ernst Röhm, who would later become a founding leader of the Storm Troopers. Von Epp hired a young informant named Adolf Hitler. Later, von Epp helped raise 60,000 marks to purchase the official Nazi newspaper Völkische Beobachter. Hitler appointed von Epp Reichskommissar for Bavaria in 1933, and as such, von Epp was involved with the inauguration and oversight of Germany’s first concentration camp, Dachau. During special ceremonial meetings with leaders, such as Mussolini, von Epp was in photos next to Hitler or other ranking Nazis.” Here are three pictures (here, here and here) of Von Epp in ceremonial moments with Goering. Please note in two cases that Von Epp is still wearing his uniform from his days in Africa—the brown one that inspired the SA to don brown shirts. In the third, Goebbels is also in attendance—all wearing NSDAP garb.

Professor Best also points to the two million members of the Nazi party in 1933--the numbers, of course, swelling astronomically after January 30th. Since I am looking at the formative pre-Reich years, I cannot understand why. I prefer to look at the tiny band operating in the early 20s, whose membership was measured in double and triple digits. See Hitler’s 1920 membership card, in the DAP (which changed its name to NSDAP) … #555. The numbering started at 501 so Hitler was actually member number 55.

I cannot respond to each and every false assertion by Prof. Best about what I wrote and think as that would mean cutting and pasting some 19 pages. Just remember—virtually every position he claims I hold is fatally-flawed guess work. Here are two examples:

“And like some of them, Black has settled on Germany’s colonial history”

“It reduces the origins of the Holocaust to one country and one people”

I have a half-century of published scholarship devoted to the opposite.

I will say that the most spot-on characterization Professor Best used was when he described his work as "ivory tower quibbles." I do not have the luxury of operating within any ivory tower. I function more at the battleground of history, fighting to access the records that IBM, the Carnegie Institution, The Rockefeller Foundation, Ford Motor, General Motors, and many governments (Turkey, US, France) do not wish me to have. It is one thing to sit in an ivory tower quibbling, guessing, speculating, re-interpreting, and counting the horse’s teeth from a distance. Try facing down an army of corporate attorneys, squadrons of public relations attack dogs, crisis management consultants, bought and paid for historians hired for ad hoc review commissions, and pugnacious corporate archivists who transfer documents from city to city to keep them out of your hands. Or try arranging a clandestine meeting with an insider to get copies of corporate or governmental documents that are still officially closed for 35 or 70 years – or forever. Try securing the archival documents of terrorist organizations, sometimes with late night meetings in dangerous places where kidnapping of westerners is a regular occurrence. In such a world, there is no room for the luxury of an “ivory tower quibble.” Every word and every comma must be bullet-proof. Every factual assertion must be answered for the rest of your life. An hour doesn’t go by when I am not called upon to back up a sentence I wrote ten, twenty, even forty years ago.

It matters not to me what defense, explication, rebuttal, or addendum Prof Best may have to either elaborate on or justify his critique. I really cannot divert the time or effort to debate on whether the Earth is flat or round when I never said it was flat.

I have a better idea. In recognition of History Network News and the quality of its readership, I will schedule a one-hour conference call for all HNN readers worldwide during the week of July 18. I will provide the exact date, time, phone number and conference access codes as people give their preferences. Everyone is invited to sign up for the conference call before July 17. I will announce a date next week that works for most. Kindly send an email to ask@edwinblack.com. If you cannot participate at the selected time slot, send your question, and I will read it to the entire call. 

I've scheduled many such conference calls for students and faculty on History Day.

I'm happy to answer any and all questions on this topic, from any source. This includes Prof. Best. He gets the very first question.

More than a conference call, I am happy to appear at Iowa State University in front of his class and colleagues – as I do scores of time each year. In the comfort of his self-described “ivory tower,” Prof. Best and his students and faculty colleagues can ask me any question on any of my topics. Then he won’t have to guess--and guess wrongly.

Copyright 2016 Edwin Black
All Rights Reserved

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