Omer Bartov: Hitler Is Dead, Hitlerism Lives

Roundup: Historians' Take

Omer Bartov, reviewing a new edition of Hitler's Second Book; in the New Republic (Feb. 2, 2004):

Reading Hitler's second book is useful, of course, for students of Nazism. But they will have already read it in part or in whole, and nothing that Hitler says here will come to them as much of a surprise. This is a book that should be read, rather, by contemporary journalists, political observers, and all concerned people who have the stomach to recognize evil when they confront it. For one of the most frightening aspects of Hitler's book is not that he said what he said at the time, but that much of what he said can be found today in innumerable places: on Internet sites, propaganda brochures, political speeches, protest placards, academic publications, religious sermons, you name it. As long as it does not have Hitler's name attached to it, this deranged discourse will be ignored or allowed to pass. The voices that express these opinions do not belong to a single political or ideological current, and they are much less easy to distinguish than in the 1930s. They belong to the right and the left, to the religious and the secular, to the West and the East, to the rabble and the leaders, to terrorists and intellectuals, students and peasants, pacifists and militants, expansionists and anti-globalization activists. The diplomacy advocated by Hitler is no longer relevant, but his reason for it, his legitimization of his "worldview," is alive and kicking, and it may still kick us. ...

Hitler is dead, as Leon Wieseltier rightly proclaimed in these pages. What alarmed Wieseltier was the frequent predilection to view every threat as the ultimate threat, every anti-Semitic harangue as the gateway to another Final Solution. Clearly we are not facing the danger of a second Auschwitz. The hysterics need to remember that Hitler and the Third Reich are history. Germany apologized and paid generous restitution. The Nazis were tried, or they hid, or they metamorphosed into good democrats. The state of Israel was established. The Jews have never been more prosperous and more successful and more safe than they are in the United States. (The same could even be said about the nervous Jews of Western Europe.) The last remnants of communist anti-Semitism vanished with the fall of that "evil empire." Jews in our day have reasons to feel much more secure than their ancestors.

But all is not well, not by a long shot. Criticism of Israeli policies against the Palestinians has long been attached to anti-Americanism, and the United States was said already by the Nazis in World War II to be dominated by the Jews. And criticism of American imperialism is often associated with its support for Israel, allegedly a colonial outpost populated by Jews in the heart of Arab and Islamic civilization. Of course, one should never confuse the legitimate criticism of Israeli policies with what all reasonable people agree is the despicable ideology of anti-Semitism. The policies of the current Israeli government in the territories are indeed contrary to the strategic and moral interests of the Jewish state. So there is every reason in the world to reject attempts to justify objectionable Israeli policies by reference to the Holocaust.

But this does not mean that we should refuse to see the writing on the wall when anti-Israeli sentiments are transformed into blatant and virulent anti-Semitism. This was precisely the argument made in the report "Manifestations of anti-Semitism in the European Union," as submitted by the Center for Research on Anti-Semitism in Berlin to the European Monitoring Center on Racism and Xenophobia, which had originally commissioned it. The monitoring center tried to suppress its own report, because it gave a measure of anti-Semitic violence by Muslims in Europe, and because its definition of anti-Semitism included those who call for the destruction of Israel. And these grim truths were politically incorrect. The Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip is stupid and destructive, and it should be ended through the creation of a Palestinian state, but those who preach the destruction of the Jewish state should not be allowed to hide behind Sharon's unfortunate policies. It is one thing to support the cause of Palestinian nationhood, and quite another to deny the Jews the right to live in their own state....

Much more publicity has been given to anti-Israeli protests on American campuses, and these have demonstrated a troubling trend. A group calling itself "New Jersey Solidarity: Activists for the Destruction of Israel" called for an "anti-Israel hate-fest" to be held on the campus of Rutgers University, New Brunswick, in October 2003. The group's website declares itself "opposed to the existence of the apartheid colonial settler state of Israel, as it is based on the racist ideology of Zionism and is an expression of colonialism and imperialism."

Richard McCormick, the president of Rutgers University and a former member of its history department, where I also taught during the 1990s, issued an open letter on the planned meeting. He stated that he found "abhorrent some elements of NJ Solidarity's mission." But he went on to say that "intrinsic to Rutgers' own mission is the free exchange of ideas and discourse on a variety of issues, including those that are controversial. This university must remain a model of debate, dialogue and education ... we encourage our students to express their beliefs and analyze the difficult issues of the day." So some may think that destroying Israel is legitimate and some may think otherwise. Some may think that Israel is an apartheid colonial settler state based on a racist ideology, and some may have a different opinion. There are two sides to the question. Through such a "free exchange of ideas" we will all prosper intellectually. This brings to mind Hannah Arendt's observation, when she visited Germany in 1950, for the first time since she fled the Nazis, that the Germans viewed the extermination of the Jews as a matter of opinion: some said it happened, some said it had not happened. Who could tell? The average German, she wrote, considered this "nihilistic relativism" about the facts as an essential expression of democracy.

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