I received a scathing response to my recent review in the TLS of Jeffrey Herf’s book Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World from Tarif Khalidi, a professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies at the American University in Beirut. In a somewhat caustic letter to the editor, Khalidi questions whether, as someone who is a not a specialist on the Arab world, I was qualified to review the book and even whether Herf, a professor of European history at the University of Maryland, was qualified to write it. “The Arab/Islamic world is currently the last region on earth where non-experts can freely claim scholarly authority,” Khalidi writes. He also rejects the idea that Herf’s book, a study of the Nazis’ attempts to reach out to Muslims during World War II (which he appears not to have read), might be important for the debate about “Islamofascism”. Finally he says that my review “merely echo[es] tired and tiresome Israeli propaganda”.
I finally got around to reading George Packer’s great piece on Dresden that appeared in The New Yorker in February. Entitled “Embers”, it astutely discusses the way that Dresden, which was bombed in a famous Allied air raid on February 13, 1945, has been turned into, as Packer puts it, “the German Hiroshima – an outrage that reversed the roles of aggressors and victims, exposing the horror of Total War and, even, Anglo-American barbarism”. He points out that it was Joseph Goebbels, in what he calls his “last successful act of media manipulation”, who began the mythologisation of Dresden as the beautiful Baroque city inexplicably and immorally destroyed by the Allies. The myth was reinforced by David Irving’s 1963 book The Destruction of Dresden and, more recently, by Jörg Friedrich’s 2002 book Der Brand (The Fire). As a result, Dresden has become “the epicenter of German victimhood” on which neo-Nazis converge in order to “repeat a mendacious equation: Auschwitz + Dresden = 0”.
Since my book, Utopia or Auschwitz, was published last year, several people have asked me about the title. What exactly did I mean by Utopia and what was I trying to say about utopianism and its relationship with Nazism? At one level, the Utopia of the title stood simply for the aspirations that the 1968 generation in Germany shared with protest movements around the world in 1968. But I also had in mind a more specific meaning that Utopia has in Marxist theory. Marx and Engels coined the term “utopian socialism” in the nineteenth century as a contrast to their own version of socialism, based on dialectical materialism, which they called “scientific”. In the twentieth century, however, Marxist thinkers attempted to revive and reclaim the concept. In particular, Rudi Dutschke, one of the leaders of the West German student movement, was deeply influenced by Ernst Bloch, who developed the idea of “concrete Utopia”.
In my book, Utopia or Auschwitz, I argued that Germany’s 1968 generation had a tendency to relativise the Holocaust. For the Achtundsechziger – the children of what they themselves called “the Auschwitz generation” – Nazism was a kind of negative moral reference point. As a result, they saw the possibility of a recurrence of the Holocaust in a whole range of other events and threats around the world, from the Vietnam war in the sixties to ethnic cleansing in the Balkans in the nineties. But in making such comparisons, they consciously or unconsciously relativised Auschwitz, which became a free-floating signifier rather than a specific historical event that happened in one place at one time. The story of Germany’s 1968 thus raises a historiographical (or perhaps even philosophical?) question: was the Holocaust unique? Or can it be compared to other historical events? If so, to what exactly, and how, can it be compared?
I’ve recently been wondering whether and how one can apply lessons from history, particularly twentieth-century European history, to the problems of the present without at the same time “instrumentalizing” the past. Particularly controversial in this respect is the term “Islamofascism”, which President Bush used to justify the “war on terror”. The term is actually doubly problematic: not only does it apply a concept that originated in the thirties and forties to movements in the present day; it also applies a term originally used to apply to a European phenomenon to movements in the Middle East. Like many people, I was pretty sceptical of the term, which seemed simplistic and ahistorical. But recently I’ve been thinking again. This post is not meant to be a defence of “Islamofascism”. However, I do wonder whether behind the term there is an important point: that Islamism, as a movement, has been influenced to a striking extent by ideas from European fascism.
In a recent post, I referred to Tony Judt’s collection of essays, Reappraisals. Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century. A few weeks ago I read the introduction to the book, “The World We Have Lost”, which is in the first place a quite brilliant defence of the importance of history, in particular the dark history of the twentieth century. But what made it particularly thought-provoking for me is that it articulates a particular question that has been on my mind recently but that had I been unable to formulate clearly, that is: what relevance should the lessons we in the West and in particular in Europe have drawn from the twentieth century have for the world in the twenty-first century?
In the latest essay in the series that began with the extraordinary piece, “Night”, that I mentioned in a previous post, Tony Judt shares his memories of 1968 and its aftermath on the NYRB blog. I particularly liked his description of the “unutterably serious” revolutionaries he came across on a visit to West Germany and their attempts to purge the Nazi past through free love:
The notion that a twenty-year-old in Western Europe might exorcise his parents’ guilt by stripping himself (and his partner) of clothes and inhibitions—metaphorically casting off the symbols of repressive tolerance—struck my empirical English leftism as somewhat suspicious. How fortunate that anti-Nazism required—indeed, was defined by—serial orgasm. But on reflection, who was I to complain? A Cambridge student whose political universe was bounded by deferential policemen and the clean conscience of a victorious, unoccupied country was perhaps ill-placed to assess other peoples’ purgative strategies.
Today, on the sixty-fifth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, German politicians will once again express contrition for the Holocaust, as they have since Helmut Schmidt became the first German chancellor to visit Auschwitz in 1977. But does “working through the past”, as Theodor Adorno put it in a famous essay in 1959, mean anything in Germany today beyond simply commemorating the past? In particular, should the Nazi past play a role in German foreign policy? If so, it must surely mean that Germany should do everything it can to prevent Iran, the world’s most openly anti-Semitic regime whose president denies the Holocaust and calls for Israel to be wiped off the map, from acquiring nuclear weapons. But is it?
This is interesting in a morbid kind of way. The Springer corporation yesterday gave Israel the original blueprints for the Auschwitz death camp. Apparently, Springer, which publishes Bild, Germany’s biggest-selling tabloid, acquired them last year. Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is in Europe for discussions with George Mitchell, accepted them on behalf of the country. The blueprints, which include sketches of for the original concentration camp (Auschwitz I) and the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp (Auschwitz II) that was built later, will now be displayed in Yad Vashem.