The Political Misuses of Holocaust History

Browning, Ordinary MenIn recent decades, public consciousness of the Holocaust has increased exponentially. One unfortunate by-product of this otherwise salutary development has been the increased temptation for politicians to exploit references to Hitler, Nazism, and the Holocaust to stigmatize their opponents.

So writes historian Christopher Browning, in an essay for Foreign Policy that argues that the “Political exploitation of the Holocaust says much about the people who do it and their agendas, but very little about historical reality.” And this from someone who has done much to help us understand the “historical reality” of the Holocaust. (I’ll be teaching Browning’s Ordinary Men again next month in my Modern Europe course.)

I’ve written before about the frustrating tendency of politicians (across the spectrum) to draw foolish analogies between their opponents and the Nazis. But Browning has two even more egregious misuses of that past in mind:

• First, in the aftermath of the Oregon college shooting earlier this month, Republican presidential contender Ben Carson told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that “the likelihood of Hitler being able to accomplish his goals would have been greatly diminished if the people had been armed… I’m telling you there is a reason these dictatorial people take the guns first.”

Now running atop the most recent Iowa poll, Carson repeated the argument the following day at the National Press Club: “You know, mid- to late 30s they started a program to disarm the people and by mid- to late 40’s, look what had happened.”

Browning’s response:

This ignored the simple fact that the well-armed Polish and French armies were unable to resist German power. But moreover, it is absurd to think that a few more pistols or hunting guns in the hands of German Jews — by then [1938] a population predominately old and female — would have changed their fate.

Photo of Adolf Hitler and Amin al-Husseini meeting in 1941
The 1941 meeting in Berlin between Hitler and Husseini – Bundesarchiv

But he was more disturbed by an “even more blatantly mendacious attempt to exploit the Holocaust politically” — this one from Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who claimed, in a speech to the 37th Zionist Congress, that Jerusalem’s leading Muslim cleric during World War II played a “central role in fomenting the final solution.” Amin al-Husseini did meet with Adolf Hitler in November 1941. In Netanyahu’s retelling of this encounter,

Hitler didn’t want to exterminate the Jews at the time, he wanted to expel the Jews. And Haj Amin al-Husseini went to Hitler and said, “If you expel them, they’ll all come here.” “So what should I do with them?” he asked. He said, “Burn them.”

Despite fierce criticism, Netanyahu stood by his argument, stating before a trip to Berlin that “My intention was not to absolve Hitler, but rather to show that the forefathers of the Palestinian nation — without a country and without the so-called ‘occupation,’ without land and without settlements — even then aspired to systematic incitement to exterminate the Jews.”

“The Netanyahu account of this meeting,” argues Browning, “is an historical fabrication, or more simply a lie.” The historian points to ample evidence that “the fateful shift in Nazi Jewish policy from expulsion and decimation to systematic and total mass murder had already occurred.” Moreover, citing records of the meeting from Hitler’s translator, Browning concludes that Husseini “was not the instigator of the Final Solution but rather the target of Hitler’s attempted manipulations.” While “the mufti was a useful but minor collaborator in disseminating Nazi propaganda in the Arab world,” he played no significant role in the Shoah.

To Browning, all that Netanyahu has demonstrated is the potential for history to be abused for political purposes:

There were many thousands of Holocaust perpetrators more historically significant than the grand mufti of Jerusalem, but for Netanyahu they have no useful political significance — which is to say they were not Palestinian. His extraordinary exaggeration of Husseini’s complicity, and by implication that of the entire Palestinian people, is a blatant attempt to stigmatize and delegitimize any sympathy or concern for Palestinian rights and statehood. Netanyahu’s shameful and indecent speech is a disservice to anyone — Jew and non-Jew — for whom research, teaching, and preservation of the historical truth of the Holocaust has value, meaning, and purpose.

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