Zyklon profits are poisoning history

If historians and museums accept funds from firms that made money from the Holocaust, truth is lost.

By Michael Pinto-Duschinsky, October 23, 2008

Is money derived from manufacturing Zyklon B, the pesticide used in Nazi gas chambers, a suitable source of subsidy for historians? Should they accept funds gained from smelting the gold tooth-fillings of murdered Jews to run international conferences?

Some German academics based in British universities have been doing just this. More-over, Jewish colleagues and the Imperial War Museum have supported them. The museum has given its venue and imprimatur to two conferences titled: "Beyond Camps and Forced Labour: Current International Research on Survivors of Nazi Persecution".

The museum's new director-general justifies the grants from Degussa, the company which produced Zyklon B during the War and smelted tooth gold plundered from Nazi victims. The museum uses four arguments: (1) Degussa's subventions have been used for a good cause - Holocaust research. (2) Degussa has looked critically at its own past. (3) The firm provided only a small proportion of the budgets of the two initial meetings (the other main sponsors included German governmental bodies, which will sponsor a similar conference in 2009). (4) Degussa is a "modern-day corporation". In other words, too much time has passed to hold it to account for its wartime actions.

The Holocaust exhibition at the Imperial War Museum has vital functions and is rightly admired by Britain's Jewish community and by survivor organisations. But I believe the museum has made a serious mistake, for the best of motives, in this particular case.

The slave labourers abused by Degussa and the families of those whose bodies were desecrated in the service of Nazi plunder have an overwhelming case for claiming any of its money on offer (not that all survivor families would want it). By seeking or accepting grants from businesses involved in the Holocaust, historians and Holocaust museums give them legitimacy, thus undermining the survivors' continuing search for justice.

In the late 1990s, these companies offered pittances to former slave labourers - a maximum of £4,500 and averaging half of that amount for each former slave. The corporations, Degussa prominent among them, denied any legal liability for their wartime crimes and made clear that their small payments did not constitute "compensation". Therefore, the notion that Degussa and its fellow firms have carried out their legal or moral obligations is ludicrous.

Nor have they been as open and self-critical about their histories as they like to claim. As Roger Boyes reported in The Times on October 9, 2002, the independent researcher Hirsch Fischler "dug up archive material showing the scope of its [Degussa's] wartime profiteering from the confiscation and smelting of Jewish gold. He was barred from company premises."

Then there is the question of whether funding from Degussa and from German governmental sources has affected the content of the Imperial War Museum conferences. Holocaust scholars need to be particularly wary of the agendas of benefactors who have reasons to clear their names, even when they attach no formal strings. In an internal planning document, later leaked, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's historical adviser wrote a decade ago that today's Germans "are tired of philosemitic overcompensation... and long for remembrance without negative nationalism". He therefore proposed historical research involving "cultural engineering".

Two main "engineering" techniques have been dry, euphemistic language and "contextualisation". Jewish sufferings have not been denied; they have been compared with those of non-Jewish groups, in particular the German population. Deborah Lipstadt has condemned bogus comparisons as "soft-core" Holocaust-denial; Peter Gay wrote of "comparative trivialisation".

It may be an indication of the effects of the sponsorship and the origins of its conference series that the Imperial War Museum, highly respected and sensitive to Jewish Holocaust survivors, appears to me to have in this instance absorbed much of the German government's "cultural engineering" agenda in the conference literature.

While the Museum's Holocaust Exhibition normally uses the words "slave labour" (used by British prosecutors during the Nuremberg trials), the 2009 conference prospectus uses the German authorities' antiseptic alternative, "forced labour". It nowhere refers to the "Holocaust". It drops the museum's usual reference to Jews as the Nazis' "primary victims". The sole reference to "Jews" is as the first in a list of 11 undifferentiated groups.

Most telling is the prospectus's appeal for papers comparing "victims of Nazi persecution" with "exiles" (mainly ethnic Germans expelled from Eastern Europe after Hitler's downfall). By implicitly likening the hardships of ordinary Germans - including millions of Nazis -with those of Europe's slaughtered Jews, the prospectus provides a frightening illustration of the "comparative trivialisation" of the Holocaust which was and is a strong feature of some German historiography.

Direct Holocaust-denial is an obvious threat. Holocaust spin-doctoring, because it is less obvious, is insidious. Arguably it is an even greater danger in the continuing battle for truth and memory.

Michael Pinto-Duschinsky was honorary academic adviser to Claims for Jewish Slave Labour Compensation.

Last updated: 3:12pm, October 24 2008