How historians remove stains

Holocaust denial is gaining a patina of respectability in German academic circles

November 24, 2016 20:55

Holocaust history remains a vicious political battlefield. Memory and truth are under assault not only by the blunt frontal attacks of those who deny the gas chambers; there is a second form of Holocaust writing even more pernicious because its distortions and interpretations are more subtle.

Established historians in Germany and elsewhere would not dream of identifying with the hard-core Holocaust deniers of the far-right. But some of them tirelessly minimise, trivialise and explain away the deeds of the Nazis. Their works feature prominently on university curricula in the USA and in Britain.

Two common interpretations are that the Holocaust was neither "intentional" nor caused by antisemitism. It was, rather, a result of the cumulative circumstances of total war that defy any simple causal explanation. The reason that Daniel Jonah Goldhagen's book Hitler's Willing Executioners was so brutally attacked in the 1990s was that he dared to suggest that German antisemitism was one core reason for the destruction of European Jewry.

Shortly after the campaign against Goldhagen, a group of French historians referred me to the apologetic history, produced by Hans Mommsen and others, of Alfred Toepfer, a German multi-millionaire who masqueraded after the War as an anti-Nazi resister and "great European" and who lavished huge prizes on Prime Ministers, Presidents and leading artists --- including a smattering of Jews.

The histories commissioned, after Toepfer's death, by the foundation that bears his name are prime examples of the distortions that mar so much recent Holocaust history. The foundation funds scholarships for students at Oxford, where academic studies of modern European history and politics are heavily dependent on money from German companies and foundations with strong motives in laundering their pasts.

While there is no suggestion of any direct exchange of money for favour, it would be naive to ignore the influence of donations. The Holocaust is relatively little taught in the university. The 20-page internet bibliography of the 2003 course on Nazi Germany excludes Sir Martin Gilbert's seminal work The Holocaust (too simple, I was told). I believe the real reason for ignoring Gilbert's work was that it is harrowing. It actually documents the terrible events and it subscribes to the thesis abhorred by the dominant German school of Holocaust interpretation that antisemitism was at the heart of the tragedy.

The Toepfer Foundation's sponsored histories acknowledge that Toepfer included SS generals on the boards of his foundations and went out of his way to give employment and aid after the war to Holocaust perpetrators and war criminals; yet they insist that the founding father was far from being an antisemite. He had not been even indirectly involved in the Holocaust, it is claimed, despite the admitted fact that his firm supplied the Nazi ghetto administration in Lodz with goods, including slaked lime used for covering cadavers.

Sponsored historians mention that Toepfer was not a member of the Nazi party but avoid revealing that he was a member of the SS. The sponsored Toepfer biography of 2008 omits mention of the fact that Toepfer helped an SS general to establish a clandestine new life in Argentina. The foundation claim that this was because of lack of space.

The value to the Toepfer Foundation and similar institutions of giving grants to leading universities such as Oxford is that it provides respectability and effectively helps them to get away with a selective version of a tainted history. Among the questionable claims promoted by the Toepfer Foundation, its statement on its website that it is a partner institution of Oxford may itself be open to doubt. According to the university's legal department, the restriction of the foundation's scholarships to students from Oxford and Cambridge comes from the foundation alone and has no official standing in the university.

We tend to assume Holocaust denial is no longer respectable. Unfortunately, there are many degrees and forms of denial.

November 24, 2016 20:55

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