Children in Jerusalem look at a brochure with images of the Holocaust, 1961. Photograph: Erich Hartmann/Magnum Photos
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The ever-changing face of Holocaust studies

The road to ruin.

At meetings across the country on Holocaust Memorial Day, worthies intoned the “lessons of the Holocaust” and warned that we must “learn from the past”. But ask most historians and they will blanche at the thought of anything as static or as simple as “lessons”. Over the past five decades, “Holocaust studies” have altered almost beyond recognition and explanations for what occurred have changed significantly.

In the 1950s, most people regarded the Third Reich as a criminal regime that had been run by crazed sadists. Nazi anti-Semitism, it was thought, had been a device to distract the masses. And it was widely believed that few Germans or inhabitants of conquered countries had sympathised with the assault on the Jews. As for the Jews themselves, they had gone to the gas chambers like lambs to the slaughter.

This narrative was both a legacy of the Nuremberg trials and a convenient fiction used to justify Cold War alliances and enmities. At Nuremberg, the surviving “top Nazis” took the fall for the crimes of the regime. Former Axis powers or belligerents now within the Nato fold were presented as having been unwilling or unwitting accomplices of the Nazis.

The first crack in this facade came with the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1961- 62. The Israeli authorities orchestrated the hearings to present every dimension of Jewish life under Nazi rule, with the emphasis on forms of resistance. They arranged for Nazi collaboration to be exposed, while “bystanders”, particularly the Allied powers and the Vatican, were shamed by evidence of their inaction.

However, the impact of the trial was shaped most decisively by the reporting of Hannah Arendt, who wrote about it for the New Yorker. She saw in Eichmann a living vindication of her earlier analysis of totalitarianism. His unthinking obedience was the reflex of totalitarian man, the “banality of evil”. Arendt’s (erroneous) description of Eichmann’s character irritated historians who detected rather more ideology and animosity in his conduct. And she provoked outrage with her claim that the Jewish leadership had colluded in their own destruction.

This allegation was strongly influenced by Raul Hilberg’s monumental study The Destruction of the European Jews (1961). Hilberg, whose Jewish family had fled Austria after the Anschluss, disparaged survivor testimony and drew almost exclusively on German documentation. But in the German record the Jews were always portrayed as outwitted and complaisant. Consequently, Hilberg’s work generated the impression of a bureaucratic machine that crushed hapless, silent victims.

The controversy that Hilberg’s book aroused marked the birth of what today we call “Holocaust studies”. Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, Israel’s official Holocaust memorial and museum, became an engine of research. During the 1970s and 1980s, Isaiah Trunk, Israel Gutman, Shmuel Krakowski, Dov Levin and Yitzhak Arad, all of whom had endured the ghettos and the camps, or else had fought as partisans, published histories of Jewish life under Nazi rule, with an emphasis on eastern Europe and varieties of resistance. The stereotype of Jews passively accepting their fate was shattered forever.

Meanwhile, German scholarship (mainly in West Germany) was galvanised by the trial of Auschwitz personnel that began in Frankfurt in 1963. And by the 1970s a division of labour had emerged: Israeli and Jewish historians wrote about the victims; the Germans inquired obsessively into the structure and functions of the Nazi state; while the Americans took a broader approach.

In 1970, the American historian Karl A Schleunes published The Twisted Road to Auschwitz, a pioneering work that challenged the idea that there was a direct route from Mein Kampf to the Final Solution. Schleunes argued that anti-Jewish policy was poorly developed when the Nazis came to power and jostled with other priorities. The regime, he insisted, had “stumbled” into genocide.

Through the 1970s and early 1980s research circled with increasing sterility around a narrow range of questions, drawing on the same limited range of sources. Had Hitler always intended to annihilate the Jews or did he drift into a murderous policy? Was there a single “Führer order” and if so, when was it issued? Was the genocide the result of planning or the consequence of “cumulative radicalisation”?

The principal figures in these exchanges were mostly West Germans: Eberhard Jäckel, a proponent of the “intentionalist” interpretation; Uwe Dietrich Adam, who followed Schleunes in arguing that the regime had lurched from one policy to another with no clear goal; and Martin Broszat, who exemplified the “functionalist” approach. It was an American, Christopher Browning, who blended the functionalist interpretation, in which human agency was downplayed, with a greater sensitivity to ideology and personality.

In 1982, the election of Helmut Kohl as West German chancellor opened the way to a controversial reassessment. Kohl wanted to “normalise” German history, treating the Nazi years as a phase in the longue durée of modernisation, and subsuming the Holocaust into a century of genocide. This agenda, and the efforts of Andreas Hillgruber and Ernst Nolte to tell a patriotic national story, triggered the “Historikerstreit”, a dispute about the singularity of Nazi crimes.

Kohl’s subsequent attempt to embrace the East Germans, following reunification, as victims of an undifferentiated totalitarianism that had lasted from 1933 to 1990 stimulated comparative studies. These in fact tended to underscore the specificity of Nazism. More significantly, the end of the Cold War allowed access to previously closed archives in the old Soviet bloc and enriched the corpus of available source material.

German reunification raised other unfinished business, such as the disposal of looted gold recovered from the Nazis in 1945. Swiss banks and German corporations, insurance firms, the art market and even railways were soon the subject of industrial-scale historical research by specially commissioned teams under the leadership of established scholars.

The resulting studies transformed the historical landscape. As Götz Aly concluded in Hitler’s Beneficiaries (2005), the transfer of wealth from Jews to Germans widened the circle of complicity to almost every German citizen. A similar dynamic extended across Europe and was summed up by Jan Gross in his recent book Golden Harvest. From France to Poland, non-Jews saw Jews as fair game, to be squeezed and then disposed of.

Meanwhile, explanations for the genocide were reshaped, first by postmodern theorists and then by the resurgence of national hatreds and ethnic cleansing unleashed by the collapse of communism.

In 1989, Zygmunt Bauman published Modernity and the Holocaust, in which he maintained that Nazi genocide was the apogee of Enlightenment rationality. Shortly afterwards, Michael Burleigh and Wolfgang Wipperman’s The Racial State sought to show how racial-biological thinking informed all official policy and infused everyday life in the Third Reich. The role of doctors, psychiatrists and demographers in applying eugenic ideas seemed to corroborate Bauman’s dark version of modernity.

Yet it was hard to think in such terms when the news was delivering images of slaughter from Bosnia and Rwanda. In Ordinary Men (1992), his study of a reserve police battalion that murdered tens of thousands of Jews in Poland, Browning had tilted in favour of situational factors such as peer pressure to explain the killers. By contrast, Daniel Goldhagen, whose book Hitler’s Willing Executioners (1996) examined the same cadre, concluded that they were driven by crude Judaeophobia. In his version the killers revelled in tormenting Jews before killing them in ways far removed from the industrial mass murder conjured up by Bauman.

By the end of the 1990s, personal agency and beliefs had become central to explaining both “perpetrators” and “bystanders”. To some extent, this reflected a shift from German to American scholarship. Robert Gellatelly, Eric Johnson and Peter Fritzsche argued that the Third Reich had relied less on coercion and more on consent. The Nazi concept of an idealised people’s community, was no longer dismissed as propaganda.

A new generation of young German historians produced a number of studies that amended our understanding of the timing and character of the Final Solution. While Hitler’s role remained decisive, it became apparent that his minions and satraps had far more autonomy than was once thought.

Jewish historians had long bemoaned the absence of a Jewish dimension from such research and the availability of vast collections of testimony, notably the USC Shoah Foundation, rendered the omission ever more untenable. But how to use it? Saul Friedländer’s magnificent volumes on Nazi Germany and the Jews (1997 and 2007), finally offered a model of how to write an “integrated” history that combined the conduct of the perpetrators with Jewish responses.

Fifty years after Arendt and Hilberg ruffled feathers, the “lessons of the Holocaust” seem no clearer and efforts to comprehend the Jewish tragedy continue to provoke as much controversy as reflection.

David Cesarani is research professor in history at Royal Holloway, University of London

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Assange Alone

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Why Tehran hates Isis: how religious rifts are fueling conflict

Above all, the Islamic republic wants stability – and to fight back against a group that despises Shia Muslims.

The alliance between Iran and Syria might seem an unlikely one. As Iran is an Islamic republic, one might not expect its closest ally to be a dictatorship that grew out of the political doctrine of Baathism, a secular Arab nationalist movement that originated in the 1930s and 1940s. But politics – and perhaps especially the politics of relations between states – develops its own logic, which often has little to do with ideology. Baathism advocated Arab unity but two of its founding fathers, Michel Aflaq and Zaki al-Arsuzi, both Syrians, disliked each other and would not be members of
the same party.

Projects to fuse Syria and Egypt and, later, Syria and Iraq foundered, creating in the latter case a personal bitterness between Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez, and Saddam Hussein, though both were Baathists, at least nominally. That led to the two states breaking off diplomatic relations with each other at the end of 1979. When Iraq invaded Iran the following year, Syria and Iran became allies against Iraq. Syria cut off an oil pipeline that had allowed Iraq to export its oil from a Mediterranean port and Iran supplied Syria with cheap oil.

Iran and Syria had other things in common, including resistance to the US in the region, opposition to Israel and a supportive relationship with the Shia Muslims of Lebanon, which led to the creation, with Iranian help, of Hezbollah after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Since then, Syria has been of value to Iran as a reliable ally but also as a bridge to Hezbollah.

How does all that affect the present desperate situation in Syria and in the Middle East more widely? The first point to deal with is Iran’s position towards Islamic State, or Isis. Some commentators would have you believe that Iran and Isis, as so-called Muslim fundamentalists or Islamists, have something in common, or that Iran’s Islamic Revolution had something to do with the origins of Islamic State.

That is wholly misleading. The extreme Wahhabi/Salafi form of Sunni Islam that underpins Islamic State regards Shia Iranians – and, indeed, all Shia Muslims – as heretics and apostates. This hostility is not somehow theoretical or theologically abstract: it is visceral, bitter and deep. It inspires frequent suicide bombings of Shia mosques and other targets in Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan and (more recently) Saudi Arabia. It is a major threat to Iran and to all Shia Muslims – a greater threat to them than the Isis threat to us, because they are geographically closer. The Iranians are supporting the fight against Isis in Syria and Iraq in self-defence and supporting the self-defence of those they are sympathetic to in those countries (the Iranians back the Alawite Assads in Syria because of their long-standing alliance but also for sectarian reasons). They are not acting, as the Saudis and some other Gulf Arabs would have us believe, because they have hegemonic ambitions in the region. That view arises from the insecurity and paranoia of the ruling elites in those states and their dislike of Shia Muslims.

The Iranian regime has many faults. We may deplore the repressive policies of the regime internally, its treatment of women and the unacceptably high level of executions there. But on most of those points, there are others in the region that are worse; and in our thinking about what to do in Syria, Iraq and the region more widely, we have to consider Iran’s record as a force for stability or instability. In both Iraq and Afghanistan, the Iranians helped to establish the proto-democratic governments we backed and, like us, have consistently supported them since, despite their weaknesses and failings. With the exception of its policy towards Israel, Iran has acted to favour stability elsewhere in the region, too. (Recent reports suggest that the Iranians have stopped funding Hamas.) Considering the actions of the Saudis towards Shias in Bahrain and Yemen, the Iranians have responded with restraint.

Iran’s acceptance of greater Russian involvement in Syria has to be seen in the context of the wider instability in the Middle East. Again, we should not misjudge it. It seems that the latest, more intensive Russian intervention came at a point when the Assad regime was coming close to collapse. The Iranians were therefore bound to welcome the intervention; but the history of relations between Iran and Russia is not a happy one and a greater Russian military presence in the Iranians’ near abroad must be making some of them uneasy. When Russian ships launched cruise missiles from the Caspian Sea that tracked across Iranian territory on their way to targets in Syria (announcing at the time that this territory was “unoccupied”), “uneasy” was probably an inadequate word.

After the settlement of the Iranian nuclear question in July (when Iran agreed to limit its nuclear programme in return for the lifting of economic sanctions), hopes for further immediate co-operation between Iran and the West have been disappointed – in particular by the apparent ban of the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, on bilateral discussions with the US. Nonetheless, there have been discussions, notably in the margins of the recent multilateral talks on Syria.

Just as there was opposition to the nuclear deal within the US, there was strong opposition in Iran. Khamenei’s ban is best understood as reassurance to those hardliners that, apart from the nuclear deal, it will be business as usual.

The nuclear deal is a major event in Iran’s foreign policy but if the Iranians are cautious in developing their relationship with the West, that may be no bad thing. The multi­lateral talks on Syria could be a good place for that to begin – those talks are, in any case, the best hope available for a solution to the carnage in that country. There are models for that in what was done recently in Somalia; one fruitful avenue to explore for the Middle East as a whole could be a multi­lateral negotiation culminating in a treaty guaranteed by outside powers, along the lines of the Westphalia Treaty that brought the Thirty Years War to an end in Germany in the mid-17th century.

Lurking in the background to all this, however, and behind the shocking massacres in Paris on 13 November, is our queasy position towards Isis and the troubles of the Middle East. Some Iranians believe that western countries secretly support Isis. That is wrong, of course – it is a view based on conspiracy theories and misleading propaganda – but not as wrong as we might like to think.

Since 1979, when the Saudi royal family got a scare from religious radicals briefly occupying the sacred precincts in Mecca, it has appeased extreme Wahhabi clergy within Saudi Arabia and has supported the application of their doctrines within and without the country. Outside Saudi Arabia, it has funded mosques preaching Wahhabism throughout the Islamic world, to the point that their brand of Sunni Islam is now becoming dominant in many communities where previously it was quite alien, symbolised by the practice of those British Pakistanis who have begun to adopt dress codes from the Arabian Peninsula, such as the wearing of the niqab.

Al-Qaeda, Isis and their sympathisers are the result of those 30 years of preaching hatred (along with other contributory factors such as the collapse into civil war in countries such as Iraq and Syria and the alienation of young men of immigrant origin in western countries). Isis does no more than put into practice the doctrines of puritanical intolerance advocated by Saudi Wahhabism. Our too-uncritical support for Saudi Arabia puts us in a shameful position.

The debate over whether or not to send RAF warplanes to bomb Isis positions in Syria is secondary to the need for the bombing to be done in close, effective support of ground forces. We may have to swallow our misgivings and accept that we bomb in support of Iran’s troops, or Assad’s, in addition to those of the Kurds or others.

We also urgently need to re-examine our relations with the Saudis and the other Gulf Arab States that have supported and encouraged the spread of extreme Wahhabism. The Saudis have belatedly realised that Isis is as much a threat to them as to everyone else (it may actually be more of a threat to Saudi Arabia because the jihadis’ dearest wish is to establish their caliphate in Mecca and Medina).

Yet that is not enough. We need to make clear that our continued friendship towards the Saudis cannot simply be bought with the weapons we sell them but has to be conditional upon taking a more responsible attitude in their religious policies – not so much for human rights reasons, as Jeremy Corbyn and others have suggested (although those reasons have their place) but for our security and for the stability of the Middle East region.

If that preaching of hatred is not stopped – as the preaching of the Catholic Counter-Reformation eventually came to an end – then even if we, the Iranians, Russians and others succeed in defeating Isis, we will only find ourselves confronted in a few years by yet another generation of murderous jihadis, recruiting from another bunch of foolish, ignorant and disaffected young men, just as Isis followed on from al-Qaeda

Michael Axworthy is senior lecturer at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter and the author of “Revolutionary Iran”

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State