Why forget the Holocaust?

At least until 11 September 2001, the Holocaust was the primary historical reference used to justify military intervention, by the US and its allies. Indirectly, it is also used to legitimise social injustice in liberal-democratic nations, and to imply a liberal-democratic entitlement to a monopoly of power. It is used to legitimise global inequality, as if it entitled opponents of the Holocaust to prosperity, while others starve. Remembering the Holocaust is not a moral imperative: the memory serves no good purpose, only evil purposes. The Holocaust should be publicly forgotten, in the same sense as it is now publicly remembered.

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The city of Amsterdam has an annual commemoration of Auschwitz in January (Soviet troops reached the camp in January 1945). Mayor Job Cohen spoke at the 2005 commemoration of the 'dilemma of Auschwitz':

"How do you describe the undescribable, how do you make the unimaginable imaginable? Words wear thin, phrases become hollow. But the question is not isolated, it is a precondition for a more important question: how can we prevent repetition?"

Mayor Cohen often attends Holocaust commemorations, and his sincere abhorrence of the mass murder of the European Jews is not in doubt. But the same Mayor Cohen, three months earlier, approved a call to re-open Auschwitz. It was posted on the website volkomenkut.com - as one of the aggressive reactions to the murder of Theo van Gogh in November 2004:
"Tijd voor een tweede Hitler en dit keer de moslims aan het gas en meer dan 6 miljoen!. Heropen Auschwitz, nu!
Time for another Hitler and this time gas the Muslims, and more than 6 million of them!. Reopen Auschwitz now!"

Many calls to arson, violence, ethnic cleansing, murder, and mass murder appeared on websites in the Netherlands, starting within hours of the murder, as the media speculated on an Islamist motive. Their continued circulation was approved at that time by Cohen. As mayor and head of the regional police, he can use public order powers against open incitement, but (like the Justice Ministry at national level), he has a policy not to intervene against racist internet incitement. Cohen is an example of a a new attitude among the Jewish communities of western Europe: seeing the right, and even neo-nazis, as allies and protectors against Islamic immigrants. Cohen can get away with protecting the racist right in this way, partly because of his status as 'national Holocaust commemorator'.

Cohen can not reopen Auschwitz, nor permit anyone else to do so: the camp is in Poland. His attitude is that of a calculating politician, rather than a frenzied neo-nazi. He tolerates incitement in order to create a climate, where Muslim immigrants feel they are not welcome in Amsterdam - and certainly the aggressive reactions after van Gogh's murder had that effect. The incident does show how the wheel has turned full circle. The memory of the Holocaust has become an instrument of the right, and in that way it becomes an instrument of its own possible repetition. If the Holocaust had been forgotten, Cohen would at least miss the political status, which Holocaust commemorations confer on him. There is nothing good about Holocaust memory, or knowledge of the Holocaust.

An earlier incident in the Netherlands, during the Kosovo war, illustrates the general ethics of 'knowledge of atrocities'. The director of a college in Arnhem refused to admit a Serbian student, saying that it was not right to have cultural contacts with Serbia in wartime, and that she had not condemned Serbian atrocities in her letter of application. Of course, Dutch students are not asked to apologise for the slave trade, or the colonial wars in Indonesia. The director had friends among Kosovo-Albanian refugees, and wanted to support them with a one-man boycott. At the time, with the European media filled with atrocity stories from Kosovo, any Serbian was an easy target.

Now suppose, that the European media had conspired to suppress news of atrocities against Albanians in Kosovo. Suppose the population in general knew nothing about them. The situation in the Netherlands would have been different in two ways. First, public opinion would have treated the director as a man with a bizarre anti-Serb grudge: he would have been dismissed, and the student admitted. On the other hand, no Netherlands forces would have been sent to Kosovo. In fact, no NATO country would have sent forces for a military operation in Kosovo, if the public had no knowledge of 'Serb' actions (in fact the actions of the armed forces of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia). As a result, the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo would have been completed, and thousands more would have died.

The knowledge of the atrocities substitutes one outcome for another. The Serbian student is admitted, or not. Kosovo-Albanians are killed, or not. Suppress the knowledge, and you get one outcome: release it, and you get another. It is not the atrocities themselves which led to military intervention in Kosovo: it was the image of those atrocities for western public opinion. Public knowledge is often a result of deliberate decisions - to release or spread certain information. That applies also to historical knowledge, to the social memory of the past. These decisions are therefore subject to moral assessment: the effects of the knowledge of atrocities should be taken into account.

In the first version of this piece, I wrote here that no liberal-democratic society would go to war, without atrocity stories to generate public support for the war. I assumed that the atrocities would be in other countries: the 11 September attacks showed that assumption was wrong. In the period preceding the first Gulf War, the US government found it necessary to invent a story, about Iraqi soldiers killing babies in incubators. For the war in Afghanistan, no such invention was necessary: the dramatic pictures of the WTC attack had a far greater effect on public opinion. If western countries continue to suffer such dramatic attacks, then foreign atrocity stories would indeed lose their political function. However, it is not probable that western countries will remain in a permanent state of siege: sooner or later, the atrocity story will return to prominence in foreign policy.

Now consider the issue from the point of view of those affected by (western) public knowledge of atrocities. Consider this fictional example:

An investigator for Amnesty International visits a poor country in Africa. He discovers that terrible atrocities are being committed in a military camp. Before leaving the country, he visits a village next to the camp. He tells the villagers that he will publicise the human rights abuses, in the global media. He reminds them, that a new US President has promised a "year-long rain of bombs" on all human rights abusers. He expects the villagers to thank him, for protecting their human rights. Instead, realising that they will die in a major attack on the base, they kill him and destroy the evidence he has collected.

Is this legitimate self-defence? I think it is. There is no right, to substitute the suffering of one for the suffering of another. The Amnesty investigator is playing God with the lives of the villagers. There is no absolute right to disseminate knowledge of atrocities, to the disadvantage of others. As in the example of Kosovo, one outcome is substituted for another: the death of the villagers for the continuation of human rights abuses. But in the fictional example, there is a tap to 'close off knowledge': the action of the villagers changes the outcome.

And in the fictional example, it was the Amnesty investigator who was wrong. In the presence of a hegemonic superpower, which answers atrocities with undirected massive military force, there is a moral duty to silence on atrocities.

There is no clear distinction here, between knowledge of present atrocities and past atrocities. Appeals to atrocities as justification often refer to both recent and historical examples. Three historical atrocities are repeatedly quoted: the Gulag, the Cambodian mass murders, and the Holocaust. Above all, Auschwitz is cited - although often considered too great an evil for the term 'atrocity'.

In how far is knowledge of atrocities a deliberate decision, in the the real political culture of western nations? The fact that governments publicly appeal to atrocity stories to justify their actions, draws increased attention to them. Aside from that, governments and military organisations do specifically publicise them: during the Kosovo war, the daily NATO press conferences were also the daily atrocity reports. The media also report independently on atrocities, and in turn this material is used by governments. The distinction between war reporting, propaganda and espionage - always unclear - almost disappeared during the Kosovo war.

The best evidence, that the public knowledge of atrocities is the result of deliberate action, is its selectivity. If it were simply a case of western media reporting human suffering, the public would know as much about the war in southern Sudan, as they knew about Kosovo. (If and when it suits the aims of western governments, then they will see that war nightly on their TV screens). Knowledge of past atrocities is equally selective. The western public does know about the Killing Fields of Cambodia: the use of the film title indicates why they know. Without the film, Cambodia would have retained the status it had in another title: a book on the US war on Cambodia is titled "Sideshow".

A more interesting comparison is with the Belgian exploitation of the Congo (in fact by a private enterprise owned by the Belgian Royal Family). Outside Belgium, the scale of this atrocity is unknown: possibly more people died from harsh treatment during the initial decades of colonisation, than died in the Holocaust. It is not 'remembered', because so few people set out to remember it. No movie, no memory. Public memory is as politicised, and as selective, as public knowledge of present atrocities. It is a result of decisions about what to remember, and in what form. Perhaps the most extraordinary illustration of the selectiveness of memory is the 'Armenian genocide', by Ottoman forces during the First World War. Europe forgot the Armenians, until after the Second World War a comment by Hitler on the fate of the Jews became famous. "Who remembers the Armenians?" asked Hitler. And because Hitler asked, and because of the historical status of both Hitler and the Holocaust, the Armenians are now remembered. (In turn that memorialisation became a political issue, with consequences for Turkey's accession to the European Union).

There is no comparison between public memory and individual memory, just as there is no comparison between public and private knowledge of atrocities. A person who has been in a concentration camp, can not make decisions about whether to remember it. If you see a mass killing, then you know about it, and you will never forget it. Yet societies, as the examples show, can be selective. Therefore, they can be deliberate. There is a decision to know, and a decision to remember.

There are still a few people alive, with personal memory of the Holocaust, just as there are people who saw atrocities in Kosovo. But no moral duty to public memory follows from that fact. If that public memory causes harm to innocent third parties, than it is better that they be silent - or even deny their own suffering. A good comparison is this:

A white woman in a small town in the United States in the 1920's is raped by a black man. She runs to a bar and tells her story: soon, the whole town knows. In reprisal, the local Ku Klux Klan seizes the rapist and his five brothers, and prepares to lynch them all. The woman then publicly retracts her story, and says she had lied to attract attention.

Is there anything morally wrong with this behaviour? I do not think so. It is admirable and self-sacrificing, it is a good action under the circumstances. The hypothetical example emphasises that memory of events such as the Holocaust has a social context - and social, political, and ethical consequences. Real-world decisions on memory can not be taken, as if in a vacuum. It is not an absolute wrong to forget the Holocaust: there can be ethical grounds to do so. Just as its memory has been preserved by deliberate decisions, to build Holocaust museums and memorials, these decisions can be reversed. It can be ethically legitimate to do this. Yet until now, all the decisions have been decisions to remember - partly because no-one presents the option of forgetting.

So what is done with the memory that has been decided upon? As an almost universal symbol of evil, the Holocaust is widely used for political purposes. A good comparison is given in Alexander Demandt's book Der Fall Roms. The Fall of Rome was a universal symbol of historical catastrophe in European culture, for 1500 years. Demandt's book traces its political use over the centuries: whatever people disapproved, they said it caused the Fall of Rome. This is also the usual social and political use of the Holocaust: accusation by historical example. What people do not like, or seek to destroy, they compare to the Holocaust. Evangelical Christians, for instance, see it as a warning against the occult, and against the loss of Christian values. Some post-modernists saw it as a revelation of the logic of modernity. Right-wing historians in Germany tried to blame it on the left, by claiming the Nazi regime imitated the Soviet Union.

The Holocaust has two more directly political uses. The first is the affirmation of liberal-democratic societies, by reference to the Holocaust. Often this is combined with a claim that a specific nation (Britain, Canada, the United States, Australia) helped to end it. The other political use is during international conflict: the accusation that opponents are "like the Nazis", that their actions are "like the Holocaust" - and "therefore" that retaliatory actions is justified. A long list of anti-western leaders have been compared to Adolf Hitler: in return, many of them said the same thing about western leaders. But only in the last 20 years, has the Holocaust acquired its present force in the politics of western liberal-democratic states. Reference to the Holocaust now signals imminent military action.

As reference to the Holocaust acquires more political force, those who define it acquire more political power. In the case of a Holocaust memorial, a Holocaust website or Holocaust museum, the questions to ask are

As you would expect, there is an overlap between those who appeal to the Holocaust as justification, and those who define it. Many groups have in fact claimed 'Holocaust status' - in the sense that they see certain actions against their ancestors as morally equivalent to the Holocaust. Yet in the United States, despite a relatively well-organised lobby of African-Americans, the political elite refuses to recognise the slave trade as equivalent to the Holocaust. (The best the lobby could get was a 'separate-but-equal' museum in Washington). Defining the slave trade as Holocaust would create political obligations, which the US political elite is not ready to concede. It would create an implicit obligation to some form of financial compensation for slavery - a contentious and divisive issue. So 'The Holocaust' in the US is the Holocaust as the elite defines it - emphasising again, that Holocaust memory is a political decision. The people who define the memory, are usually the same people who use the memory: in support of their philosophy, their policy - or their war.

The appeal to the Holocaust plays an important role in 'democratic expansionism'. Supporters of democracy used to say, that democracies were good because, they did not engage in wars of conquest. Today, the consensus in western democracies is, that they should go to war - to bring their values to the rest of the world. A few countries (Switzerland, Britain, the United States) developed democracy themselves, but most democracies have democratic systems, because they were invaded or colonised by democratic states. The most recent 'democratisations' - Iraq above all - are among the most violent in history.

For at least a century, some people have proposed that democratic states should join forces, to conquer the rest of the world. They had little support at first, but by now this idea has ceased to be marginal. Even before the rise of the neoconservative policy advisors in Washington, a school of intervention ethics emerged in the western foreign-policy elites, and in English-language moral philosophy. The Holocaust was its historical reference point. Few people simply argue that "because of the Holocaust, the US should conquer the world". However, as the US and its allies increasingly intervene to create 'democratising protectorates', the historical reference is used case-by-case. The case of Kosovo is exemplary: the NATO/OSCE intervention had the explicit aim of remodelling society, as well as ending atrocities. (Kosovo will continue to be a semi-protectorate of the European Union under the latest proposals, the 2007 Ahtisaari plan). The intervention in Kosovo was explicitly and repeatedly legitimised by reference to the Holocaust.


Clinton compares Kosovo to Holocaust: President Clinton compared Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's ethnic cleansing campaign to the Holocaust and pledged that NATO will not relent...

Never Again: When President Clinton seized on the lessons of two world wars and the Holocaust to make his case for military intervention in Kosovo, he echoed an argument that many survivors have made themselves. Clinton invoked both the appeasement of Hitler and the Allies' failure to act sooner in World War II in explaining the rationale behind the NATO bombings...."We must come to the defense of defenseless victims," Nobel laureate and survivor Elie Wiesel said, expressing his full support for the NATO action.

Hitler's Legacy Lives on in Hate: Many people are strongly against U.S. intervention in nations such as Somalia, Rwanda, Kosovo, and other nations where "cleansings" take place. We cannot afford to turn a blind eye as this happens. We cannot afford to pretend it is not happening and that everything is okay. We must act against it. We must stand up for human life. Failing to do so disgraces the memories of all those who were killed in the Holocaust.

From Pharaoh to Milosevic: Evil and the Use of Force: One would expect that Jews would be relieved that Western powers, in using force to prevent further atrocities, are doing precisely what we Jews begged them to do during the Holocaust. At that time they refused to intervene until it was too late... Now, whether due to geopolitics, or perhaps because the West actually learned a lesson from the Holocaust, it is trying to prevent horrific atrocities while still possible.

On the Eve of War, NATO's Humanitarian Trigger: In the Middle Ages, the Crusaders launched their conquests from the Church pulpits. Today, NATO does so in the Holocaust Museum. War must be sacred.

Human voices of war amplified by Internet : World War II gave us Anne Frank, the young Jewish girl forced into hiding as Nazi forces invaded the Netherlands. "In spite of everything,," she told her diary, "I still believe that people are really good at heart." The Kosovo conflict has given us Adona, the Albanian pen pal of a Berkeley, Calif., 16-year-old whose dispatches have been read to millions on National Public Radio.

Holocaust-mongering over Kosovo: In political terms, the way we have been bombarded with the language of genocide and concentration camps is even more significant. These words invoke modern moral absolutes. If there is genocide, the line is, then there can be no question of the need for intervention and retribution. The deployment of this language is designed to give an air of moral certainty to NATO's war against Serbia.

Like watching the Holocaust on TV: The surging flood of terrorized Kosovar women and children, herded by gloating Serb security forces, recalls another, more modern horror: pitiful columns of Jewish survivors being herded by sneering SS troops from the burning ruins of the Warsaw ghetto. Nazism has truly been triumphantly reborn in the Balkans.

The 2003 invasion of Iraq was officially intended to remove weapons of mass destruction, but in reality it was inspired by an aggressive interventionist ideology. President Bush later invoked the Holocaust as a justification for its crusading aspect. The war in Iraq, according to President Bush, is inseparable from a wider crusade against the Holocaust. Speaking after a visit to the camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau, he said it was a reminder that "evil must be opposed". In case anyone is in doubt what that means, in the same speech he also threatened North Korea with a naval blockade. New wars are coming, to defeat more "new Hitlers".

In a less explicit way, liberal-democratic societies are partly founded on Holocaust memory. In theory, liberal social philosophy is 'non-foundational' - it does not start from some principle of what society ought to be. In practice, the liberal social model presents itself as an alternative to the horrors of war, poverty and dictatorship - the only alternative.

In Germany this foundationalism is at its most explicit. The German state, and the German social elite, constantly refer to Nazi Germany as legitimation of their own political existence. In turn, any deviance from official democratic orthodoxy is at once attacked, as an imminent return to the Nazi era. The great emphasis in Germany on the evil of the Nazi regime is often misunderstood as a sign of guilt: in fact it is more a self-congratulation of present Germany, for being so different. The curious way in which the German army honours von Stauffenberg (the man who almost killed Hitler) is typical. Armies do not normally honour officers, who try to assassinate the nation's leader in wartime. But in this way, the German army is retroactively on the winning side, the liberal-democratic side, the anti-Holocaust side.

The Holocaust plays an increasing role in this form of national legitimation. Public atonement by German politicians may have a completely different meaning for them, than for their foreign audience. In Germany, the Holocaust is being transformed from a symbol of national shame, to a symbol of national pride. As Daniel Goldhagen ( a supporter of militarily-imposed democracy) comments:

"Some might think that it is a shame, perhaps even Germany's shame, that the Federal Republic has lived and continues to live looking over its shoulder in a manner unmatched by others and, in their view, unbefitting a country of its power and stature. They are wrong. It is precisely the opposite. The Federal Republic's political practice should be a source of satisfaction. Its mode of political activity, which has been a constituent feature of German democracy, has been an undeniable strength of the Federal Republic, that should be understood, applauded, encouraged, and furthered by Germans and non-Germans alike."

The late construction of a Holocaust memorial in Berlin (something never imposed on the city by the occupying allies), should be seen in this light. And if the Holocaust can be used in this way in Germany, how much easier to do that, in countries whose troops liberated concentration camps. That is one reason why there is a large National Holocaust Museum in Washington. That is one explanation for the status of Anne Frank, as national symbol of the Netherlands. There is an implicit foundational mythology for liberal societies - an 'Auschwitz myth' in an accurate sense of the word. It is not in fact their historical foundation - in reality liberalism and liberal-democracy existed before Auschwitz - and it is not transparent or explicit. This vague mythology implies that the Holocaust is the negation of liberal society, and that liberal society is consequently the negation of the Holocaust, the remedy for it - the appropriate historical 'fire extinguisher'. It suggests that the Holocaust was caused by the lack of liberalism - by failure to meet something like the Freedom House checklist of liberal-democratic rights. It also implies that liberal democracy ended the Holocaust. That last claim is 'mythological' in the sense of false: most concentration camps, including Auschwitz itself, were in eastern Europe, and were liberated by Soviet troops.

The ethics of this use of memory are simple: it is wrong to legitimise a society which is wrong. And there are many things wrong with the nation state, and with liberal-democratic societies in general. One relevant characteristic in this context, is that most liberal-democratic theorists believe in the inherent inequality of the talented and the untalented. Liberal-democratic societies are characterised by social inequality generated by competition. It is apparently the inevitable outcome of liberal process, and liberals believe that process justifies outcome. If there were no Holocaust to remember, indeed if all historical atrocities were forgotten without trace, liberal-democratic societies would not instantly collapse. But the self-congratulatory attitude that Holocaust memory promotes - "our society is the best in history" - is certainly an obstacle to innovation and justice in that society.

Defenders of the liberal 'market democracies' do not state explicitly, that the Holocaust legitimises the inequalities of the free market (or the market itself). But this is ultimately their line of argument...

And certainly, the elite, in western societies, does not hesitate to accuse the opposition of being 'like the Nazis'. As with the Holocaust comparisons in international crises, this does have effects. It protects the social order against radical change. (It does not work the other way around: as millions of demonstrators have discovered, shouting "Fascists!" at the police does not make them disappear).

So it is no surprise, that those who want to remember the Holocaust are the elite, the privileged, the holders of power. Institutions of Holocaust memory are 'white' and 'middle-class'. Apart from the survivors of the Holocaust itself, the memorialists are predominantly the members of the ethnic majority in each nation, people with an income and educational level well above average. The poorest people in the world devote no energy to memorialising the Holocaust.

Is any good done by Holocaust memory? It clearly has effects, and some people value these effects. One response to my views was that Holocaust memory at least brought justice for the surviving victims, and that it gave people a capacity to judge the present in terms of the past and an "awareness of the magnitude of modern human cruelty". But that is the problem: much modern human cruelty is legitimised by historical reference to the Holocaust. The ethics of Holocaust memory repeatedly refer to utilitarian arguments: about sacrificing one to save many.

In the Kosovo example, military intervention - driven by public knowledge of atrocities - saved some people and killed others. The utilitarian tradition in ethics has a simple answer in such cases: calculate the suffering and benefit, and choose the option with net benefit ('utility'). The rigid utilitarian would say: "sacrifice the lives of hundreds of Serb civilians, if that is necessary to end mass killings of thousands in Kosovo". That was indeed the ethical position taken by the NATO: although its generals are not trained as moral philosophers, the organisation has a consistently utilitarian ethic. That is not surprising, because utilitarianism is widely accepted in western culture.

Those who refer to the Holocaust as legitimation for military action, are almost inevitably utilitarian. They argue that the victims of the Holocaust should have been rescued in 1943 or 1944, and they feel that the past failure should be compensated in the present. However at that time no rescue would have been possible, other than large-scale war against Germany. Even given knowledge of the plans to exterminate European Jews, and even given a decision by the Soviet Union and the western allies to rescue them, the only realistic option was what in fact happened: opposing land forces fight their way into Germany after massive strategic bombardment. Any such war would have killed millions of Germans - which the utilitarian ethic would find acceptable. Some people retrospectively take a utilitarian position about Holocaust victims themselves. They argue that the Allies should have bombed Auschwitz, inevitably killing many prisoners, in order to interrupt the systematic extermination.

This illustrates the great evil of utilitarian ethics. The utilitarians start by opposing the Holocaust, but soon they are planning to kill prisoners in Auschwitz. Utilitarians abandon moral norms in favour of a calculation - an arbitrary form of calculation, since there are other options. The logic of utilitarianism implies that the Holocaust is not evil in itself, but subject to calculation, And so ultimately, utilitarian logic will accept the Holocaust, if that prevents 'greater harm'.

Suppose a new Hitler comes to hold absolute power on earth. He arrests 12 million Jews and divides them into two groups of 6 million. He plans to exterminate both groups. However, if you will carry out the extermination of one group, he will release the other. There is no alternative decision. Would you implement that new Holocaust?

If you are a utilitarian, you would. If you think that it is morally legitimate, to kill 500 innocent Serbs to save 5000 innocent Albanians, then probably you would. Obviously, 500 dead is less than 5000 dead, and obviously 6 million dead is less than 12 million dead. In the real world, Holocaust memory is certainly quoted in support of killing - no doubt of that. President Clinton explicitly quoted it in support of the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia. If there was no Holocaust memory, he could not have referred to it. The claim that is good to remember the Holocaust, includes the implicit qualification in spite of its use to justify force - and that is a utilitarian approach.

The truth is, that the memory of the Holocaust does not encourage people to do absolute and unconditional good. It usually serves to justify harm to others. I have never seen any postwar example, where the Holocaust inspired a person to act in an unquestionably good way. I see many examples, where people do things they know are controversial - and quote the Holocaust in defence of their actions. The more extreme the actions, the more likely they are to appeal to the Holocaust.

Remembering the Holocaust is like placing a live hand grenade in a room full of small children. It is no good to them in any way, and sooner or later they will play with it, and kill or injure themselves. Only an evil person would do such a thing. Those who place Holocaust memory on earth are the historians, the archivists, the museum directors, the writers, the designers of Holocaust memorials, the creators of memory websites. Politicians and philosophers demand and emphasise Holocaust memory. They bear a heavy responsibility, and it is increasing. A hypothetical United States conquest of Africa, to "implement human rights and stop genocide", would probably kill over ten million people. (That guess is based on the civilian casualties in Iraq and Vietnam). The longer the Holocaust is remembered, the more people will suffer, the more people will die, the more injustice will be done - all with reference to that memory. The right thing to do is to terminate the memory.

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