Dr.Gerstenfeld’s article “Whitewashing Anti-Jewish Acts: From the Holocaust to Antisemitism” was published in INN, and republished here with the author’s consent.
Whitewashing Anti-Jewish Acts: From the Holocaust to Antisemitism
One frequent distortion of the Holocaust is not only whitewashing of criminal acts but also of failures. Analyzing this phenomenon can teach us much about similar experiences in contemporary society. The murder of six million Jews and other related crimes were so horrendous that many nations and individuals have valiantly attempted to distort their roles in those events.
This desire to deny responsibility led to massive whitewashing of history. A few examples of what occurred is described here. The communist East German government separated the criminal Hitler regime and the German people. It claimed in fact that the masses who voted for the Nazis and applauded Hitler, and were aware of their criminal acts and intentions, were innocent.1
It West Germany, it has long been maintained by many that the mass murders of the Jews during the Holocaust were carried out only by the SS and the SA (Stormtroopers.) It has also been mentioned that they were aided by locals in many occupied countries. However, the denial that the regular German army, the Wehrmacht, had not been involved in the mass murders was false.
It would take forty years after the war until an exhibition arranged by the Hamburg Institute for Social Research exposed the participation of the Wehrmacht in the active murder of Jews as well as many other crimes.2 Martin Heidegger, a German Nazi was probably Europe’s leading philosopher during the second half of the 20th century. He held “modernity” responsible for German Holocaust criminality.3 It was an intellectual way of deemphasizing German responsibility for its huge crimes.
One instance of whitewashing which received major publicity, is the case of Kurt Waldheim who was President of Austria from 1986 to 1992. Before the war, Waldheim had been a member of an SA mounted corps. He had also played a significant role in military units that committed war crimes even if he personally did not order or commit war crimes. Over the years, he developed a broad denial strategy of the crucial facts.
There has also been much whitewashing of acts during the Holocaust period unrelated to crimes. One major example involved U.S. wartime President Franklin D. Roosevelt. His memorial library in New York long blamed the State Department for U.S. inaction during the Holocaust period. This was a typical case of whitewashing by deflecting responsibility to others.
Another example of extreme whitewashing involving the U.S. occurred in 1985. Then German Chancellor Helmut Kohl invited U.S. President Ronald Reagan to visit the country’s military cemetery in Bitburg. On first impression, it seemed that only soldiers and officers of the Wehrmacht were buried there. As previously mentioned, the Wehrmacht was involved in heinous acts of mass murders of Jews. The visit, thus was an initial act of whitewashing. Shortly after the visit was announced, it became known that the facts were far worse. Members of the SS were also buried in this cemetery.
In his memoirs, Elie Wiesel devotes an entire chapter to the Bitburg affair.4 He summarizes the essence of this whitewashing process: “The German tactic is obvious; to whitewash the SS. It is the final step in a carefully conceived plan. To begin with, Germany rehabilitated the ‘gentle,’ ‘innocent’ Wehrmacht. And now, thanks to Kohl, it was the turn of the SS. First of all, the ‘good’ ones. And then would come the turn of the others. And once the door was open, the torturers and the murderers would be allowed in as well.”5
Pre-war anti-Jewish inciters did not have any need for whitewashing antisemitism. Hate mongering was an accepted attitude within the culture of many European countries. After the Holocaust, classic antisemitism was no longer politically correct. This created the need for whitewashing the hatred of Jews.
There are many whitewashing techniques. They are more or less the same over time. Analyzing how they are applied to significant crimes committed, enables one to understand the essentials of this methodology. We see these same techniques in active use today. One example amongst many are the multiple efforts to whitewash the sometimes extreme and far from insignificant antisemitism in the British Labour party.
Condemnation of Israel by many Western countries involves whitewashing. The implicit idea here is: ‘we condemn you because we are moral while you commit immoral acts.’ If one investigates, it becomes clear that whatever immoral acts Israel may commit, they are often minor compared to the acts of those who condemn them.
Members of the United Nations Human Rights Council include criminal dictatorships. This body is supposedly responsible for the promotion and protection of all human rights around the globe. Members on the Council in fact are largely exempt from investigation of human rights crimes in their countries.
Whitewashing techniques are so numerous that only a few can be mentioned here. The current statistics of antisemitic incidents in Germany are greatly distorted. The incidents where the perpetrators are unknown are attributed to the right. There have even been distorted studies which claim that Muslim immigrants do not add to antisemitism in Germany. Yet the results of the major 2018 study by the Fundamental Rights Agency on Jewish perceptions of antisemitism in twelve European countries, show that Muslims are among the leading perpetrators of antisemitic incidents.6
There are very few research institutions addressing antisemitism. Thus, a seemingly secondary issue such as whitewashing of hate mongering doesn’t receive systematic attention in the literature on antisemitism, let alone in the general media. This absence of attention makes it easy for the whitewashers to continue their dirty work.
1 Thomas Haury, “Current Anti-Semitism in East Germany,” Post-Holocaust and AntiSemitism, 59, 1 August 2007
2 “Reemtsma schliesst die umstrittene Wehrmacht-Ausstellung, Die Welt, 5 November 1999.
3 Clemens Heni, “Secondary Anti-Semitism: From Hard-Core to Soft-Core Denial of the Shoah,” Jewish Political Studies Review, Vol. 20, Nos. 3–4 (Fall 2008)
4 Elie Wiesel, And the Sea Is Never Full: Memoirs, 1969 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999), 224–250.
5 Ibid, 234.