For moral obtuseness THIS Pope’s aborted rehabilitation of bishop Richard Williamson sets a landmark in this monumentally obtuse papacy. Williamson’s old-line Holocaust denial not being a giant red flag in the gossipy ruling clique at the Vatican should be the conclusive proof of what Catholic critics of Ratzinger’s and his predecessor’s papacies have said, they’ve filled the hierarchy with careerist yes men in service to isolated men of severely limited moral comprehension. You would think that a more developed sense of morality would be the standard that a pope is held to, but that’s been missing in the Vatican for the past thirty years.
This is the second time that Holocaust denial has figured in the news since the beginning of the year, the other was in the angry and at times irresponsible reaction to Israel’s invasion of Gaza. All of this is supremely disturbing. The Holocaust is the most important formative factor of my generation’s moral culture. The consequences of the development of nuclear weapons, giving governments the possibility to produce multiple and instantaneous holocausts, might be seen as an equally important moral problem for my generation.
The generation that directly experienced the Holocaust is passing, rapidly, away. Their direct witness is entrusted to those of us who were born after it happened. It is a witness that is under increasing attack and, as the Vatican’s PR disaster shows, it doesn’t seem to inform even some of those who were alive at that time. The neo-Nazis and their allies are always a danger to that witness. Their activities show why history is important, they do want to revive Nazism, they want to exterminate Jews, mostly. That fact, the fact that Holocaust denial is largely an anti-Semitic manifestation, determines how the Holocaust is seen and the nature of the response to those who deny it. In addressing that fact, I am afraid that a huge miscalculation has been made in how we deal with the fact of the Holocaust.
For all of the good reasons to remember the past, none of them is as important as how knowing what happened can help us form the present and, so, the future. If studying the Holocaust was merely a somber meditation on the crimes of the Nazis and the lives of their victims, it wouldn’t be nearly as important as it really is. In our perverted intellectual values system the merely abstract is generally held in higher repute that what is useful. That is an extremely stupid attitude. Utility, held in vulgar contempt by aristocrats going back to Plato, doesn’t diminish the stature of an intellectual exercise, it consecrates it with real meaning and with living consequence. It is what the murders of the victims, the criminal intent of the murderers, the resistance of the survivors can tell us to change lives now and into the future that are the real and highest honor that memory can be given. It is the highest honor to the dead, the supreme act of remembering. It removes the Holocaust from the realm of erodible letters on a monument that will eventually be ignored through habituation and makes it a living and important fact.
The assertion by some that the Holocaust is a singular event unlike any other and so incomparable, is a disservice to those who died in it. It is a disservice to the whole of humanity. There are even those who focus on the Jewish victims of the Nazis as being apart from the others. That is to some extent understandable, but it is short sighted and, in the worst cases, repulsive. The Nazis were in the business of ranking, of classifying and valuing people. Today, with the example of the entire Holocaust as a lesson, for their victims deaths to be classified in a similar manner is among the most vulgar and disgusting acts imaginable. It is a desecration not a memorial. To set that history of death, now sixty years past, apart from the genocides that preceded it and which continue today is just as much a desecration. It is to minimize the importance of other victims. It also diminishes the impact of the murders of the Jews by making them of merely parochial interest. People who claim that the genocide against them is, somehow, more important than that of another group should be unsurprised when those other groups choose to not see it that way. The memory of the Jewish victims of the Holocaust is best preserved by seeing them as being among the larger set of victims of the Nazis and of all genocides in all of history. All of the victims of the Holocaust are our people, all of the victims of all genocides are our people.
Williamson’s denial consists largely of denying the well established figure of six-million Jewish victims of the Holocaust, citing a figure of two-to-three-hundred-thousand victims. There is a telling elision in the statement of the idea. What it really means is “a MERE two-to-three-hundred-thousand”.* Let’s learn the lesson that this grim and vulgar numbers game can teach us. How did two-hundred-thousand ethnic murder victims become of nugatory significance in the world? Consider that. Two-hundred to three-hundred thousand murders, a footnote? I seem to recall that being the estimate for another of the identified groups of those the Nazis rounded up and murdered. I’m not going to tell you which one, all of them, including Jehovah’s Witnesses** and others who are seldom mentioned in that somber roll. I suspect that Williamson’s form of numbers based denial is a warning of how the neo-Nazis will play this going forward. It is their use of how the Nazi’s murder of Jews is presented as an event that can be separated out from the rest of their crimes. Separating the attempted genocide of Jews from others might have presented the deniers with some of their present day tactics.
All genocide throughout time should be talked of as a single crime, committed by those who think they have the right to kill people based on their identity. To see all of it as a part of the same lesson, which we all have a stake in preventing and which we have a duty to apply in life is to best protect any aspect of it. That reform of our common culture is going to be mightily resisted.
Governments today, more than half a century after the Nazis were defeated, practice genocide. Governments actively support other governments that practice genocide, generally for the rankest of economic and political motives. So governments will resist both facing their own past and their present acts. Mass media are a part of this crime against history and the present. They ignore numbers of murders up to and including hundreds of thousands, one fears they would ignore numbers up into the millions again, for their own reasons. They ignore even ongoing genocides on the basis of location and ethnicity, they talk about “ethnic cleansing***” to minimize genocide when they talk about it. Americans are kept in ignorance of the huge numbers dead as the results of actions taken by our government and those they have propped up in the decades after we witnessed the concentration camps, tried and executed many of the criminals. Many of the governments who did that found it convenient to allow some of the war-time criminals to escape and escape justice due to some perverted sense of utility. There are few of us who aren’t implicated in these acts of desecration to the memory of the victims of the Nazis. We are even more guilty in the genocides in the decades after we can’t use ignorance of history as an excuse.
The only way we can expunge the guilt is to face all of the genocide and to actively work to stop them now. Those who focus exclusively on the Holocaust, insisting that it is a unique event in history, even while supporting governments who have and are practicing or supporting subsequent mass murders, haven’t forgotten the lesson of the Holocaust because they’ve chosen to never learn it to begin with. The Holocaust, unless it is a living witness, one that has a determinative value in stopping the killing that is going on today, will become merely a neglected and vandalized cemetery.
* That a “bishop” could imply that hundreds of thousands of murders is of diminished moral consequence due to a lack of numbers is an indictment of his moral authority. Anyone who knew he’d said it and thought he could be taken as a religious figure is, likewise, indicted.
** I was tempted to list Jehovah’s Witnesses among other groups as a motivation to consider how we see the groups listed for extermination by the Nazis. I know that there is a temptation to rank them by group. I admit that I’m guilty of it too, though I’m trying to work my way out of it.
*** This is one of the most repulsive phrases in the English language, invented decades into the saturation of official Holocaust remembrance in the West. If there is any proof that the way we’ve talked about the Holocaust is entirely insufficient, it is the widespread adoption of a phrase that equates the victims of contemporary genocide with filth to be eradicated.