Holocaust Relativism

"Hitler" analogies betray both past and present

By Diana Johnstone

The war was launched to protect an oppressed ethnic minority, to punish a massacre, and to secure a New World Order.

Which war was that? Why, Hitler's war of course, which came to be known as World War II. The ostensibly oppressed ethnic minority was the Germans in Slavic countries, the aggression was a fake Polish incursion into Germany denounced as a "massacre," and the "New World Order" was the declared goal of Nazi Germany.

These pretexts or aims of Hitler's war of conquest are largely forgotten in the United States. They are never cited by politicians or media drawing parallels between then and now.

However, everyone remembers the Holocaust, Hitler and Munich. Reduced to these three elements, the standard "lesson" of World War II goes like this: There was an evil man, Hitler, who wanted to kill all the Jews. At Munich, the West failed to stop him. The result was the Holocaust. Therefore we must "stand up" to whatever "new Hitler" comes along. This simplistic formula discredits diplomacy and justifies the use of military force. To call out the hounds of war, all that is needed is to identify the latest adversary as a new "Hitler" and to dismiss any attempt to find a reasonable compromise as "Munich."

From the beginning of the Yugoslav crisis in 1991, the media took the easy way of reporting on an extremely complex and unfamiliar situation by resorting to analogy. The Washington public relations firm, Ruder Finn, on contract to Croatia and the Kosovo Albanians, took shrewd advantage of this tendency by likening Serb relocation camps in Bosnia--horrific places such as exist in conflicts around the world, and indeed existed in Bosnia under Muslim and Croat control as well--to "Auschwitz." Suddenly, Milosevic was "the new Hitler." A journalist who might challenge such exaggeration not only risked missing the "big story" but could be accused of "revisionism" or "Auschwitz denial."

More recently, a number of American journalists have indeed managed to produce excellent and balanced articles from Yugoslavia. Steven Erlanger's reports from Kosovo for the New York Times reflect the complexities and ambiguities of a province devastated by NATO bombing, obscure combat, crime, intimidation and panic. Such serious reporting has a long way to go to counteract years of simplified analogies, distorted and inaccurate facts and outright propaganda by editorialists, columnists and cartoonists echoing each other in endless variations on the "new Hitler" theme.

The tragic-comic fate of mankind seems to be to fail to see the next trap in the effort to avoid the last one. By constantly recalling Auschwitz, the collective imagination has projected it onto much more ordinary human disasters. At present, the truly successful "revisionism" is not denial of Auschwitz but its relativization, by seeing it where it isn't.

The dangers of analogy construction

Analogies should be employed with care, especially with such emotion-laden subjects as Hitler and the Holocaust. When applied to unfamiliar situations, they can create a powerful semi-fictional version that actually masks reality. Faced with a "new Hitler" and alleged "genocide," there can be no inquiry as to the real motives and interests of the various parties. Instead, the issue is reduced to identifying the "bad guy" and "standing up" to him. This mindset virtually precludes serious efforts to grasp why people are acting as they do.

It has even helped to obscure the causes and motives of Nazi aggression. In reality, Hitler's vicious anti-Semitism could not in itself have led Germany into a war of conquest stretching from North Africa to Norway to the Volga. The military, financial and industrial elites of Germany were motivated by geo-strategic goals: a German-dominated Europe known as the "New World Order."

The propaganda that incited Germans to fight told them that they were on a mission to bring good German "Western" order to the world. To achieve such order, elements of disorder had to be identified and eliminated. Here is where Hitler's anti-Semitism came in: For Hitler, disorder in the form of both communism and capitalism was caused primarily by Jews and secondarily by Slavs (considered an incompetent sub-race), as well as by minor trouble-makers such as Gypsies and homosexuals.

If parallels are to be drawn between the present NATO war and the Nazi blitzkreig, some of them could be extremely embarrassing to the NATO allies. But American media have never cared to dwell on the fact that the "New World Order" was a Nazi slogan resurrected by President Bush once the Soviet Union collapsed, nor on the fact that Hitler ordered the bombing of Belgrade to punish it for opposing that "Order," while rewarding Croatian and Albanian secessionist nationalists with enlarged states from which they proceeded to drive out Serbian inhabitants. These, however, are the parallels seen by most Serbs, whether they support or detest Slobodan Milosevic. If this is not understood, the Serbs cannot be understood.

Condemning the Serbian "race"

As the NATO bombing inevitably fails to win the hearts of the Serbian
people, they themselves increasingly have become the target not only of the bombing but also of the propaganda campaign. Their resistance is attributed to perverse stubbornness, or to complicity in the presumed crimes of "the new Hitler."

The demonstrable fact that the Serbian people strongly favor a multi-ethnic society, the fact that Serbia is indeed the closest thing to a genuine multi-ethnic state in the region--this is ignored, or denied, by constant reference to the new invisible phantom haunting Europe, "Serbian nationalism." President Clinton's claim to be destroying Yugoslavia in order to achieve what has long existed--a multi-ethnic society--while the United States supports an armed ethnic Albanian movement fighting to establish an ethnically pure Greater Albania, raises ignorance, or dishonesty, to new levels of absurdity.

Since they refuse to respond to NATO bombing by overthrowing Milosevic, the conclusion drawn by the NATO propagandists is that the Serbian people themselves are the "new Nazis." In mid-May, the BBC posed its question of the week: Could Serbia reform itself? No, said a British academic, Mark Wheeler, who was of the opinion that Serbia would have to be occupied militarily, like Germany after World War II, and "denazified."

An individual citizen can sue a publication for libel. There is no such
recourse for the population of a country that finds itself targeted by
NATO. Anything goes when it comes to insulting "the Serbs." The April 12 Newsweek did not hesitate to characterize the Serbs as a "race" displaying uniquely negative qualities, in an article by Rod Nordland entitled "Vengeance of a Victim Race." "Serbs," readers were told, "are expert haters."

Malicious generalizations alternate with lies. "This is the nation that
invented the term 'ethnic cleansing'--as a wartime boast in 1991 when they were kicking Croats out of Croatia," wrote Nordland. This is not true. As Jim Naureckas points out (Extra!, 5 6/99), the term was appearing in U.S. newspapers a decade earlier to describe Albanians' treatment of Serbs in Kosovo. The practice is age-old. It has been repeatedly practiced in the Balkan region as a forcible way of ending border disputes, most dramatically in the huge population exchanges between Greece and Turkey in the first part of the 20th Century. As for the war in Croatia in 1991, the practice was mutual, as part of the dispute over boundaries in a fragmented Yugoslavia. This was the inevitable result of Western approval of a hasty and unnegotiated dismantling of Yugoslavia.

Newsweek presumes to delve into the Serb psyche. It finds a "sense of
victimization"--a convenient element to disparage and dismiss preemptively in a people selected to be victims of NATO bombing. Anything that we do to them is only in their minds. "The other critical element of the Serb psyche: inat, which means 'spite' but also includes the idea of revenge no matter what the cost. A taste for revenge mixed with self-pity is a dangerous combination."

As it happens, "inat" is a word that also exists in the Albanian language, with exactly the same meaning. In fact, "inat" is a Turkish word, which was adopted in all the languages of the region from the ruling Ottoman Turks. If the existence of the term in the national vocabulary is a key to the national "psyche," it applies just as much to the Albanians, and perhaps most of all to the Turks. But they are our allies, and thus do not require such scrutiny.

Such an article is nothing but propaganda, which can serve only to justify subjecting a whole people to pariah treatment and even eventual
destruction. The subtitle of Nordland's article is: "The Serbs are Europe's outsiders, seasoned haters raised on self-pity. Even the 'democrats' are questionable characters." Substitute "Jews" for "Serbs", and you have a sample of the sort of rhetoric the Nazis applied prior to "the final solution." If parallels are to be drawn with World War II, it is high time to explore all the angles.

Reprinted from
Extra! (The Magazine of FAIR, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting)
July/August 1999

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