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Prof. Sir Michael Howard

Prof. Sir Michael Howard

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Oxford University Chabad Society’s annual Holocaust Memorial Lecture - 27 January 2008

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Reflections on the Holocaust by War Historian Professor Sir Michael Howard

(Introduced by Rabbi Eli Brackman and Vice President of the Oxford University Chabad Society, Melissa Friedman)

To hear a recording of the talk click here

First, where I am coming from.

I am, as I realised rather late in life, a Jew of the blood. My mother’s Jewish parents came over from Germany and settled in England in the 1880s. They were not ‘observant’; and like most of their contemporaries in that diaspora, they did their best to assimilate to their host society. They gave my mother an upper-class English education; she did the same for me and my siblings; and as a result I have never felt anything but totally British. I only became conscious of my Jewish connections when a sad procession of my mother’s relations sought refuge in England in the 1930s. It did not strike home to me how closely involved I was with their tragic circumstances until I visited Auschwitz some twenty years ago.

There I saw two things that literally made my blood run cold. The first was a photograph of a railway station in Vienna in 1942, where smartly-dressed Jewish ladies were queuing to catch a train for a destination, unknown to them, all too well known to us. They were dressed exactly as my own mother was at the time: the same chic little hats, the same calf-length dresses, the same elegant hair-dos.: she would have passed unnoticed among them. The second was a pile of the contents of the handbags taken from the same victims before they were herded into the gas-chamber: powder-compacts, lip-sticks, face-creams, embroidered handkerchiefs : all the female accessories I had seen whenever my mother snapped open her handbag to powder her nose. It was only then that I realised what would have happened to her if the Germans had successfully invaded us in 1940.

As it was, all my close relations escaped one way or another, except for one cousin, an elderly lady who killed herself on the eve of being transported to the womens’ concentration camp at Ravensbruck. That is as close as my own family came to the Holocaust.. But I now know that, but for good fortune and the heroic performance of the Royal Air Force, I would not be here to give this lecture.

mail.jpgDo I find this experience – or rather, my good fortune in escaping it – an advantage as a historian ? In one way, yes: it enables me to empathise with the strong feelings that the memory of the Holocaust stirs in all those remotely connected with it; and that of course includes the whole Jewish people, But my training as a historian warns me against allowing those passions to affect my historical judgement; and that training has made me take a stand on two issues that are not always popular among audiences such as this.

First, I do not accept that those unbalanced individuals who deny the existence of the Holocaust should be criminalised, and so given the status of ‘martyrs for free speech’. Apart from anything else, to declare the holding of any opinion, however offensive or absurd it may seem to the rest of us, to be ‘illegal’ is to enter on a very dangerous path indeed. These people should be argued with, discredited and if necessary mocked. David Irving appears to be an intensely disagreeable man, and has been exposed as a thoroughly unreliable historian, and I think that those who invited him to address the Union were according him an honour that he did not deserve. But I also think that those who so vociferously objected to his presence were not only giving him a publicity that he did not deserve either, but probably also providing him with intense personal gratification. John Milton was right when he said that the best way of dealing with error is the re-iteration of the truth; which is one very good reason why the memory of the Holocaust should be kept fresh by lectures such as this.

mail4.jpgSecond, I can not accept that the argument that the Holocaust should not be ‘historicised’; that is, that historians should not try to understand, explain, and put it into context as we do any other historical event, because to do so may seem in some way to justify it. As a historian I cannot see that there can be any such ‘no-go areas’ in the past: I would be out of business if I did. There may be times or occasions when it is socially or politically inexpedient to raise certain issues, but as historians we have one overriding duty : to discover the truth of what happened and explain it to the best of our ability. That is what I shall try to do this evening.

It is easy to be shocked by the Holocaust: it is far more difficult to explain it. Here were the people of Germany, one of the most advanced and civilised societies that the world has ever seen, leaders in every branch of the arts, of philosophy, of scholarship, of science and technology , using all the means that their ingenuity had put at their disposal quite systematically to murder millions of their own most loyal and productive citizens. To call it ‘evil’ is almost to trivialise it: it was on a scale so monstrous that it almost transcended evil. Also, to use such emotive terms seems to absolve us from our responsibility to understand. To understand is not to forgive; but without understanding we cannot appreciate the dimensions of the problem with which we are dealing, or know what to do to ensure that it does not happen again..

The first problem that I myself face is, why was it the Germans who did this ? Here again I must explain where I am coming from. My mother transmitted to me not only Jewish blood, but the German culture imbibed and loved by her own parents. I feel at home with the German language (though I can barely speak it), with German poetry and German music, as I do with no other. So for me, even after I have explained it, it remains something of a mystery. After all, the Jews were no more unpopular in 19th century Germany than they were anywhere else in Europe. If one had been told , say in 1900, that the Holocaust would occur forty years later and asked to guess where it would happen, Germany would certainly not have been the first choice. That would probably have been Russia, where the pogroms, admittedly on a small if brutal scale, gave some indication of the intensity of racial prejudice in at least some regions of the Tsarist Empire. But Russia, it was generally admitted, was still semi-barbaric.. When she had caught up with the West, as she seemed rapidly to be doing, incidents like these would surely sink back into her troubled history. But next on the list would probably have been France, where at the turn of the century violent and endemic anti-Semitism was finding expression, not only in such works as Edouard Drumont’s La France juive   and the circulation of the infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion, but in the official victimisation of Captain Alfred Dreyfus with the consent of the entire French establishment and half the electorate.

mail5.jpgThere was nothing like this going on in Germany. There was anti-Semitism certainly: Jews found it hard to get on in certain professions, especially the Army; but so they did in England. But on the whole, ever since their emancipation at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Jews had been assimilated into German society as well, if not indeed better, than anywhere else in Continental Europe. They prided themselves on being loyal subjects of the Hohenzollern monarchy. My mother had cousins who fought as gallantly in the German Army in the First World War as her brother did in the British. A little later, others would have served their country just as willingly in the Wehrmacht in the Second World War, if they had been given the chance. So why was it the Germans who inflicted on themselves this hideous wound; one from which, arguably, they have never recovered?

To try to explain why, I am afraid that I must venture in a very amateur way into the fields of political science and human psychology

In the course of the eighteenth century there developed in Europe two contrasting schools of thought. One was that generally known as ‘the Enlightenment’; the ideas that inspired the American and French Revolutions and are now the orthodoxy of the Western world. This teaches that all individual human beings are born with inalienable rights and responsibilities for their own well-being. In consequence any association or community to which they belong comes into being only through their freely-given consent and remain legitimate only in so far as it recognises those rights.

mail7.jpgOn the other hand there was the school that Isaiah Berlin has termed ‘the Counter-Enlightenment. This held that, so far from individuals being born ‘free’ and responsible for their own destinies, they are in fact born into pre-existent communities which mould their characteristics and their cultures; and the interests of these communities have overriding precedence over those of the individual. Indeed the values and ‘rights’ of individuals derive entirely from their membership of this pe-existing community. This view was more popular in the land of Herder and Hegel than it was in France, Britain, or the United States, but there is a great deal to be said for it. As most of us know from personal experience, we all have a deeply-felt need to be members of a community of some kind, and we feel uncomfortable and isolated if we are not. Adolescents once they leave the protection of their nuclear family find security in groups of their peers; sometimes, alas, in gangs. Their loyalties, with luck, will broaden out into more mature and productive communities, and of these the ultimate and all-embracing has been, in Europe, the nation-state. I think that for most of us it still is. In non-European cultures it has usually been the extended family of the tribe, or the religious community and its local variants. As for the Jews, it was of course for centuries the close-knit communities of the ghettoes, from one of which my own great-great grandfather emerged two hundred years ago, to become a loyal citizen of the principality of Hesse, as his children, a little later, were to become loyal subjects of the German Reich 

mail6.jpgBut the very existence of these communities, however necessary they may be to our well-being, creates, alas, the outsiders; the Others, those who don’t belong. We learned to recognise those Others at school. They spoke with the wrong accent, or they wore the wrong clothes, or they had funny-sounding names, or they lived on the wrong side of the tracks: in short they were not , as Lady Thatcher put it, ‘one of us’ – unless of course they were stars at games, in which case all was forgiven. They might not present a ‘threat’, but they did not fit. And that was the trouble with the Jews in Europe, from the Middle Ages till the nineteenth century and after: with their closely-knit families, their own language, their elaborate religious observances, and often their distinctive appearance, they did not fit. They were always ‘the other’: useful enough when one wanted to borrow money and an even more useful scapegoat when anything went wrong. Shakespeare’s Shylock would have been instantly recognisable to any Elizabethan audience.

So long as they were confined to their ghettoes and knew their place, the Jews were tolerable. They might not fit, but they had their uses and presented no serious threat to their neighbours. But once they were emancipated and granted full civil rights, they were able to join in every field of social activity. They had always been disliked by the aristocracy and the peasants who encountered them mainly as money-lenders. Now, in an increasingly capitalist economy, they were also resented by the middle and professional classes as successful competitors, as well as being mistrusted, if envied, for their international affiliations. (And I am afraid that the fact that my Jewish cousins who fought in the Great War had cousins on the other side cannot have counted in their favour among their own comrades-in-arms). So nineteenth-century Europe witnessed the grim paradox, that the more successfully the Jews were assimilated into their host societies, the more unpopular they became.

This did not have serious consequences in stable and prosperous societies such as Britain. Anti-Semitism was certainly rife in Edwardian England where the Jews were not seen as ‘one of us’ unless they were stinking rich; and even then they were not welcome in the really smart upper-class clubs. Humorists like Hilaire Belloc was able to write about them in terms that no editor would dare to print today. But when societies were not stable or prosperous it was a very different matter; and when the wheels came off the coach as disastrously as they did in post-war Germany the situation became really nasty.

So to understand why the Holocaust occurred in Germany, we have to remember what Germany was like after 1918. There had been the long ordeal of the war itself, with its mass slaughter of soldiers at the front and the near-starvation of civilians at home. Then there had been the humiliation of sudden, total, and to many people inexplicable military defeat. Then there was social revolution and civil war. And finally there came economic and financial collapse; not once, but twice, in 1923 and six years later in 1929. The stable, self-confident civil society that before 1914 had been the envy of the world was shattered: and its members looked for someone to blame.

Wartime privation had already blamed on the Jews, who were very widely seen – as indeed they were in England – as being war profiteers. Now they became the scapegoats for all Germany’s ills: not just disliked, but hated: hated as aliens, not true Germans and all the more to be mistrusted when they pretended to be true Germans. Visceral prejudice was given bogus scientific validity by the quasi-science of eugenics. Adolf Hitler had brought with him from Vienna an anti-Semitism far more bitter than any being brewed in Germany itself, and his party skilfully exploited the political advantage of an enemy equally unpopular among all social classes. Anti-Semitism lay at the very root of Nazi propaganda and, I am afraid, very largely of Nazi success. By 1939 the German people had been taught to see in the Jews an internal enemy as dangerous as those who threatened them from beyond their frontiers, and almost certainly in league with them. When war came, it was depicted as a pre-emptive strike against Jewish Bolshevism in the East and Jewish Capitalism in the West; a global conspiracy that had to be destroyed if Germany was to survive.

So the elimination of the Jewish population was seen by the Nazi regime as an essential part of waging, and winning, the Second World War. First they had to be rendered impotent through confiscation of wealth, property and status. Then they had to be forcibly expelled. Finally, when there was nowhere left to expel them to, there could only be one solution; that made possible by the technological expertise that German scientists had done so much to develop.

I think that it is the sheer efficiency of the Final Solution that we find so shocking: the meticulous paper-work by the dedicated bureaucrats; the railway timetables; the expert organisation of the death-camps; the scientific ingenuity with which the largest number of victims were slaughtered in the shortest possible time; and – perhaps most horrible of all – the careful economy with which their possessions were preserved and recycled for the war effort. If there was one thing at Auschwitz that I can never forget, it is the piles of human hair, carefully harvested from the heads of living victims for future use. It is this cold-blooded use of industrial and technological skill in mass murder that that makes the Final Solution unique: so far.

For don’t let us forget that this kind of tribal slaughter has happened before; it is happening now; and is all too likely to happen again. Whether or not we call it ‘genocide’ is to my mind legal pedantry: it makes no difference to the victims what it is called. It can happen when any group is persuaded that its existence is threatened by another – an ‘Other’, that is strong enough to pose a threat but weak enough to be eliminated without offering serious resistance. I cannot think of any region of the world, or period of human history, when this has not happened. Classical antiquity is full of such slaughters. I shall prudently leave it to you to decide what evidence is provided by the Old Testament (to use Christian parlance) about the means used by the Jews to eliminate opposition to their conquest of the Promised Land. Protestants and Catholics slaughtered each other in Europe – not least in Ireland. In the early twentieth century Moslems and Slavs slaughtered each other in the Balkans and Turks slaughtered Armenians in Asia-Minor. In my own lifetime Hindus and Moslems slaughtered each other by the million in India; while today in Africa we might almost say that tribal slaughter is endemic.

A hundred years ago, we might have dismissed such slaughter as a phenomenon of a past that we have long outgrown, or a barbaric practice in the darker parts of the world that we had a duty to eliminate. We can’t do that any longer. For one thing, we have done it ourselves: civilisation, or modernisation, or whatever we like to call it, clearly provides no inoculation against the habit. For another, the state of the world today makes the temptation to such actions more rather than less likely.

For we are witnessing how throughout the world the comparatively orderly structures created by agrarian societies are dissolving, as did those in Europe two centuries ago, under the impact of global capitalism. Their former European masters bequeathed their own model of nation-states, but these do not necessarily fit, either geographically, economically or culturally. When these societies try to remould themselves, they need to define or redefine their frontiers, and establish viable hierarchies of administration. Their space will include ethnic or religious minorities. It may indeed be composed entirely of such minorities; groups that should be co-opted as partners but are all too easily regarded as threats. In a world of constantly changing uncertainties, people will naturally cling, or revert, to their traditional communities, tribal or religious: but the very existence of these communities implies a threatening ‘Other’ both within and outside their own borders. Finally, such rivalries and mistrust may well be sharpened, in the not far distant future, by competition for scarce natural resources. The option of ‘pre-emptive slaughter’ remains very much on the cards.

So we would be very unwise to see the Holocaust as a terrible exception, a unique event to be taken out of history and placed beyond the reach both of deranged sceptics and prying historians. Much better to see it as an awful warning: this is what people can do to one another under certain conditions: have done before, are doing now, may do again. Of course Jews in particular should remember it and make sure that everyone else does; but not simply because they were the victims, and because what was done to them makes them in some way privileged and exceptional. It was done by ordinary human beings to other ordinary human beings. Neither murderers nor their victims were in any essentials different from ourselves.

So when we pray in remembrance of those who died, let us pray also that neither we, nor our children, ever find ourselves in the position, not so much of the victims as of their murderers and those who supported them, or those who simply let it happen: thinking the kind of thoughts, saying the kind of things, tolerating the kind of behaviour, that ultimately makes such horrors possible. From such temptation, not a single one of us is exempt.

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