A Topic Too Hot to Handle

Johannes Schneider Johannes.Schneider at SPAMgmx.net
Mon Feb 5 07:22:20 MST 2001

This week Norman Finkelstein's "The Holocaust Industry" is to appear in
German translation. First signs of public hysteria are already manifest.
Watch out for more in the next weeks.


>From today's Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung:


A Topic Too Hot to Handle

By Lorenz Jäger

FRANKFURT. In 1953, when Lavrenty Beria, the head of the Soviet secret
police, was liquidated, subscribers to the Great Soviet Encyclopedia
received a letter from the editor. They were politely requested to cut out
the entry "Beria" and send it back to the Encyclopedia. In return they were
offered an updated version of the entry "Bering Strait," to be pasted into
the empty space.

These days there are good reasons to remember this anecdote. Two books from
the United States had the German public talking for weeks last summer. The
first is Norman G. Finkelstein's "The Holocaust Industry" and the second is
Peter Novick's study of the "Americanization" of the Holocaust, "The
Holocaust in American Life."

Reflective and Moderate, Stridently Polemical

Both books address in critical-historical terms the media representation of
Nazi Germany's policy of genocide. Novick is reflective and moderate,
Finkelstein is sometimes splendidly and sometimes stridently polemical.

Above all, the third section of Finkelstein's book, the hard core of his
argument, which questions whether the number of survivors has been
overestimated, created quite a stir. In his book, he maintains among other
things that considerable sums from German compensation funds are not being
sent to survivors but wrongly directed to more and more new Holocaust
museums and education programs.

Both books appear this week in German translation. The regional broadcaster
SWR commissioned TV journalist Tina Mendelsohn to make a documentary on
Finkelstein's arguments. The film begins with swing music and Joseph
Goebbels howling in the late 1930s and early '40s about Jews who escaped to
Paris, London and New York. It shows survivors of the National Socialist
genocide, former forced laborers, representatives of the Jewish Claims
Conference, lawyers in various major trials of recent years, a spokesperson
for a Swiss bank.

The film shows historians who reject Finkelstein's arguments, such as Hans
Mommsen, who believes that the book fuels mindless resentment in Germany.
And it shows others, such as Lutz Niethammer, who seem to recognize a grain
of truth in Finkelstein's criticism of victim organizations. Finkelstein
himself appears in the film, explaining his arguments again. It also shows
Salomon Korn, accusing the author of propagating conspiracy theories.

These are diverse voices. No one who sees the film will find assessing
Finkelstein's book any easier; on the contrary. One of the most effective
images in the film is the interview with one of the pioneers of the Claims
Conference, describing the unimaginable difficulties of the institution's
early stages. How can anyone decide how much compensation is due for a dead
mother? A dead brother?

Censorship in the Guise of Protection

Watching this, it is hard to remain unmoved. But the German public won't be
watching it. The documentary has been taken off the programming schedule. It
was to have aired on Monday night, but last Friday newspapers received a
polite letter. At the instigation of television head Christof Schmid, the
broadcaster informed the press that "the film could unleash reactions that
the filmmaker Tina Mendelsohn and the responsible editors do not intend. A
revised version of the film will be aired at a later date. We ask that you
return the videocassettes." The paternalistic gesture that transforms the
censored reporter into one requiring protection should be noted.

Schmid is known as a thoughtful man. Observers describe him as a man of wide
intellectual horizons. Did he have no idea that his decision to withdraw the
film would unleash precisely what he feared -- a revival of the ugliest
possible stereotypes of the "Jewish influence" on the media? What motivated
him? No one knows. Even Mendelsohn was unable to speak with him last Friday.

The scandal begins where management intended it to break off. Mendelsohn is
an experienced television documentary filmmaker and was awarded a prize for
her work in 1997. Cynics may say that the broadcaster's unthinking decision
can only be to her advantage, increasing her public profile.

But SWR has pushed her into an extremist corner, where she doesn't actually
belong. In future, caution will prevail whenever her name is mentioned.
Anyone who wants to see how she really works will be able to watch one of
her earlier films on Monday night. The broadcaster hastily decided to show
Der Skandal und die Wehrmachtausstellung (The Scandal and the Wehrmacht
Exhibition) instead.

At the end of the Finkelstein film, Raul Hilberg, the first to research the
extermination of European Jews, has a say. He has seen fashions in the
politics of remembrance come and go. He explains that many of his more
skeptical views on the compensation policy of recent years would be
condemned by current opinion as anti-Semitic.

As one who came to Germany with the U.S. Army in 1945, this would not apply
to him. But the others would have to be more careful, he says, especially
the Germans and the Swiss. He's probably right.

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