By Lorenz Jäger
FRANKFURT. A debate is gaining momentum that some think should never have been allowed to begin, certainly not in Germany. Many Germans are saying it is a matter for the Americans. In the United States, meanwhile, people are asking why Norman G. Finkelstein's book "The Holocaust Industry" is preoccupying the Germans and the British yet being treated almost like a specimen of samizdat in the U.S. That, at least, is the theme of a commentary by British columnist Christopher Hitchens in the upcoming issue of The Nation. Finkelstein has been given "the silent treatment," says Hitchens.
It is Finkelstein's thesis that in remembering the Holocaust, dogma - that of the unique nature of Nazi genocide - and material interests have been interlocked into an ideology. This led his critics to accuse him of subscribing to a conspiracy theory. Finkelstein's response, published in last Saturday's Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper, is not lacking in ingenuity. Supposing, says Finkelstein, that in the 1950s someone had claimed that the CIA was "directly or indirectly" subsidizing a large number of the free world's key cultural projects - the most obvious response would have been to dismiss the originator of such ideas "as a hare-brained conspiracy theorist." The punch line is, says Finkelstein, that "he would have also been right."
So, is Finkelstein's book, which will be published in German next spring by Piper Verlag, suitable material for a debate in Germany? Responding to a survey by the German press agency dpa, German historian Hans Mommsen said it was not. Ought "The Holocaust Industry" even to be discussed at the Historikertag , the conference of German historians to be held in Aachen in a few weeks' time? Historian Eberhard Jäckel is strictly opposed to the idea.
Jäckel and Mommsen consider it primarily a matter for the Americans. "Why should we respond to every polemic that doesn't concern us?" Jäckel asked dpa. The Historikertag was "not the platform for delivering up-to-date reactions," he added. Mommsen said better works on the "Americanization of the Holocaust" had long been available but had regrettably escaped the notice of the German general public.
Johannes Fried, chairman of the German historians' association, pointed out that as matters stood, the Finkelstein debate was not on the conference agenda. The association had an open mind on the matter if a debate was wanted, he added.
Wolfgang Benz, director of the Berlin Technical University's Center for Research into Anti-Semitism, sees the debate less as a matter for historians than as a problem of political culture. Whereas in the U.S. the debate is taking place on the left side of the spectrum, where both Finkelstein and Hitchens see themselves, Benz is worried about the applause that Finkelstein attracts from the average armchair warrior in Germany.
Munich historian Michael Wolffsohn believes that many German historians avoid discussing the instrumentalization of the Holocaust "like the devil avoids holy water," because they are conformists and fear for their careers. "With or without the Historikertag , in the long term this topic cannot be treated as taboo. Whether and to what extent Finkelstein did careful research is a question of technique and method, but not a political question. It is not the people raising the subject but those trying to impose a taboo on it who are encouraging anti-Semitism," Wolffsohn said.
Historian Karl Dietrich Bracher also spoke out against making the subject taboo. "One cannot exclude those topics from debate. That also has its political importance," he said. Yet Bracher also argued for Germans to adopt a clear attitude of reserve. "Finkelstein's and the Germans' moral viewpoints are not the same," he said.
Commenting on Finkelstein's charge of financial irregularities on the part of the Jewish Claims Conference, historian Hans-Ulrich Wehler said he would prefer "foreign critics to find fault and not Germans, least of all right-wing Germans," which, he added, would be leading to a completely distorted view. "This is still a very delicate subject, and not just for members of our political generation," he said. Fried said he was concerned that the book, when published in German, might find the "wrong readers."