PRAGUE — What connects Iran’s nuclear ambitions and Holocaust denial?
With equal fervor, Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, defends his country’s right to develop its nuclear capacity (though denying that his country seeks nuclear weapons) and challenges decades of Holocaust research. How should Ahmedinejad’s denial that Iran intends to pursue nuclear arms be judged in light of his Holocaust denial? Journalists ask, but Ahmedinejad won’t answer. His argument is that Iran does not want nuclear weapons, and would not use them to duplicate a crime that did not happen.
Some Westerners, while lamenting Ahmedinejad’s insensitivity, have struggled to minimize the significance of his Holocaust denial as the fulminations of a misguided fanatic (as if misguided fanaticism were an incidental quality in a nation’s president). This misses the point. Holocaust denial is not an argument about the past. It is an argument about the future.
The point of Holocaust denial is to remove the taboo now associated with the original crime. For deniers, the problem is not that the Holocaust occurred, but that most people still consider it to be a bad thing. Thus, Auschwitz is dismissed as a “detail of history,” in the telling phrase of the French politician Jean-Marie Le Pen.
What Holocaust deniers seek most is to undo the idea that Nazi crimes should have any impact on current international relations or on global notions of morality. Ahmedinejad made this point repeatedly in interviews with Western media and in long letters to U.S. President George W. Bush and German Chancellor Andrea Merkel. He has even done the math: 60 years have indeed passed since the Holocaust ended, five times the actual period of Nazi rule in Germany. So, it is time, he wrote Merkel, to “make the shadow of World War II disappear.”
Unsurprisingly, he has Israel in mind. But Ahmedinejad’s obsession with Israel blinds him to any understanding of what happened across Europe in World War II — and to the fact that present-day Europe was constructed over the six decades since then as a response to this historical disaster. In writing to Merkel, he is addressing the leader of a country decimated by Nazi rule — millions dead, an entire society and economy reduced to rubble.
Had she been politically active during the Nazi times, Merkel would have landed in a concentration camp. Yet Ahmedinejad, referring to Europe’s response to the Holocaust, asks her to imagine “what standing some European countries could have had and what global role they could have played, if it had not been for this 60-year-old imposition.”
Germany does not seem to have done too badly in these 60 years, but consider the core of this “imposition”: the effort to give enduring political expression to the moral concepts of good and evil that the Nazis tried to invert.
As a policy, the Holocaust was premised on denial — the physical denial of any legitimate religious, racial, or political difference within Nazi Germany. The means of this denial were the annihilation of offending populations — the Jews foremost among them — in a merciless attempt at social purification. The intent of the crime was so ambitious, and its scope so great, that a new word — genocide — was coined to describe it.
Modern media played a role, too, broadcasting images of the death camps that immediately came to symbolize the depth of Nazi depravity. The enduring impact of the Holocaust, explored in hundreds of books and films, was to portray Nazism as the ultimate expression of evil. In this context, to deny the Holocaust is to reject its modern association with evil, and implies that what happened during the Holocaust could be accommodated under a different moral order.
Ahmedinejad argues that outside pressure, not the actual historical experience of total war, keeps the memory of the Holocaust alive in Europe. What he doesn’t understand is that the memory of Auschwitz is also the memory of the Battle of Britain, the bombing of Dresden, the occupation of Paris and the Warsaw uprising. Auschwitz did not occur in a vacuum. It was the furthest extreme of a disaster that incorporated all these other events.
If the Holocaust did not happen, or if it has no meaning, then how is the rest of modern European history to be understood? If there were no crimes, then the Nazis were not criminals.
Ahmedinejad feels the power that comes with re-writing history. He enjoys taunting the West with the past that he denies. He understands the temptation of evil, the lure of forgetfulness. Above all, he is a practical man. It does Ahmedinejad no good for Europe to maintain a sense of history that must put it at cross purposes with Iran.
Ahmedinejad’s purpose is simple: find the weak spots in the chain that links Europe to its past and, through this past, to Israel and America. Europe’s choice is equally clear: to accept absolution for this past from the president of Iran, or to determine whether the standard of truth that he applies to history is the same as he applies to nuclear weapons.
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