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Wednesday, 26 January, 2000, 16:43 GMT
Is there a Holocaust 'Industry'?
By the BBC's Andre Vornic
As the annual Nazi Holocaust day approaches, delegates have gathered for a commemorative international conference in the Swedish capital, Stockholm.
And as compensation claims continue against companies and countries with one-time Nazi associations, tributes and museums have multiplied: many American cities now have their own memorials, and European cities such as Stockholm and Berlin are preparing to acquire theirs.
It all testifies to the central - and haunting - position which the murder of between five and six million Jews by Nazi Germany has acquired in the Western consciousness.
But for the first time in the last quarter of a century, a new school of academic thought is emerging - one which questions the accepted vision of the Holocaust and the universality of its moral teachings.
In his forthcoming book, "The Holocaust Industry", Professor Norman Finkelstein of the University of New York argues that our present interpretation of the Holocaust has been deliberately devised by American Jewish groups for purposes of ethnic supremacy, political advantage and financial gain.
"Since the late 1960s, there has developed a kind of Holocaust industry which has made a cult of the Nazi Holocaust. And the purpose of this industry is, in my view, ethnic aggrandisement - in particular, to deflect criticism of the State of Israel and to deflect criticism of Jews generally," Professor Finkelstein says.
The discovery of the Nazi concentration camps of World War Two by allied troops and journalists has shaped our perception of the very worst of human nature.
It has also defined our view of Hitler's principal victims, the Jews, as a martyr nation deserving eternal atonement. But for Professor Finkelstein, himself the son of concentration camp survivors, that view of the Holocaust is a manufactured one.
For Professor Finkelstein, the Holocaust is not incomparable. To compare and contrast - he argues - is a historian's duty.
For most scholars, however, the Nazis' barbarity in their treatment of the Jews was unique and unparalleled. This case is argued by David Cesarani, a teacher of modern Jewish history at the University of Southampton in England.
"The Nazis' attempt to exterminate the Jews of Europe, and indeed the Jews of the world, is unique, because it's the first time that all the apparatus of a modern state was applied to destroying a group of people who were defined according to racial, biological politics," Mr Cesarani says.
Although Professor Finkelstein's view is shared by few in today's academia, he is not an entirely isolated figure. Several younger scholars agree that the Holocaust should not be a moral narrative with a single authorised reading.
For Tim Cole of the University of Bristol, an authority on the Budapest ghetto, the Holocaust's significance has varied considerably according to place and time.
Tim Cole draws attention to the fact that there were no Holocaust museums back in the 1960's.
"It's only much more recently that museums have been built. If you like, it's a kind of 1980s, 1990s ideology, sentiment thing, if you like, to build Holocaust museums - that we, at this particular point in history, remember the Holocaust for all sorts of reasons," Mr Cole says.
This is disputed by Michael Friedman of the Jewish Congress. It took 20 years, he says, to build these memorials because the shock of the Holocaust was so great.
"How could the brain immediately react? Take a private tragedy - if you lose your parents or children by accident, how long do you need to come back to a minimum of emotionality and working out this tragedy. And multiply this by the biggest human tragedy that ever happened on earth," Michael Freidman argues.
Schindler's list, the Oscar-winning film about the Holocaust directed by Steven Spielberg, was a huge success across the world in 1993 - and is said to have popularised the suffering of the Jews to an unprecedented extent. Some academics have scorned such material as a less than accurate and easily digestible view of history.
Historians are increasingly disputing another historical interpretation - that the whole of the German nation was to blame for the fate of the Jews.
It is, however, something that Dr Friedman of the Jewish Congress strongly believes.
"After World War Two, when I came to Germany at the age of 10, 15, the majority of Germans said to me: "We didn't want Auschwitz". And I would believe them, that they didn't want it.
"But what does this mean, this statement? Was what happened not enough to say "No" to? Because they didn't say "No", Auschwitz happened. Even if they didn't want it, they are responsible for it. They are responsible because, without their daily acceptance of the steps beforehand, it wouldn't have been possible to build the concentration camps," Dr Friedman says.
Links to other Europe stories are at the foot of the page.
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