Damnable Lies

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by Paul Gottfried by Paul Gottfried

Adam Cohen’s editorial diatribe in the NYT (January 27) against Tom Woods and his scholarship shows the degree to which the relation between facts and historical narrative has dissolved. Cohen does not seem to know, or perhaps want us to know, that segregation began as a Northern institution that, after Reconstruction, Southern states adapted to their use. A once widely quoted study, The Strange Career of Jim Crow, written by the then impeccably leftist Southern historian C. Van Woodward, was on reading lists in American history when I began teaching in the late sixties. This book has not been superseded by recent, exhaustive research. It has been put aside because it contradicts the now established version of PC, just like Tom DiLorenzo’s writings about Lincoln’s attitudes toward blacks or the economic causes of the (misnamed) American Civil War. The chastising of Woods in the NYT, for challenging the "Columbia University historian Eric Foner," typifies the new approach to history. Foner’s tendentious work on Reconstruction, which Cohen treats as a Fundamentalist would the Bible, is certainly open to multiple critical objections. Some of these objections have been in print in professional journals and some of the more obvious ones got into a review that I wrote at the time of its publication. It is doubtful that someone with Foner’s personal and familial connections would have gotten so far academically, were his ancestral and youthful connections with the moderate Right instead of the Stalinist Left. And even more worrisome than Cohen’s lack of factual proofs is his effort to discredit Tom Woods for being politically incorrect. We are led to believe that Tom has broken some moral code by telling us what should be self-evident, about FDR’s boondoggles, Woodrow Wilson’s duplicity, or Lincoln’s less than benign views about blacks. Moreover, Cohen does not feel obliged to provide evidence for his own opinions. He merely declares Woods to be a living embodiment of the rightwing backlash against all good things.

Equally outrageous have been other recent attempts to shove the chunks of the past down a memory hole. For example, the neocon New York Post noted yesterday that it was high time Polish President Kwazniewski "beg forgiveness," as he just did, for Polish contributions to the Holocaust. Apparently Poles mistakenly viewed Auschwitz as a "place of Polish martyrdom" "and Polish schoolchildren were taught erroneously that a million Poles perished there too." Poles even now remain in denial about their critical role in the murder of European Jewry, for which the assaults on Jews in the Eastern Polish town of Jedwabne (by the Polish anti-German Home Front) is cited as proof. Unfortunately the apology offered by the clueless Kwazniewski did nothing to clarify a clouded event. According to historian Norman Davies, the event being lamented involved a shoot-out between Polish resistance forces and the Soviet secret police, members of which were then harbored by Polish Jewish collaborators. While no one is denying the presence of Polish anti-Semitism, which seems to linger on together with equally bitter anti-Polish Jewish feelings, the Poles and the Jews were both victims of Nazi persecution. The Polish underground, which included rightwing nationalists who clearly disliked Jews, fought the German invaders furiously, suffered hideous losses, including the destruction of Warsaw, and, yes, lost members in Auschwitz. Poles, including my late mother-in-law, saved over 40,000 Jews from the Nazis, although the punishment for being discovered was death. Treating this brutalized people as collaborators in the Holocaust is not misguided but utterly obscene, except in the world inhabited by liberals and neocons.

An even more manipulative use of the past is now occurring with the planned visit of German President Horst Köhler to Israel. This visit will feature an address to be given by the perpetually sorrowful Köhler to the Israeli Knesset, following the pattern set by German president Johannes Rau, who spoke before the Knesset in 2000. Rau spoke in English and petitioned the Jewish state for forgiveness on behalf of his shame-stained people. But this time there was reason to believe that the German president would speak in German rather than express his ritualized contrition in heavily accented English. This provided the usual suspects, in the Israeli nationalist Right, which bears an uncanny resemblance to the victimological Left in the U.S., to announce that they would boycott the impending address. "As long as one Holocaust-survivor is around," announced the Israeli Health Minister, "we shall never allow German to be heard in the Knesset." The Vice President of the Knesset, Hemi Doron, was quoted in Maariv as saying that it was essential not only to keep German out of his assembly. It was also important for Jews "not to touch German soil or to buy German products." A subsequent announcement that Köhler would express guilt without speaking German did not defuse the situation. Likud politicians warned that they would walk out as soon as he stepped into the Knesset building.

There are several aspects of this grotesque incident that merit attention. One, the sadomasochistic relation between Jewish nationalists and German public officials continues to prosper, in spite of the overly optimistic assurances from my German friends that it might be subject to change. Although Germans, according to their critics, are either at one’s throat or at one’s feet, the only Germans I now read about are human dishrags. And the degradation is self-afflicted, since if German leaders behaved with dignity, in this case cancelled the presidential trip to Israel and sent a stiff letter of reprimand to the offending government, it might prevent a recurrence of very deliberate insults.

Two, the remarks made by the Jewish nationalists ignore certain historical facts that must be noted to understand the absurdity of their outbursts. Jews have spoken for generations and continue to speak German; and arguably the best literature written by Jews, outside of what is found in biblical Hebrew, is in that particular tongue. It was also commonly heard in Israel, particularly in Tel Aviv, and there were Germanophone play ensembles and newspapers that one encountered in that country well into the sixties. When David Ben Gurion and his Labor Party were in power, the very conservative German Defense Minister Franz Josef Strauss came to Israel, as Ben Gurion’s guest. Strauss thereupon addressed everyone in sight in (Bavarian) German, without causing, to my knowledge, an outbreak of apoplexy.

Apparently World War Two exemplifies without exhausting what Murray Rothbard described as human evils that are made to seem bigger the farther one moves away from the date of their occurrence. In the case of the growing memory of Nazi crimes, PC explains the tendency observed. There is also a part of the past that the Likud coalition would prefer not to have brought up, that in 1944 their nationalist precursors in the Irgun took aid from the Nazis, to carry out the "Revolt" against the English occupiers of Palestine. Such an act so outraged Ben Gurion that he subsequently referred to Menachim Begin, a postwar Teutonophobe, as a "Nazi." Those political forces in Israel that had most to hide about their wartime records naturally became the most hysterically anti-German after the facts. And those who had been consistently anti-Nazi in the early forties made up with the Germans afterwards. If such fear of historical facts has driven Likud leaders into foaming at the mouth about German visitors, perhaps they may be overreacting. We now live with fictionalized history that is being reconstructed to fit political needs. We also have around Adam Cohen, Eric Foner, and the New York Post to attend to our historical narratives. Without a few insensitive intellectuals, like Tom Woods and the readers of this website, there might be no one left to notice what really happened — as opposed to what we are solemnly told we are supposed to think went on.

January 28, 2005

Paul Gottfried [send him mail] is Horace Raffensperger Professor of Humanities at Elizabethtown College and author of, most recently, Multiculturalism and the Politics of Guilt.

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