Auschwitz is a Warning: Comments on the Seventy-Fifth Anniversary of the Arrival of the Red Army at Auschwitz-Birkenau

Jeffrey Herf

University of Maryland

Dr. Jeffrey Herf is Distinguished University Professor in the Department of History at the University of Maryland in College Park. His recent publications include Undeclared Wars with Israel: East Germany and the West German Radical Left, 1967-1989 (Cambridge University Press, 2016), published in Germany in Fall 2019 as Unerklaerte Kriege gegen Israel (Wallstein Verlag); Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World (Yale University Press, 2009); The Jewish Enemy: Nazi Propaganda during World War II and the Holocaust (Harvard University Press, 2006); and Divided Memory: The Nazi Past in the Two Germanys (Harvard University Press, 1997). His work in progress is “Israel's Moment: Support and Opposition in the United States and Europe, 1944-1949.”

These comments were originally presented at an AGI panel on “Auschwitz and Holocaust Memory Today,” on January 27, 2020, the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

I want to discuss three points regarding Auschwitz and Holocaust Memory Today.

First, despite a massive scholarship on the subject, knowledge in the public and in the world of policy and politics of the connection between antisemitism, that is, hatred of Jews and Judaism, on the one hand, and the decision by Hitler and his associates to murder the Jews of Europe, on the other hand, leaves much to be desired.

Second, the actual history of the anti-Hitler coalition, also at the time called the United Nations, combining as it did the Soviet Union with the Western democracies, was an embarrassing topic during the Cold War when the anti-Hitler coalition was replaced by the historical norm of antagonism between the Soviet Union and the West. Since 1989-1991, popular knowledge about what historians have written about the relationship between World War II and the Holocaust also leaves much to be desired.

Third, the extermination camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau and the other Nazi death camps in Poland, the sites of the Einsatzgruppen shootings and the hundreds of ghettos and concentration camps built by the Nazis to carry out the mass murder of European Jewry, all of these places are a warning. As the German social theorist Theodor Adorno wrote with refreshing clarity in an essay on education after Auschwitz, the  point of remembering and educating subsequent generations about the Holocaust was to see that it—by which he meant an effort by someone, somewhere—to carry out a second genocide against the Jews should never happen again.[1] Yet in recent decades as the primary threat of a second Holocaust emerged from the government of Iran and of the Islamist organizations such as Hamas and Hezbollah, many of those who urge us to pay attention to the history of the Holocaust have been reluctant to name and denounce the antisemitism of the secular left or the Islamists. As many of you are aware, I have been an early and sharp critic of Trump and Trumpism and of the authoritarianism and conspiracy theories he and it have fostered. Yet on this January 27, 2020, memory of Auschwitz calls for a willingness to recognize that antisemitism today comes from three directions: the populist right, the secular academic boycotting left, and, most importantly, the Islamists. The latter, however, inherit the most from the Nazis. They are today’s most consequential antisemites. They are the ones who have the desire and seek the means to wipe Israel off the map.

More from AGI on Memory of the Holocaust and Auschwitz

Radical Antisemitism and the Holocaust:  The Causal Links

I return to point one, the connection between radical antisemitism and the Holocaust. In 2006, I published The Jewish Enemy: Nazi Propaganda during World War II and the Holocaust.[2] As I wrote that book, I was surprised to realize that its core argument, sixty years after the Holocaust and after the flood of scholarship on the topic, had not been made before or made so extensively. That argument remains too little understood in public, policy, and political understanding, in this country and in Europe. It was as follows:  Since the accusation of deicide against the Jews was first made, Jew-hatred justified centuries of persecution and repeated acts of violence. Hitler’s contribution was to use the secular antisemitic conspiracy theories of the early twentieth century as an interpretative framework to explain the origins, causes, and nature of the Second World War. He transformed the powerful and evil individual Jew of centuries past into the paranoid fantasy of a powerful and evil international Jewish conspiracy, which in his fevered imagination was a real political actor determined to exterminate the German people. His propagandists transformed this fantasy into a narrative of World War II, one that they called “the Jewish war.” Hitler and his associates carried out the Final Solution as, in their own minds, an act of massive self-defense against the “Jewish enemy” that had seized power in Washington, London, and Moscow in order to destroy the German government and people.

The Holocaust was the twentieth century’s most despicable example of the unity of ideology and politics, antisemitic theory, and genocidal practice.

The connection between antisemitic paranoid fantasy and mass murder was not a secret. While the details of Auschwitz-Birkenau and the other extermination camps were kept secret, the Nazi regime publicly made clear its determination to implement the “extermination” (Vernichtung or Ausrottung) of the Jews. Hitler did so in his speeches. Goebbels did so in his essays and radio addresses. The front pages of the Völkischer Beobachter proudly declared that the regime was exterminating the Jews as punishment for their various evil deeds. In short, the Holocaust was the twentieth century’s most despicable example of the unity of ideology and politics, antisemitic theory, and genocidal practice. At the time, too many policymakers failed to take Hitler’s rants as the serious statements of policy that they were. In 2020, there is no excuse for comparable dismissal when fanatics declare their intention to kill the Jews. Hence on this January 27 anniversary, it is important to recall this unity of publicly declared radical antisemitism with the associated practice of genocide.

Auschwitz and the Ally to the East: Awkward Questions about the Eastern Front and the Soviet Union

I turn to my second point regarding the embarrassment about the realities of the United Nations fighting against the Nazis. The decision to collectively remember the Holocaust on January 27, the anniversary of the arrival of the Red Army in Auschwitz-Birkenau, reflected the mood of the 1990s to put the divisions of the Cold War behind and to recognize both the crimes of the German race war on its Eastern Front as well as the role played by the Soviet armed forces in the defeat of Nazi Germany. In so doing, it reflected a political current in Germany that began with the publication in 1968 of Willy Brandt’s A Peace Policy for Europe, followed by neue Ostpolitik, and the importance of memory of the German war on the Eastern Front. Here truthful memory served the promotion of West German foreign policy efforts in the era of détente.

Yet it is important to recall that memory of the Holocaust, despite the famous photo of Brandt on bended knee at the memorial to the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto, was not at the core of West German détente policy. In fact, during the Yom Kippur War of October 1973, in the weeks when Israel’s survival depended on aid from abroad, the Brandt government adopted a policy of neutrality. Military aid came from the United States, not West Germany, and arrived when East Germany was expressing its partisanship by sending arms to the Arab states at war with Israel. The détente policy of the 1970s coincided with what I have called the Soviet bloc’s undeclared war with Israel, one in which East Germany played a vocal and enthusiastic role. West German chancellors—Brandt, Helmut Schmidt, and Helmut Kohl—said little in those years about the Soviet bloc threat to Israel, and too little about the Soviet Union’s antisemitic propaganda. At the time, leaders of the Central Council of Jews in Germany thought that West German reticence was due to the Machtpolitik of the détente era. Too much memory of the Holocaust and any focus on the Soviet bloc offensive against Israel would dampen the good moods of détente negotiations.

Yet these criticisms should not obscure the key point regarding what I have called the eleventh commandment of German history after the Holocaust:  do not kill any more Jews and do not help anyone else to kill, harm, or threaten Jews. All the governments of the Federal Republic of Germany, before and after unification, can say that they understood, mostly implicitly, that this norm existed and that they followed it. The Communist regime in East Germany, on the other hand, by waging its undeclared war with Israel from 1967 to 1989, certainly did aid others attacking the Jews in Israel. It broke that implicit eleventh commandment with self-righteous enthusiasm expressed in the language of a duplicitous “anti-fascism.”

There is another aspect to discuss about embarrassment regarding the entry of the Red Army into Auschwitz-Birkenau seventy-five years ago today. Historians have established that in summer 1944 it would have been possible for the U.S. Air Force to bomb the tracks leading to Auschwitz or the killing facilities themselves. Had it done so, perhaps most of Hungarian Jewry could have been saved from the gas chambers. Yet as the Red Army’s arrival at Auschwitz six months later in January 1945 is remembered today, I recall an essay I published in 2003 in the journal Kritika, a journal devoted to examination of the history of the Soviet Union. The title is: “The Nazi Extermination Camps and the Ally to the East: Could the Red Army and Air Force Have Stopped or Slowed the Final Solution?”[3] As you know, the discussion about what Britain and the United States could or should have done to stop or slow the Final Solution has been extensive. In my 2003 essay I pointed out that according to Soviet historians, the Red Air Force had become the largest in the world by 1942 or 1943. Though it did not have as many long-range bombers as Britain and the United States, it had quite a few medium range bombers. Unlike Britain and the United States, the front lines of the Red Army, and thus of the bases of its planes, were hundreds, not thousands, of miles away from the death camps. The Red Army arrived at the Majdanek death camp on July 23, 1944. By then the Luftwaffe was on its way to destruction on the Eastern Front. In my Kritika essay, I examined the connection between the location of the front line in the East and the range of Soviet Air Force planes. The Red Air Force had taken a massive amount of aerial photography. I concluded that by early 1944, the Red Air Force was in range of the death camps. Yet Stalin did not order the generals of the Soviet Air Force to bomb the tracks to the camps, destroy the gas chambers and crematoria, or attack the SS formations working at the camps.

In 2003, I urged historians of the Soviet Union to examine that government’s files to understand why the Red Air Force and the Red Army had not tried to stop or slow the Holocaust. So far as I know, in Putin’s Russia, such a critical examination has not taken place and I expect would be dangerous for any historian to undertake. These reflections put the arrival of the Red Army in Auschwitz on January 27, 1945, in a rather different light. It’s arrival  was better late than never, but the location of the battle fronts and the enormous military capacity of the Soviet armed forces indicate that it could either have arrived much earlier or even more likely could have destroyed the instruments of industrial mass murder from the air perhaps as early as late 1943 or early 1944, thus slowing the pace of mass murder. As Vladimir Putin will resist efforts to raise these questions, it is all the more important that historians of the Soviet Union, World War II, and the Holocaust, both those living in Russia and abroad, ask these difficult but crucial questions raised by the memory of January 27, 1945.

Antisemitism since 1948: From the Powerful and Evil Jew to the Racist and Imperialist Zionist

I conclude by returning to the third point: Auschwitz is a warning. What happened once can happen again in different circumstances. The most serious prospect of such a “second Holocaust” would be the destruction of the state of Israel by the Islamist forces arrayed against it.[4] You may recall that in the decade before he died, Elie Wiesel, one of the most famous of survivors who wrote about Auschwitz, warned of such a second Holocaust. It is vital that Holocaust memory not become a cliché, a form of virtue signaling that asserts that we agree on the obvious, namely that the Holocaust happened and was a terrible thing.

As a historian of Nazism and the Holocaust, of course, I am deeply worried about the attack on fact and evidence that has become a part of mainstream politics in this country. With the internet, Holocaust denial has a larger audience around the world than ever before. Yet because of the Islamist resurgence and the aftereffects of the Communist and radical leftist undeclared wars with Israel, we can no longer assume that knowledge of the Holocaust works as a deterrent to the possibility of its repetition in other forms. That is because, as my late friend Robert Wistrich put it, Holocaust inversion has joined and even superseded Holocaust denial.[5]  Beginning in the 1950s in the Arab world, and in the 1960s in Soviet propaganda and then the global radical left, Israel’s antagonists placed the language of Communist and leftist anti-fascism in the service of what I have called “undeclared wars on Israel.”[6]  The result of this redefinition of the meaning of fascism and anti-fascism—a redefinition to which Walter Ulbricht, and West German leftists such as Dieter Kunzelmann and Ulrich Meinhof made important contributions—is that Israel, Zionists, and the Jews became identified with fascism and support for destroying Israel became a defining feature of the radical left around the world. The inversion involved presenting the Israelis as the new Nazis and the Palestinians as their “Semitic” and innocent victims. It is an inversion that plays a role in universities in this country, perhaps less so in Germany.

The secular view of the Israelis as Nazis and the Islamist view of the Jews as evil taken together comprise the most dangerous aspects of antisemitism since the Holocaust.

Sayyid Qutb, the leading ideologue of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in the 1950s and 1960s, offered an early version of Holocaust inversion when he wrote that the Jews in Europe had deserved their punishment, one he believed had been meted out by the Prophet himself. He did not deny the Holocaust.[7] He welcomed it. The secular view of the Israelis as Nazis and the Islamist view of the Jews as evil taken together comprise the most dangerous aspects of antisemitism since the Holocaust. The hatreds that pour out of Tehran and from Al Qaeda, Hamas, and Hezbollah, as well as the origins of the Palestinian Arab Higher Committee’s rejectionism after World War II, do have ideological connections to the reactionary, racist, and antisemitic traditions fostered by the Nazi regime.[8] Those who wish to foster the memory of the Holocaust in 2020 should, at the same time, speak and write about the versions of Jew-hatred that persist in an altered cultural context among the Islamists. Criticism of Israeli policy is not necessarily antisemitic.  Criticism of Israeli policy that fails to examine and denounce the Jew-hatred of the Islamists through error of omission is.

Since the foundation of the state of Israel in 1948, the Jewish question has become the Israel question. The reason this is the case lies less in the daily or monthly debates about politics in the Middle East, debates that understandably occupy much time and effort in Washington. Karl Marx put it well when, in the 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, he wrote that the traditions of the past weigh like a nightmare on the brains of the living. For two thousand years, Christianity made a false accusation of homicide (deicide) against the Jews. For centuries Muslims could read in the Koran that the Jews murdered the prophets. These archaic notions embedded in religious texts about the power and the evil of the Jews sank deep into both cultures. They do not disappear from these cultures, despite the welcome efforts of Catholic and Protestant theologians since the Holocaust to fight against the antisemitic elements in their own traditions.

The establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 appeared to bring a nightmare of the religions of Christianity and Islam, the phantasy of a murderous and powerful Jew, into reality. In 1948, the Jews who had been powerless and innocent, who had never matched the paranoid fantasies of the antisemitic imagination, became for the first time in two millennia possessors of their own state. The Jewish people in 1948 became a normal nation. This normality stimulated some of the deepest fears, conscious and unconscious, of the antisemitic imagination. The powerful and evil Jew of old now had an armed forces, diplomats, borders.  The Jews now had political power and sovereignty. The antisemitic or anti-Jewish imagination, whatever its cultural sources, has found it impossible to accept that the Jews had joined the normality of nation-states. Rather, the old nightmare had become reality. In the antisemitic imagination of the last seventy years, the evil and powerful Jew has been reincarnated as the imperialist, racist, oppressive Zionist. That ideological reincarnation, that view of the Zionists as the new Nazis, serves for its advocates as justification for a second Holocaust in their efforts to destroy the state of Israel.

On January 27, 2020, memory of the Holocaust calls for grasping the connection between the traditions of the past that weigh like a nightmare on the brains of the living and the way in which centuries of Jew-hatred have formed the background for efforts to destroy the Jewish state. Of course, we should remember the Holocaust.  But we cannot prevent what has already happened. Especially in this city of policy and politics, the link between memory and prevention of a recurrence should be foremost in our minds. Auschwitz was many things but today we look around the world and remember that Auschwitz is a warning.

[1] Theodor W. Adorno, “Eerziehung nach Auschwitz,” in Theodor W. Adorno: Gesammelte Schriften 10:2 (Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp,1977), 674-690.

[2] Jeffrey Herf, The Jewish Enemy:  Nazi Propaganda During World War II and the Holocaust (Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press, 2006).

[3] Jeffrey Herf, “The Nazi Extermination Camps and the Ally to the East: Could the Red Army and Air Force Have Stopped or Slowed the Final Solution?,” Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History, Vol. 4, No. 4 (September 2003), 913-930.

[4] On Haj Amin al-Husseini the emergence of Islamism and its Jew-hatred in the twentieth century see Jeffrey Herf, Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009); and Matthias Kuentzel, Jihad and Jew-Hatred:  Nazism, Islamism and the Roots of 9/11 trans. Colin Meade (New York: Telos, 2007); and his Nazis und der Nahe Osten: Wie der Islamische Antisemitismus entstand (Hentrich & Hentrich, 2019).

[5] Robert Wistrich, “Antisemitism and Holocaust Inversion,” in Anthony Mcelligott and Jeffrey Herf, eds., Antisemitism Before and Since the Holocaust:  Altered Contexts and Recent Perspectives (New York and London:  Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), 37-49.

[6] On this redefinition of the meaning of fascism and anti-fascism, see Jeffrey Herf, Undeclared Wars with Israel: East Germany and the West German Far Left, 1967-1989 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016).

[7] Sayyid Qutb, Our Struggle with the Jews, trans. Ronald Nettler in Ronald L. Nettler, Past Trials and Present Tribulations:  A Muslim Fundamentalist’s View of the Jews (Oxford: Vidal Sasson Center for the Study of Antisemitism, Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Pergamen Press, 1987).  Also see discussion of that text in Herf, Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World, 255-259.

[8] On the synthesis of hatred of the Jews with the desire to destroy the state of Israel in the Hamas Charter of 1988, see Jeffrey Herf, “Why They Fight:  Hamas Too Little-Known Fascist Charter,” The American Interest (August 1, 2014).

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.