When the Prime Minister of Israel offers a new interpretation of the Holocaust, the world listens. In the sad case of Benjamin Netanyahu’s false claim that Hitler was inspired by the grand Mufti of Jerusalem to order the mass murder, only damage has been done.
In an address to the World Zionist Congress in Jerusalem made before official visits in Germany and the United States, Netanyahu said that Haj Amin al-Husseini persuaded Hitler to “burn” the Jews rather than expel them to the Middle East. No one quite knows where Netanyahu got his information, which is not in the transcript of the November 28, 1941, meeting of the two leaders. Despite criticism from historians at home and around the world, Netanyahu has defended his basic assertion that the mufti was “instrumental in the decision to exterminate the Jews of Europe.”
Hitler’s conception of the Jews was as a “spiritual pestilence” responsible for all of the ideas that prevented the racial struggle that he saw as the only true human destiny. Since Jews fought with ideas, only their extermination could ensure their defeat. Over the course of his career, he sought and found the most radical ways to eliminate Jews that were possible in a given political situation: in Germany discrimination, in annexed Austria it was humiliation, in dismantled Czechoslovakia emigration, in invaded Poland ghettoization. When Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, German Einsatzgruppen, German police and German soldiers began to kill Jews by the thousands and then the tens of thousands, with the assistance of some of the local population. Nearly 1 million Jews had been murdered by the end of the year.
That November 28, when the mufti met Hitler, no one was talking about Jewish immigration to Palestine as a Final Solution.
Britain tightly controlled the flow of Jews to Palestine. Nazi leaders considered the possibility of more ambitious deportations, to Madagascar or to Siberia, but these proved impractical. So by November 1941, the Final Solution was already taking shape, as mass murder on the lands where the Jews lived. This Holocaust would then be directed beyond the occupied Soviet Union to occupied Poland and much of the rest of Europe in 1942.
The shooting of Jews continued throughout the war; Germans also began to use carbon monoxide (at several death factories) and hydrogen cyanide (at Auschwitz) to murder Jews. These techniques involved asphyxiation, not burning (corpses were burned), and they arose from German experiments. They had nothing whatsoever to do with Hitler’s conversation with the mufti.
The false idea that an Arab inspired the Holocaust has obvious relevance in Israeli politics. But the risk of Netanyahu’s mythmaking is that it can derail European conversations about the past at a crucial moment. The Holocaust has become an event that allows Europeans to be critical of the present by considering the past. If the blame for the Holocaust can be directed away from Europeans toward others, then that capacity for self-criticism could weaken.
As Arab refugees arrive in Europe, the crucial framing question is: Who is the victim here? When Europeans consider the history of the 1930s and 1940s, when Jews were forced to leave their homes and often found no shelter anywhere in Europe, they can see the Arabs as the victims. But if Europeans follow Netanyahu’s short circuit and blame the Holocaust on Arabs, then Europeans can see themselves as the victims. Press discussions of refugees in Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia as well as electoral slogans in Poland show how strong this tendency has been.
In France, the right-wing populists of the Front National are working to overcome their traditional image as anti-Semites by emphasizing intolerance for Muslims. Insofar as Muslims can be blamed for Europe’s own dark history, then right-wing populists can simply skip the complicity of their own political traditions in anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, and avoid the need for any historical reflection at all.
Although the idea for a Holocaust was Hitler’s, and the central perpetrators were Germans, wartime France’s right-wing collaborationist government had its own anti-Semitic policy, which included deporting Jews to certain death at Auschwitz. Similarly, wartime governments in Slovakia and Hungary also contributed to the Holocaust by not recognizing Jews on their territory as citizens and then deporting them.
So in different ways and throughout Europe, millions reaped the rewards in property taken from the many murdered. This makes the work of historians in Germany, France, Poland and elsewhere on this dark history of social collaboration all the more important.
It is perfectly reasonable to draw attention to the grotesque anti-Semitism of Husseini and to remember his meeting with Hitler. Likewise, historians should debate his legacy in Palestinian political thought and practice — the question of the migration of anti-Semitic ideas into Europe along with refugees is one that must be had, and Arabs and Muslims who settle in Europe should be confronted with a different understanding of Jewish history than the ones that usually prevail in their homelands.
But claiming that a Muslim leader inspired the Holocaust will hinder this process rather than help it. If a falsehood is added to the real history, the real history seems more suspect. And this particular falsehood, that responsibility for the Holocaust can be transferred beyond Europe, aims at the keystone of European political responsibility.
Removing that keystone can bring down the arch that many Europeans have drawn from past to present, from horror to toleration.
Timothy Snyder is Housum professor of history at Yale University and author of Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning. The views expressed are his own.