Per Anders Rudling’s penetrating analysis of the history and ideology of the SS Galizien division is now available online.
This is essential reading. Here is the Abstract:
In recent years there has been an increased interest in the legacy of the Fourteenth Grenadier Division of the Waffen-SS, known as the Waffen-SS Galizien, a Ukrainian volunteer formation formed in 1943. In Ukrainian ultra-nationalist mythology the unit is depicted as freedom fighters who fought for an independent Ukraine, its collaboration with Nazi Germany dismissed as “Soviet propaganda.” There is a widening gulf between the myth and the picture that emerges from the archival materials. This article revisits the history of the unit, with a particular focus on aspects of its history which the myth makers omit or deny: its ideological foundations, its allegiance to Adolf Hitler, and the involvement of units associated with the division in atrocities against civilians in 1944.
Angelika Benz is the author of a new book ‘Der Henkersknecht: Der Prozess gegen John (Iwan) Demanjuk in Muechen’ about the trial of John Demjanjuk in Munich. She is currently completing her PhD dissertation on the ‘Trawniki System’ at Humboldt University in Berlin. I discussed the Trawniki men in ‘Hitler’s Foreign Executioners’ basing my account on Peter Black’s research. Although the few survivors of the extermination camps that some of the Trawniki men served in often referred to them as ‘Ukrainians’, many came from other regions of the Soviet Empire. In an essay in ‘Holocaust and Genocide Studies’, Black calls the Trawniki men ‘the foot soldiers of the Final Solution’:
The “Trawniki men” were indigenous collaborators who provided auxiliaries essential to “Operation Reinhard”—the murder of all Jews in the Government General. As architects of mass robbery, mass enslavement, and mass murder, the SS created in the Trawniki men a ruthless force bound neither to territory nor to nationalist aims, but rather to commanders and missions. The Germans’ provision of military benefits, their extension of awards and status, and even the respect they showed their helpers tightened the bond. Nicknamed for the earlier German colonial “askaris” in East Africa, the Trawniki-men were not so much reminiscent of the past as they were enforcers of the Nazi future.
How did ‘John Demjanjuk’ end up in a German court room in 2011 – after two earlier trials in Israel, which had ended with his acquittal?
The acquittal in Israel came about only because the trial there accused Demkjanjuk of being the Trawniki ‘Iwan the Terrible’, who was well known for his cruelty against Jews. When it became clear that John Iwan Demjanjuk was not Iwan the Terrible they had to let him go, even though it was pretty well established that he was a guard in Sobibor.
Why was the Demjanjuk trial in Munich celebrated as ‘the trial of the century’?
It was a very late, maybe the last big trial against NS-crimes. And it was – for the first time if we do not count Swidersky who was personally known for special cruelty – against a “minor” non-German helper in the Holocaust. And this was the first time where the accusation was not of a particular crime, like the murdering of one person whose name is known and where the concrete circumstances are known – but the fact that Demjanjuk had been a guard in a death camp. Proving this would be sufficient for the court to find him guilty.
Why did you chose to attend?
I am writing my PHD thesis about the ‘Trawniki-Men’ and their role in the Holocaust, it was a very important step for me to attend the trial. It was a chance to see how a still not very well known topic would be treated by a court in 2010 and how the media would react to and discuss the trial.
What change in German law underlay the terms of prosecution?
Now he was accused of helping to murder the Jews in the death camp, Sobibor. He was not accused of killing particular persons himself - but his presence in a death camp as a guard would be enough to find him guilty.
What impact had the earlier legal formulation – which was superseded at the Demjanjuk trial – on attempts to prosecute German participants in the enactment of the Final Solution? (How many of the active participants in Aktion Reinhardt have been successfully brought to justice?)
In the former trials in Germany, only a few of the Aktion Reinhardt personal were put on trial – and it was only the higher levels. In most cases – for example Karl Streibel, the leader of the Trawniki-Training Camp – the accused were found not guilty due to distress (necessity to obey orders) or because in Streibel’s case, he claimed to have no knowledge of what the Trawniki men would be used for. Most of the convictions against Germans had been way to lenient.
Could Demjanjuk’s legal team have mounted a different defense strategy – what might that have been? Is it is possible to refer to a ‘Trawniki defence’ perhaps?
Well the range of Trawniki-Man and their behavior is very wide. And their way to become a Trawniki were different. In the beginning all of the Soviet POWs did not coperate with the Germans voluntarily, but in order to survive the horrible Prisoner of War camps where more than half of them died. And the Trawniki men were treated differently. Depending on their value for the Germans, they had some more rights – or not. Some of them were killed or beaten for petty offenses. Many of them were very cruel, very brutal and, for sure, some who exploited their power and cooperated with the Germans willingly. But there were others who just wanted to survive. And there were some who helped the Jews, offering to with them when they deserted or just giving them information. So of course a defense could have been to say: yes, I was there, but I was forced. I was a victim as well. But to make a statement for all of them is just not possible.
Would it be too crude to say that some Germans in 2011 welcomed seeing a non German national on trial for crimes committed during the Second World War?
I do not think that happened. At least, I did not have the impression that this had any weight. There were some people saying: “well he is so old” or “why him?” But there were also people who couldn’t understand why a non German “small fish” like Demjanjuk ended up on trial while a lot of German Holocaust perpetrators were (and are) living comfortably in old people’s homes. It would be very interesting to know how the feedback of press, media and people would have been if an elderly German had been in Demjanjuk’s place.
What were your own feelings about the nature and conduct of the trial?
I ended up with a bad taste in my stomach after the trial. I think this was because the court’s ‘all in guilty’ verdict meant that the role of the Trawniki men, and some very awkward questions about whether the Trawniki men acted the way they did voluntarily or because they were forced to by their German commanders. And the court mostly chose to ignore what historians have discovered about Trawniki – and the issue of voluntarism. That makes me uncomfortable with the result of the trial.
Could even Demjanjuk be regarded as a victim rather than a perpetrator?
As we do not know much more about him other than he was at Sobibor as a guard, it`s not really possible to say anything about his own motivations for working in a death camp. But we can say that simply because he chose to remain silent does not mean that the guilty verdict should be automatic. The Trawniki-men – as long as we speak about the prisoners of war were, at least in the beginning, victims – who became perpetrators, at least in the case of the Jews.
What do you hope your own work on the Trawniki system will reveal?
I want to show with my work how varied the Trawniki men were and how wide the range of experience was. And I also want to reveal the twisted nature of the German system of mass murder. They used the Soviet POWs to do the ‘dirty work’, while in the death camps Jewish Kapos had an even worse task. So the Germans established a very functional and perverse system to destroy European Jewry – with a minimum number of German personnel. The Trawniki-men had a key role in that system.
Can you briefly describe the subject of your doctorate?
The title of my dissertation is “Stepan Bandera: The Life and Afterlife of a Ukrainian Fascist, 1909–2009”. My hypothesis is that Bandera was both a person and the symbol of Ukrainian nationalism. Therefore I combine Bandera’s biography with the study of his political myth and cult of personality before and after his death. Bandera’s political myth appeared already in 1930s and it has remained potent until today. I described in ten chapters on 500 pages (almost 600 with bibliography, pictures etc.) Bandera’s life between 1909 and 1959 and his cult and myth since the 1930s until 2009. I tried to intertwine these both subjects and to make clear why Bandera actually did not die after his assassination on 15 October 1959 in Munich. So in addition to exploring Bandera’s biography I also explored how Bandera’s admirers commemorated and celebrated him after his death. I was especially interested in the question how veterans of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) and of the Waffen-SS Galizien Division prolonged the Bandera cult after World War II. For this purpose I studied the Ukrainian émigré communities. I was especially interested in the Cold War period and the method of how the political émigrés incited their children born in countries like Australia, Austria, Brazil, Belgium, Canada, Germany, United Kingdom, or United States of America to admire Bandera and to honor him as one of the greatest heroes of the Ukrainian nation who, according to them, died for Ukraine like a true martyr.
How would you characterize the OUN?
The OUN was founded by the veterans of World War I, in particular people recruited by the armies of the Habsburg Empire. These people, borne around 1890, were very disappointed after World War I that they did not succeed in establishing a Ukrainian state. In 1920, they founded the Ukrainian Military Organization (UVO) in Prague and in 1929 in Vienna the OUN. The OUN, unlike the UVO, attracted Ukrainian youth, in particular students and high school pupils, from eastern Galicia which between 1918 and 1939 was a part of the Second Polish Republic. The Polish state discriminated against Jews, Ukrainians and other minorities and thereby contaminated the Polish-Ukrainian relations. Ideologist like Dmytro Dontsov, Mykola Stsibors’kyi, Ievhen Onats’kyi or Volodymyr Martynets’ inspired this generation, borne around 1910, with radical nationalist, fascist, racist and antisemitic ideas. Fascism in the 1920s and 1930s was a violent, militarist and authoritarian ideology but it was not associated with the atrocities of World War II and the Holocaust as it is after World War II. It was a very popular European political movement. Fascist poets, artists, writers, film directors, ideologists inspired youth in many European countries for this ultranationalist, populist and revolutionary set of ideas. People without states like Croatians, Slovaks or Ukrainians formed fascist organizations. One of the most important features of Ukrainian fascism was an emphasis on the local ethnic, religious, historic and folkloric components. Ultranationalist and revolutionary Ukrainians like Bandera dreamt in the 1930s of becoming leaders of fascist states like Benito Mussolini or Adolf Hitler. The Ukrainian equivalent to duce and Führer was vozhd’ or providnyk. In the late 1930s and early 1940s the generation born around 1910 took the initiative and continued elaborating Ukrainian fascism on their own. They invented the Ukrainian fascist salute “Glory to Ukraine!” while answering “Glory to the Heroes!”; wanted to take care of the “Ukrainian race” and claimed that Ukraine needed a fascist state without national minorities – in particular Jews, Poles and Russians. They wanted to be a part of the New Fascist Europe like Ante Pavelić’s Croatia or Josef Tiso’s Slovakia. Bandera was supposed to become the leader of a Ukrainian fascist state after Ievhen Konovalets’ was assassinated in 1938 in Rotterdam and his follower Adrii Melnyk was consider being not appropriate for this position.
What status does the OUN and its war time leadership currently have in Ukraine?
The OUN returned after the dissolution of the Soviet Union to Ukraine and founded a number of political organization like the Congress of Ukrainian Nationalists (KUN) or academic institutions like the Institute for the Study of the Liberation Movement headed by Volodymyr Viatrovych. The office of this institute is located in the building of the Academy of Sciences at Kozel’nyts’ka Street 4 in Lviv. The director, Viatrovych, is one of the most popular deniers of Ukrainian participation in the Holocaust and other mass murders – in which the OUN and the UPA, founded by the OUN, were involved. It is important to emphasize that Ukrainian deniers like Viatrovych do not deny the Holocaust but only the Ukrainian contribution to it, in particular the contribution of the OUN which they regard as “national-democratic liberation movement”. The current leader or the OUN is Stephan Romaniv. He was raised in the Ukrainian diaspora in the circles of Ukrainian political emigrants who commemorated Bandera in churches and at political gatherings. In addition to being the leader of the OUN, Romaniv is an activist of multiculturalism. He is a chair of the Multicultural Arts Victoria Inc. in Australia. This is very typical for Ukrainian nationalists who in western countries have sought legitimation and sponsoring by multicultural organizations. In Canada, the first country which officially introduced the politics of multiculturalism in the early 1970, veterans of the OUN or the Waffen-SS Galizien were regarded as one of many other cultural elements. Members of the Ukrainian diaspora together with local dissidents and nationalists initiated in the early 1990s a Bandera cult in Western Ukraine, in particular eastern Galicia. Until today about 30 Bandera monuments have been erected in this part of Ukraine. In addition to it also monuments to people like Dmytro Kliachkivs’kyi who was one of the main initiators of the ethnic cleansing in Volhynia in early 1943 were erected in cities like Zbarazh and Rivne. The majority of local intellectuals and politicians apparently do not have any problem with this trend. They are more concerned about people like me who are invited to Ukraine and want to present their research.
What other ‘symptoms’ have appeared that morally and politically endorse factions and individuals normally regarded as collaborators?
Collaboration was not the main problematic characteristic of the Ukrainian fascist movement. The Ukrainian Central Committee with its head Volodymyr Kubiiovych collaborated very closely during the entire World War II with Nazi Germany. It helped Germans to establish the Waffen-SS Galizien Division and to aryanize Jewish property in General Government (occupied Poland). Its members took over Jewish apartments and read Ukrainian newspapers printed in aryanized publishing houses. The Bandera faction of the OUN, however, collaborated with Germans only until 1941 and then again after 1944. Between late 1941 and early 1944 it did not collaborate with Germans – although it fought only marginally against Germans because of their common enemy, the Soviet Union. The main problematic element of the history of the OUN-B and later the OUN-B founded UPA was its ethnic and political violence conducted against the minorities living in Ukraine – Jews, Poles and non-nationalist Ukrainians. During the pogroms in 1941 between 13,000 and 35,000 Jews were murdered, in the ethnic cleansing in 1943–1944 between 70,000 and 100,000 Polish civilians and after 1944 during the brutal conflict with the Soviets about 20,000 Ukrainian civilians.
The most important symptom for the endorsement of the OUN, UPA or Waffen-SS Galizien Division is nationalism which reappeared in western Ukraine even before the dissolution of the Soviet Union. What has also been crucial is the political and cultural transfer of the OUN and UPA cult from the diaspora to Ukraine after 1990. Ukrainian dissidents also regarded the OUN and UPA as an important opponent of the Soviet Union. Perhaps because the OUN and UPA fought against the Soviet Union Ukrainian dissidents thought that these organizations also fought for a democratic Ukraine. The conviction that everything anti-Soviet is automatically democratic is quite popular in the post-Soviet countries.
Is independent research threatened in Ukraine – in what way?
There is a political discourse in Ukraine directed against the “Party of Regions” and other pro-Russian parties and organizations. In this discourse the OUN, UPA, or Waffen-SS Galizien appear as pro-Western and democratic bodies. The critical exploration of the OUN, UPA or Waffen-SS Galizien is understood as a political matter. The Heinrich Böll Foundation, the German Embassy and the German Academic Exchange Service invited me to present my dissertation on Stepan Bandera and my research on the ethnic and political violence of the OUN and UPA in Kyiv and Dnipropetrovsk. Organizing a lecture in Lviv was not even possible. Three of my lectures were suddenly cancelled with less than 48 hours notice. This suggests that these cancellations were due to pressure being put on those institutions where the lectures were supposed to take place. In the end I could deliver only one lecture inside the German Embassy (formally on German territory), and under heavy protection by the Ukrainian police. The ultranationalist party Svoboda organized a protest in front of the embassy. They held banners, accusing me of being an “advocate of the Nazis”, equating me with Goebbels, and called me a “liberal fascist,” “Nazi’s lawyer” or a “Goebbel’s mendacious great-grandson.” After my arrival in Kyiv someone called me in the apartment I stayed, asked me whether I was a Polish citizen, informed me that renting apartment to foreigners is illegal, and that he ‘is police’ and will come to this apartment. He called the landline number so he apparently knew where I was.
Ukrainian intellectuals showed no concern about these violations of freedom of speech and physical threats. Some of them actually decided to help the Svoboda while discrediting me. Some called me a “propagandist” and “political agitator.” Other claimed that my lecture was planned as a “scandalous event.” The irony is that some of them were critical on the Svoboda but apparently they perceived me as a threat perhaps because I published a few articles in which I criticized Ukrainian intellectuals for uncritical publications on the OUN and the UPA. A colleague in a commentary under the article “Ukrainian Academic Freedom and Democracy under Siege” which appeared in the New York Jewish newspaper algemeiner, instead addressing the real question about the fact that the Svoboda dictates to academic institutions and individual researchers what they should think and write, criticized my “debating style.” He claimed:
“I would also like to put it on record that one can heartily and genuinely disagree with Mr Rossolinski-Liebe’s own debating style without being either a nationalist or a nationalist ‘fellow-traveler’”
Nevertheless there are scholars in Ukraine who properly investigated the OUN and the UPA and realize that what I have to say on Bandera is not “propagandistic” or “Ukrainophobic” and that I am not a “nationalist ‘fellow-traveler’.”
The Kyiv historian Ihor Iliushyn came to my lecture in the embassy. After the event he informed me that he liked my presentation – but that Ukrainian scholars cannot speak so openly about the Ukrainian history. Anton Shekhovstov, who investigates the Ukrainian radical right, wrote a very critical and interesting article about how the Svoboda and Ukrainian intellectuals both confuse the academic meaning of the term “fascism” with the post-Soviet swearword and thus claim that I am a “propagandist” or a “political agitator.” Many people in Ukraine complained about Svoboda and the intellectuals who prevented my lectures. They were interested in coming to my lectures and hearing another opinion on Bandera and the OUN and UPA.
In my opinion, the nationalist discourse significantly shapes the thinking of scholars in Ukraine and does not allow them to work free of political pressure. The denial of the Ukrainian contribution to the Holocaust is a good example. To my knowledge there is no research on the pogroms or the Ukrainian police in Ukraine. One of the arguments why I was not allowed to speak in Ukraine was that my lectures are not good for the Ukrainian-Jewish relations. Even some of the Holocaust researchers in Ukraine prefer to believe that the OUN and the UPA were entirely free of antisemitism and did not kill Jews. The idea that the UPA rescued Jews has become more and more popular even among historians who actually should study the OUN and UPA in archives and not Viatrovych’s publications. Viatrovych, the head of the instituted founded by the OUN veterans, wrote an entire book on the attitude of the OUN and UPA to the Jews in which he denied any kind of anti-Jewish violence. He was invited to the Jewish Talk show “Alef” in which he apparently convinced the host Oleg Rostovtsev that his erroneous claims about the OUN, UPA and the Jews are true.
This is a very cogent critique of the Double Genocide myth by Danny Ben-Moshe, who is an associate professor at Victoria University in Melbourne and a documentary film maker, currently completing a film about double genocide (www.rewriting- history.org). He is co-author of The Seventy Years Declaration.
The Israel-South Africa Chamber of Commerce is hosting as Guest of Honor Lithuanian Foreign Minister Audronius Azubalis at a gala dinner. Given the current Lithuanian government’s policies towards the Holocaust, it is a bizarre choice.
More than 20 years into their post-Soviet eras, Lithuania and other East European nations are understandably and appropriately seeking international acknowledgment for the suffering inflicted on them by the Soviet regime. However, rather than commemorating this in its own right, Lithuania has led the campaign to tie this recognition in with the Holocaust, in a policy known as Double Genocide. By so doing, the recognition they seek for their own suffering under the Soviets ipso facto becomes a policy that distorts and downgrades the Holocaust, and undermines and threatens its memory.
Double Genocide, as this term makes clear, contends that Europe experienced two genocides, the Soviet and the Nazi, and herein lies the first major problem with this policy. To obtain the recognition the Lithuanians deserve they are elevating their oppression into genocide. If the East European experience under the Soviets was the same or similar to the Jewish experience under the Nazis, as Double Genocide contends, then we start to lose the true nature, meaning and uniqueness of the Holocaust.
Beyond the danger posed by the theoretical construct of Double Genocide, we are also able to see the further negative impact it has on memory by the way it is practiced. In the Lithuanian case, this entails turning the supposed Lithuanian “genocide” into the greater of the “two genocides” and as such dwarfs the actual genocide in a country where more Jews were wiped out in terms of percentage than in any other country in Europe: around 95 percent.
Evidence of the elevation of the Lithuanian “genocide” and the concomitant dwarfing of the Holocaust is provided in the national Genocide Museum in Vilnius where three floors are dedicated to Lithuania’s “genocide” at the hands of the Soviets and there is one token room about the Holocaust. So not only does something that is not genocide become genocide, in the process it dwarfs if not conceals the actual genocide.
Yet there is another dimension and consequence of Double Genocide that is equally if not more sinister, and perhaps is part of the political motive which explains why it is occurring. By emphasizing their own suffering Lithuanians avoid accepting their own culpability for unprecedented participation in the actual murder of the country’s 600-year-old Jewish community. Once again, this is evident in the Genocide Museum where the fighters against the Soviets, the white armbanders of the Lithuanian Activist Front, are lauded as heroes. The role of the same heroes as the killers of Jews is completely neglected. Ultimately there is a thin line between the obfuscation that is Double Genocide and the outright lie that is denial.
The manifestation and consequences of Double Genocide take on even more sinister proportions when, in practice, they provide a context to explain the genocide of the country’s Jews. In the worst traditions of anti-Semitism, the Lithuanian Activist Front that led the genocide of Litvak Jewry saw Jews and Communists as one. Therefore, if the Jews are regarded in the public mindset as being responsible for the Lithuanian suffering then what happened to the Jews once the Soviets left in 1941 is understandable: Communists (Jews) killed Lithuanians and then the Communists (Jews) got killed. In practice, then, Double Genocide is not just about distorting the Holocaust, it is effectively about rationalizing and even justifying it.
To truly understand Double Genocide we have to look into the reality on the ground in Lithuania to appreciate that it is a central element in a double game. It is a game where the Foreign Minister can smile beguilingly with Jewish groups in Tel Aviv, when down the road in Rehovot 90-year-old Rachel Margolis is afraid to return to Vilnius for fear of arrest as part of the government’s war crimes campaign against Jewish Holocaust survivor partisans.
We know it is a double game because while the government cites plaques put up to acknowledge what happened to Jews in Lithuania under the Nazis, they simultaneously laud organizations like the Lithuanian Activist Front without a critical word about their role in wiping out Lithuanian Jewry.
It is a double game when Lithuanian embassies around world sponsor Jewish events, while at home the Foreign Minister perpetuates classical anti-Semitic myths by ominously blaming Jews for seeking foreign citizenship laws to claim assets.
We see the double game when the government says it is illegal to deny the Holocaust in Lithuania, but the same law makes it a criminal offense to dispute the notion of double genocide. And on and on the double game goes.
There is a fundamental question about whether Double Genocide is a genuine but misguided policy in the pursuit of recognition, or whether it represents something more pernicious. That can only be answered by looking at the big picture of what is occurring in policy and practice in Lithuania.
Whatever the answer to this moot point it seems incredible that the Foreign Minister, whose response to the 70 Year Declaration on the Final Solution Conference at Wannsee was to quip, “It isn’t possible to find differences between Hitler and Stalin except in their moustache: Hitler’s was smaller,” is received as a Guest of Honor by any Jewish group, let alone a Litvak-based organization, which thereby desecrates the memory of Litvaks whose genocide is obfuscated by Double Genocide and the double game.
This is not a case of one people claiming to have been greater victims than another. Every loss is a tragedy. This is not a competition of numbers, scale or nature of suffering and loss. Rather, it is about the truth behind the numbers, scale and nature of suffering and loss, so that all losses can be genuinely acknowledged and remembered, all of which is the necessary foundation for reconciliation.
SS Divisions and national memory, the case of Die 14. Waffen-Grenadier-Division der SS (galizische SS-Division Nr. 1)
Nationalist apologists for national SS militias such as the two Latvian SS divisions and the Ukrainian ‘Galizien’ insist that there is no reliable evidence that links these units to documented ‘killings of civilians’ – meaning either Poles or Jews or both. Are they right?
Latvia partly falls outside the scope of my research. A recent study by Swedish researcher Mats Deland on alleged war criminals in Sweden shows that Sweden was reluctant to persecute alleged war criminals and resisted calls from the Wiesenthal Center, Germany, and other groups to address their concern and bring alleged perpetrators to justice. Many were sheltered by the state, and naturalized to prevent extradition to Germany or other countries for prosecution. The local collaboration in the Holocaust in Latvia was significant, but the Latvian Waffen-SS divisions were established, it should be remembered, after the Holocaust was essentially complete. In the case of Estonia, Latvia, Belarus, and Ukraine, the men in the Waffen-SS battalions were partly recruited among people who had ‘served’ the German authorities in a variety of functions, including local police formations, such as the Schutzmannschaften, that is forces that were heavily involved in the execution of the Holocaust. There was a system of rotation, which meant that the bulk of the Latvian police spent at least some time in the Schutzmannschaft battalions and other formations. The Latvian battalions were used primarily in anti-partisan activities, much of which took place in Belarus and the western parts of Russia. In this anti-partisan struggle, there was an overlap between partisan “bandits” and Jews, and Latvian Schutzmänner were involved in serious atrocities against the civilian population. The Latvian legion was formed through a merging of these battalions, and expanded through forced mobilization. It absorbed, among many other formations, the Arajs commando, which had played a central role in the implementation of the murder of the Latvian Jews. Thus, the biographies of the individual Waffen-SS, particularly the whereabouts of men in 1941-1943 are more interesting than the whereabouts of the unit itself.
The Latvian Waffen-SS divisions differ from the Ukrainian Galician, one in that they were mostly drafted, whereas the Ukrainians volunteered. This is an important distinction. Whereas the International Tribunal in Nuremberg designated the Waffen-SS, in its entirety, as a criminal organization, it made certain provisions for those who were forcibly drafted.
Officers and NCO’s of the Waffen-SS Galizien were trained in Dachau, in the vicinity of the concentration camp. Nazi Weltanschauung was an integral component of the education of the Waffen-SS men. It was officially racist and anti-Semitic. In his speech to the officers of the Waffen-SS Galizien Heinrich Himmler joked that “I know that if I ordered the Division to exterminated the Poles in this area or that area, I would be a very popular man.” To express oneself carefully, Himmler’s Waffen-SS was not exactly indicating that they would give much attention to following up and prosecute crimes against the local Polish and Jewish population. In the case of the Waffen-SS Galizien, the unit was involved in killings of civilians. Huta Pieniacka was the most serious atrocity. Estimates range between 500 and 1,200 victims. But there were also the “pacification” of the Polish village of Vitsyn’, Palikrowy, Malinska, Czernicy, Iasenytsia Pol’ska, Kam”ianka Strumylova (Pl: Kamionaka Strumiłowa), Budki Nieznanowskie, and Pavlov (Pawłów), and Chatki. There were massacres in other villages, such as in the village of Zabuce. The most detailed study of the Holocaust in Eastern Galiciz concludes that there is a “high probability” that soldiers from the Waffen-SS Galzien took part in the round-up of Jews in Brody in February 1944. After being evacuated from Eastern Galicia the Waffen-SS Galizien was employed to crush the Slovak National Uprising. This was a chaotic time, as Nazi Germany and its Axis allies collapsed, and the records are sporadic. Emerging research from Slovakia suggests that parts of the unit was involved in the destruction of the village of Nizna Boca in the Smerycany area.
Evidence of these atrocities are available from a number of sources; the archives of the the former KGB in Ukraine, Yad Vashem, collections in Slovakia, the Polish Institute for National Memory, and collections of the Ukrainian diaspora in the United States and Canada.
The Huta Pieniacka atrocity is well known to both serious historians and defenders of the division’s record. But is it not the case that the evidence about what happened, the victims and perpetrators contradictory and still open to debate?
Depends on what level. Polish and Ukrainian historical commissions are in agreement that the 4th police regiment,which consisted of volunteers to the Waffen-SS Galizien, but did not make the first cut, carried out the pacification, with support of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, the UPA.
What is still debated is the number of casualties. They vary quite substantially, between estimates from 500 to 1200, with the Polish commission providing higher numbers than the Ukrainian. It is noteworthy that Volodymyr V’iatrovych, who is the director of the OUN(b) quasi-academic institution The Center for the Study of the Ukrainian Liberation Movement, in his most recent book, on the OUN-UPA massacres of Poles in Volhynia and Galicia do not deny the Waffen-SS Galizien, in concert with the UPA, carried out the atrocity. V’iatrovych’s rather transparent purpose is to rehabilitate the OUN(b) by relativize the mass murder of the Eastern Poles, and thereby distributing the responsibility for the atrocities to other Ukrainian groups. Yet, when the OUN(b)’s own propagandists reaffirm the role of the Waffen-SS Galizien in this atrocity, this indicates that the dispute is most behind us.
At the same time, the ultra-nationalist party the All-Ukrainian Association Svoboda, which is the largest political party in the city assemblies of Lviv, Ivano-Frankivs’k, and Ternopil is involved in a massive campaign to rehabilitate the unit, presenting it as the “treasure of the nation,” insisting that they “defended Ukraine,” even though its volunteers took personal oaths to Adolf Hitler and fought for a German victory in the war. Svoboda recently put up bilingual billboards in Ukrainian and English on the place where Huta Pieniacka once used to stand, denying Waffen-SS participation in the massacre. On the anniversary of the foundation of the unit, Svoboda, in association with so-called “autonomous nationalists” which, modeled after similar groups in Germany carry out massive celebrations of the unit. Last April, a sizable protest with between 800 and 2,000 people – old Waffen-SS veterans, but mostly young neo-fascists marched through the center of Lviv with chants to the honor of the Waffen-SS Galizien, Bandera, Shukhevych, and the “Ukrainian race.”
Of course, these groups deny the unit behaved atrociously, and no primary documents, no scholarly commissions, no matter their qualification are likely to change the mind of nationalist faithful.
Similarly, for decades, nationalist groups in the diaspora, many of which in Canada, have been promoting, heroizing, and championing the Waffen-SS Galizien as heroes, insisting that “membership in the Division has never been regarded by the veterans as a cause for shame” and that a “wealth of documentary evidence…shows that the Division cannot be linked with crimes against humanity.” This sort of denial has originated with people who held the ranks of full professors. Two generations of diaspora Ukrainians are raised to regard the Ukrainian Waffen-SS men as heroes and victims. For Remembrance Day 2010 the Ukrainian Canadian Congress saluted the Ukrainian Waffen-SS veterans, in 2011 the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies at the University of Alberta instituted three new endowments in the honor of two recently deceased and one very elderly Galician Waffen-SS veteran. Veteran historians, raised to respect and venerate the unit have taken former Ukrainian president Yushchenko to task for not formally rehabilitating the veterans of the Waffen-SS Galizien. Nationalistically minded diaspora historians either deny Waffen-SS Galizien involvement in the Huta Pieniacka massacre, blame it on unspecified German units, or simply ignore it, claiming that people kill each other at war, and that this would not be an impediment to celebrating the legacy of the unit.
These sort of heroic accounts are promoted by well-organized and government-funded diaspora lobby groups, with access to politicians, publishing houses and other media. In Canada, the government shared the cost for erection of ultra-nationalist memorials with the veterans of the Waffen-SS veterans. Challenging well-connected diaspora nationalist organizations, particularly in a country where multiculturalism is official policy, is difficult and the resources are unevenly distributed. Yet, things are changing, step by step. The admirers of the Waffen-SS are getting older, and the their regrowth is limited. The access to Soviet and other archives makes this sort of denial more difficult. Nevertheless, the introduction of new endowment in the honor of Waffen-SS volunteers at a major Canadian university in 2011 did not lead to any protest, they it no doubt would in Germany, Sweden, or most other Western European countries.
On the basis of all the evidence you have now looked at are you now certain about what happened in Huta Pieniacka in February 1944?
The reconstruction of events that transpired nearly seventy years ago, particularly when most of the eyewitnesses were murdered, will never be complete. There is a disagreement of the exact number of victims. But the materials demonstrate conclusively that the village was burnt down, with its mostly Polish residents, but also Polish, and individual Jewish refugees from the region. Not only are Polish and Ukrainian commissions in agreement about this. That the fourth Police Regiment of the Waffen-SS Galizien took part in this massacre is confirmed by contemporary Ukrainian nationalist documents. Polish and Jewish survivors clearly recalls the role of Ukrainian-speakers in Waffen-SS uniforms.
Another ‘caveat’ raised is that this massacre was perpetrated by members of a police regiment – not the division itself. Is this correct – and, in short, does it matter?
The Huta Pieniacka massacre, the largest and most horrific atrocity committed by units, affiliated to the unit, was committed by the Fourth police regiment. Himmler had ordered the establishment of five Polizei-Schützen-Regimenten to be armed and supplied by the central bereau of the Waffen-SS (SS-Führungshauptamt) in cooredination with the HSSPf of Ukriane and the Ordnungspolizei (Orpo), whch came to be called Galiziesches SS-Freiwilligen Regimenten with the numbers 4 to 8. The fourth and fifth regiments, were particularly involved in atrocities. The fourth regiment burnt Huta Pieniacka.
This detachment consisted of men, who did not make the initial cut for membership in the unit, but were later integrated to the unit. So of course, this matters. And it is imperative to keep in mind that not all members of the unit were involved in atrocities, that crimes should always be assessed on an individual basis. The problem was they were not properly screened, neither by the British, nor by the Canadian authorities before entering Canada. In the chaos during the last months of the war, a number of people joined the unit. The Canadian expert commission appointed by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney in the 1980s found that the later a person joined the unit, the more likely his participation in crimes.
Collective responsibility is never an acceptable principle. Of course, not all the volunteers of the Waffen-SS Galizien can be held accountable for the crimes committed by some units. And they weren’t – veterans of the unit advanced to become professors, politicians, even university chancellors after the war. During the Cold War there was less interest in these issues. No one could question the anti-communist credentials of the veterans. Oaths to Hitler, ideological training in National socialist Weltanschauung did not provide obstacles to post-war careers.
It could be argued that this incident, however regrettable, was a one off …The British and American armies surely have comparable skeletons in their historical closets?
War crimes are not the exclusive preserve of Nazi Germany, its axis allies, and local collaborating units. The sacrificing of Czechoslovakia in Munich in 1938, the firebombing of Dresden, the use of nuclear weapons on civilian targets are only some of the examples. Not to mention Soviet atrocities – Western Ukraine saw horrendous crimes committed by the Soviets during the Soviet occupation and annexation following the Molotov-Ribbentrop treaty. Summary executions, widespread use of torture, arbitrary arrests, deportations, censorship – all forms of oppression. The situation in Latvia was similar. Not to mention the situation in Soviet Ukraine and other parts of the USSR in the 1930s, with a government-organized enforced famine which claimed the lives of millions. And this is indeed used by admirers of the Waffen-SS Galizien, the OUN, UPA and other ultra-nationalist organizations to relativize the crimes of the nationalists. I have never understood this logic. If Stalin, and for that matter Churchill or Truman presided over atrocities, how would this in any way justify the burning of villages, shooting of civilians, shooting of children? What is important to remember here is that the civilian victims of violence of the Waffen-SS Galizien were not people who carried any responsibility for Stalin’s crimes. Most of which were Polish civilians, of which, it is safe to say, probably disapproved of the Molotov-Ribbentrop treaty and the imposition of Soviet rule.
Hitler’s Foreign Executioners has been long listed for the Longman History Today Book of the Year…
It’s in very good company:
Winter King: The Dawn of Tudor England, Thomas Penn (Allen Lane)
Magpies, Squirrels and Thieves: How the Victorians Collected the World, Jacqueline Yallop (Atlantic Books)
The Social Universe of the English Bible: Scripture, Society, and Culture in Early Modern England, Naomi Tadmor (Cambridge University Press)
The Rule of Moderation: Violence, Religion and the Politics of Restraint in Early Modern England, Ethan H. Shagan (Cambridge University Press)
Children in the Roman Empire: Outsiders Within, Christian Laes (Cambridge University Press)
Sacred Violence: African Christians and Sectarian Hatred in the Age of Augustine, Brent D. Shaw (Cambridge University Press)
Evening’s Empire: A History of the Night in Early Modern Europe, Craig Koslofsky (Cambridge University Press)
Shattering Empires: The Clash and Collapse of the Ottoman and Russian Empires 1908-1918, Michael A. Reynolds (Cambridge University Press)
The Great Famine: Ireland’s Agony 1845-1852, Ciaran O Murchadha (Continuum)
Mission to China: Matteo Ricci and the Jesuit Encounter with the East, Mary Laven (Faber and Faber)
Map of a Nation: A Biography of the Ordnance Survey, Rachel Hewitt (Granta Books)
Liberty’s Exiles: The Loss of America and the Remaking of the British Empire, Maya Jasanoff (HarperPress)
The Castrato and His Wife, Helen Berry (Oxford University Press)
Being Soviet: Identity, Rumour, and Everyday Life under Stalin, Timothy Johnston (Oxford University Press)
Managing the Body: Beauty, Health, and Fitness in Britain 1880-1939, Ina Zweiniger-Bargielowska (Oxford University Press)
Hitler’s Foreign Executioners: Europe’s Dirty Secret, Christopher Hale (The History Press)
Reprobates: The Cavaliers of the English Civil War, John Stubbs (Viking)
The Unfinished Revolution: Making Sense of the Communist Past in Central-Eastern Europe, James Mark (Yale University Press)
Tibet: A History, Sam Van Schaik (Yale University Press)
Palmerston: A Biography, David Brown (Yale University Press)
I have just re read Jan Gross’s masterpiece ‘Neighbours: the Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland, 1941’.
Gross unfolds a terrible story with unflinching compassion and pungent brevity. ‘Neighbours’ is a short, resonant book.
As Gross tells us in a Postscript, his account of the slaughter that engulfed the little village of Jedwabe on 10 July, 1941 shattered Polish complacency about collaboration with the Third Reich. In the course of a single hot summer’s day, 1600 men, women and children died at the hands of their neighbours. For a long time after 1945, Polish historians represented Poland as a victim of the Second World War and refused to confront the fact that Poles had taken part in the mass murder of Polish Jews.
The moral complication here is, of course, the fact that Poles were indeed victims. When the German armed forces smashed into Poland in September, 1939 one of their long planned objectives was to liquidate Polish elites. This was the task assigned to Reinhard Heydrich’s SD ‘Einsatzgruppen’ (mobile killing squads) that rampaged through Polish territory armed with a list of Polish clerics, academics, political leaders and so on who had to be ‘removed’. Since the time of Bismarck, many Germans had hated and despised Poles, and after the 1919 Paris Conference regarded their fragile nation as the bastard spawn of ‘Versailles’. Hitler invaded Poland after making a deal with Stalin – the infamous Nazi-Soviet Pact whose ‘secret protocols’ divvied out the territorial prizes that would fall to the Germans and Soviets. This meant that two weeks after the German attack on Poland, the Soviets occupied ‘their’ allotted portion of the bleeding Polish national carcass.
On 22 June 1941, the Germans tore up the Pact and the Wehrmacht roared across the borders of Soviet occupied Eastern Europe. The SD Einsatzgruppe A followed hard on the heels of the Germany army as it swept into Lithuania and the rest of the Baltic States. These EG squads began murdering Jews and recruited ‘suitable’ local auxiliaries to continue the dirty job of mass murder. This was the beginning of the ‘Holocaust by bullet’.
As Gross reveals in ‘Neighbours’ comparable events unfolded in the Soviet occupied part of what had once been the Polish nation. We know that in the Baltic nations, spontaneous pogroms consumed tens of thousands of Jewish citizens of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. This murderous process was clearly managed by the German EG commanders who took on ultra nationalists like the Lithuanian LAF and channelled their hatred of Jews and Communists as fanatical executioners.
In Poland, the destruction of Jewish communities such as the one in Jedwabne proceeded somewhat differently. Catholic Poles fell on their Jewish neighbours with utmost savagery apparently without significant German intervention. Gross examines the tangled relationship of Germans, Poles and Jews with great subtlety. He does not pull any punches about Polish culpability for what happened in Jedwabne – and points out that Jews continued to be murdered in Poland after the defeat of Nazi Germany.
There are other telling details in Gross’s account, however, that demonstrate how Germany managed and exploited autochthonous anti-Semitism. These details show that while the horror of the Jedwabne pogrom was fuelled by ancient Catholic prejudices about Jews, these were inflected by ‘modern’ anti-Semitic tropes that had become the propulsive force of the German genocide. In particular – the myth of the ‘Jewish-Bolshevik’. This malevolent ideology linked the old idea of a global Jewish conspiracy with the emergence of Soviet Communism. Bolshevism was the creation of ‘the Jews’ and in inexplicable alliance with ‘Wall Street’ capitalism sought world domination. (In brief.) This ‘idea’ became the lingua franca of anti-Semites – and was exploited by German invaders to galvanise ‘local’ anti-Semitic ultranationalists.
Gross casts fascinating light on this mechanism.
One of the myths about Eastern European Jews in Poland, Ukraine and elsewhere that was used to justify their destruction was that they welcomed the Soviet occupation en masse. Not only did they greet the Soviet troops, and offer them bread and salt – Jews then occupied privileged positions in the Soviet administration, which was in any case dominated by Russian Jews. In some cases, it is true that some Jews took on administrative jobs; many regarded the Soviets as the ‘lesser of two evils’. If however you regard the ‘Jew’ and the ‘Bolshevik’ as somehow interchangeable – then a single Jewish NKVD officer, or a handful of officials working for the Soviets becomes emblematic of Jews in general.
Gross shows that in Jedwabne, it was Poles who worked for the Soviet occupiers and Poles who then greeted the German invaders as liberators. He points out later in the book that it was precisely those who had collaborated with the Soviets who proved themselves eager to do the dirty murderous work of the Germans. They had more to prove. (This was also the case with the Latvian Viktors Arajs who became one of the most murderous of the German’s foreign executioners.)
On 10 July, 1941 the Polish citizens of Jedwabne turned on their Jewish neighbours. One of the most telling incidents, which is referred to a number of times in Gross’s account, is described as follows:
‘Local hooligans armed themselves with axes, special clubs studded with nails, and other instruments of torture and destruction and chased all the Jews into the streets. As the first victims of their devilish instincts they selected seventy-five of the youngest and healthiest Jews, whom they ordered to pick up a huge monument of Lenin that the Russians had erected in the centre of town… they were ordered to dig a hole and throw the monument in. Then these Jews were butchered to death and thrown in the same hole.’ (p.19) (my emphasis)
These young Jewish men suffered a terrible death. But their persecutors turned their barbaric assault into symbolic theatre, that entangled their victims with the spectre of Bolshevism.
What of the Germans? To begin with we should emphasise that the pogrom in Jedwabne unfolded in the immediate aftermath of the German attack on the Soviet Union on 22 June, 1941. In that sense what happened in Jedwabne was an episode in Hitler’s war on the Jews.
Gross tells us that a German Gendarmerie unit was stationed near Jedwabne. For some reason, he doesn’t explain who or what the Gendarmerie was. In fact, the German Order Police or ORPO was split between SCHUPO units in towns and Gendarmerie posts in rural areas. In the mid 1930s, Heinrich Himmler the SS Chief had taken over the German police and in ideological terms absorbed the police into the SS. The ORPO played a significant role in the Holocaust.
Gross emphasises that the Gendarmerie did not play a significant active role in the Jedwabne pogrom. The killing which was astonishingly brutal was done by Polish villagers – led by the mayor. But it was clearly organised and not ‘spontaneous’: people came from nearby villages early on the morning of 10 July to take part in the killings.
We don’t seem to have much evidence about the precise role of the Gendarmerie. But it surely unimaginable that they did not take a managerial role. Although some of the people of Jedwabne exaggerated the number of Gendarmes seen in the village on the day of the pogrom – at least some of the officers were observed meeting with the ringleaders of the pogrom.
I was also struck by another detail in Gross’s account – that a German Gendarmerie officer admonished the pogrom ringleaders for failing to ‘tidy up afterwards’. The same kind of complaint was made by the leader of EG D Otto Ohlendorf about the Romanian pogroms.
Finally, let us be clear. Many Poles are honoured at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem as righteous gentiles – hundreds of Polish families rescued and sheltered thousands of Jews. After 1939, Gross emphasises, ‘Poland suffered a demographic catastrophe without precedent: close to 10% of its population died of war related causes.’ More than a third of Poland’s urban residents were missing at the end of the war. 40% of Polish doctors, 55% of lawyers, 33% of university professors ‘were no more’. The Germans extinguished the Polish nation and used what the territory they called the ‘General Government’ as a slaughterhouse: this is where they built Auschwitz-Birkenau and the archipelago of extermination camps – Sobibor, Treblinka, Belsen…
The tragedy that Gross unfolds shows that victims can be perpetrators too: it is part of their victimhood.
I am writing this post – the last in a series about Haj Amin el-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem – shortly after Mahmoud Abbas’s speech at the United Nations. There is no question that the Palestinian people deserve a state and the right to live in peace. So too do Israelis. Do the current leaders of both peoples also want peace? Israelis at least have the option of voting for a new leadership, or demonstrating peacefully against the policies of the current government. Those Israelis who support active peace initiatives and a Palestinian state have the right to openly express these views without being gunned down in the street. In the meantime, few commentators appear willing to acknowledge that the Arab Spring is foundering. Libya remains embattled; Egyptians are ruled by a military government; the Syrian regime continues to murder its citizens; the Yemen is disintegrating – and the Saudi princes still hang on to their reactionary power and wealth. It is fascinating that the Turkish government has turned against Israel and is busy cultivating these fractious Arab nations. Will we see the return of the Ottoman Empire?
So how did Haj Amin el-Husseini escape to Egypt in 1945, and what impact did he have on the momentous events that unfolded soon afterwards leading the foundation of the state of Israel? In my own account, I argued that the Grand Mufti returned to the Middle East carrying the baggage of an anti-Semitic – rather than pro Arab – world view that had been shaped in the Third Reich and that this reinforced and reshaped the intrinsic ‘Jew hatred’ of some Arab/Islamic factions. Ingredients of this European ideology can be found today, meshed together with interpretations of passages in the Koran concerning Jews, in the political discourse of Hamas, Hezbollah and other organisations, and even in the rhetoric of the current Malaysian UMNO government. There is good evidence that a visceral hatred of Jews pollutes the education of Palestinian children – and while that may be reciprocated in the equally pernicious views of the ‘Settler’ minority itself, such deep seated ethnic hatred has no place in a modern state.
Since I began writing these posts, the German scholar Matthias Küntzel (with Colin Meade) as well as Jeffrey Herf and Stephen Howe have critiqued Gilbert Achcar’s new book ‘The Arabs and the Holocaust’. I continue to affirm the scholarly values of Achcar’s work, and note that Küntzel acknowledges that:
‘…Achcar explains to his readers, firstly, that a Nazi-like anti-Semitism appeared in the region well before the foundation of the State of Israel and, secondly, that the links between Islamism and National Socialism were not just tactical but reflected shared beliefs, in particular as regards anti-Semitism. And, finally, he makes it clear that the contemporary struggle against Israel is now being led by precisely those same Islamist currents that espoused and continue to espouse a Nazi-like hatred of Jews…’
If as Küntzel argues, Achcar ‘goes to war with what he has written’ by arguing against Israel’s right to exist then I reject that completely. Nor can I agree that:
“The most important question facing us here concerns the real weight of anti-Semitism in today’s Arab word. And this question brings another in its wake, which involves the very definition of anti-Semitism: How much aversion is imputable to anti-Semitism in the strict sense? Is the fantasy-based hatred of the Jews that was and still is typical of European racists … the equivalent of the hatred felt by Arabs enraged by the occupation and/or destruction of Arab lands …?”
It is reasonable to delineate between species of hatred. But by asking this question in these terms Achcar not only legitimates the hatred of ‘enraged’ Arabs for Jews but implies that it has no connection to ‘European’ racism – which he rightly says is ‘fantasy based’.
But this is precisely the problem. The hatred felt by Arabs for Jews in the contemporary Middle East is saturated in the fantasy based anti-Semitism of European racists. This is the political tragedy of the Palestinian people’s legitimate right to struggle for justice equality in a free nation state.
This point brings us back to the Grand Mufti, Haj Amin el-Husseini and his legacy. Achcar usefully points out that the founding fathers of modern anti-Semitism in the Arab world were Hassan al-Banna, the founder and leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Iz-al-Din al-Qassam, one of the leaders of the Arab revolt. This is a chilling anecdote from Achcar’s book:
“It was 8:30 p.m. Cars were being stopped at a barrier made of barrels on a mountain road in the Nablus region. The barrier was under the surveillance of three armed [Qassamites]: one kept an eye on the road, another held the passengers of stopped vehicles in his gun sights, and the third relieved them of their cash. Then they asked their victims if there were Englishmen or Jews among them. The driver of a truck and his passenger, both Jews, were shot on the spot. Also present was a man who ‘proved to the band that he was German, a Hitlerite, and a Christian, swearing on Hitler’s honour that he was telling the truth. The three men released him… ‘for Hitler’s sake’ … with thirty-five pounds sterling in his pockets.’” (p.133)
At the end of March, 1945, el-Husseini escaped Berlin – travelling with his entourage first to Linz in Austria, then Berne in Switzerland. The Swiss authorities handed him over to the French and he was then kept under house arrest in a villa near Louveciennes near Paris. The British made no effort to have the Mufti arrested – and the Nuremberg prosecutors led by Robert H. Jackson refused to consider the prosecution of a non European. Yugoslavia too withdrew el-Husseini’s name from its list of war criminals. The French released the Mufti and he flew from Paris to Cairo on 29 May, and was offered asylum, somewhat reluctantly by the Egyptian PM Sidky Pasha.
As the Grand Mufti waited in France, the Husseini family founded a new party – the Palestine Arab Party – and launched a propaganda campaign to proclaim Haj Amin’s natural right to leadership. They excused his activities in the defeated Germany as efforts to secure the rights of his people – and explained that he had always been on the side of the democracies. At the same time, Arab nationalists incited pogroms in Cairo and elsewhere leading to an exodus of Jews from the Arab world. It was thus that in an atmosphere of escalating hatred of Jews that the Grand Mufti renewed his status a leader of the Arab struggle.
On 14 February 1947, the British acknowledged that they had lost control of the battle raging between mandate authorities, Arabs and Jews and referred the matter to the United Nations. It was at this crucial moment that el-Husseini dealt a body blow to his own cause – an injury that it has never recovered from. The United Nations Committee on Palestine recommended partition of Palestine between Arabs and a new Jewish state. El-Husseini’s response to the UNSCOP proposal was a vehement rejection: using the kind of language he had learnt in Berlin he told a British intermediary: ‘As soon as the British forces were withdrawn, the Arabs should with one accord fall upon the Jews and destroy them.’ For its part, and for very good reasons, the Jewish Agency refused to negotiate with the Mufti – who had participated both directly and indirectly in the German government’s plans to destroy the Jews.
In the meantime, Palestine plunged into civil war. At the beginning of 1948, the ‘Arab Liberation Army’ moved into Palestine from Syria and the Mufti assumed leadership of the Jaysh al-Jihad al-Muqadas (Holy War Army). The British were preoccupied with Jewish terror gangs – and seem to have underestimated the impact of these Arab militias which fought not only the Jews and British but their Palestinian opponents as well. Many wealthy Palestinians, teachers, businessmen, doctors and lawyers, now fled the vicious cycle of killing and counter-killing – a flight which turned into a mass exodus in April, 1948.
Palestinian society, which had thrived alongside Jewish settlements under the British, was thus hollowed out. In the eyes of the most astute Palestinians, the Grand Mufti began to look a lot less impressive. He had, to be blunt, chosen the wrong side and compromised the Palestinian cause. Many now looked to the Arab states. Few realised that the Arab League, which attacked the new state of Israel in 1948, had developed a political agenda that accorded the Palestinians a minimal part: this was summed up by one disillusioned Palestinian: ‘The Arab governments told us: Get out so that we can get in. So we got out. But they did not get in…’
Had the Arab armies won that first war, they would almost certainly have simply divided up the spoils. Although Israeli historian Ilan Pappe argues that the Israelis ethnically cleansed Palestine, other scholars point to the responsibility of the Arab League that urged Palestinians to seek ‘temporary sanctuary’. Many of those who fled Palestine, were poorly treated and accused of cowardice when they arrived in Arab territory. Mahmoud Abbas acknowledged these inconvenient truths in 1976: no one appears to have heard him do so.
Klaus Gensicke is surely right that ‘had the Arab leadership accepted the 1947 UN Partition Plan, instead of obdurately preparing for war against the Jewish state, there would have been no Naqba…’ Much of the responsibility for this catastrophic political misjudgement can be laid at the feet of Haj Amin el-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem.
After 1948, the Grand Mufti became a contentious figure in the fractured world of Arab politics. In September, 1948 the Arab Higher Committee proclaimed an All Palestinian Government in the Gaza strip: and appointed el-Husseini as president. But Emir Abdallah declared the Mufti’s government illegal and when he was proclaimed ‘King of United Palestine and Transjordan’, ousted his rival and appointed a new Mufti of Jerusalem. In 1950, after negotiations with Israel, the Kingdom of Transjordan was renamed the Kingdom of Jordan. When King Abdallah was assassinated the following year – and the finger of responsibility pointed in the general direction of el-Husseini, Jordan protested to the Egyptians and even the Muslim Brotherhood turned against the ex-Mufti.
Nevertheless, el-Husseini continued to plot behind the scenes and exploited every opportunity to regain his influence. By the 1960s, however, and the emergence of a new generation of Palestinian activists led by Yasir Arafat and Abu Iyad, el-Husseini looked like a relic of the pre war period – a kind of semi feudal relic. This younger generation was working hard to build connections with students’ organisations especially in Eastern Europe. El-Husseini’s notorious activities in Germany became an embarrassment. Al Fatah representative Abdallah Frangi insisted that the Germans had ‘ignored’ the Grand Mufti.
When the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, the PLO was formed with President Nasser’s blessing in 1964, el-Husseini spoke out bitterly against its first leader Ahmed Shukeiri. In 1967, which would turn out to be such a pivotal year in Middle Eastern history, King Hussein of Jordan invited the ageing former Mufti to Jerusalem to try and play ‘divide and rule’ with the Palestinian movement. The king had miscalculated – few Palestinians knew who el-Husseini was and if they did they had lost respect. But the PLO while rejecting the ‘feudal’ politics of the former Mufti nevertheless endorsed his polices with their ‘three no’s’ – no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with Israel.
Haj Amin el-Husseini died aged 77 in Lebanon on 4 July, 1974. One of the mourners was Yasir Arafat. His only monument is the persistence of the racial hatred he matured in Berlin. Efraim Karsh writes:
‘Haj Amin and Arafat were quintessential representatives of the cynical and self-seeking leaders produced by the Arab political system… Just as the Palestinian leadership had no qualms about inciting its constituents against Zionism and the Jews, while lining it sown pockets from the fruits of Jewish entrepreneurship, so PLO officials used the billions of dollars donated by the Arab oil states…to finance their luxurious style of life while ordinary Palestinians scrambled for a livelihood.’
It is worth noting that Mahmood Abbas is waiting to move into a presidential palace currently under construction in Ramallah.
History with its nuances and contradictions should not be sacrificed to ideology. I am sure most historians – however we define the term – would agree with that proposal in principle. And yet history willy-nilly is tugged hither thither by ideologists of one sort or another. Relativists would, I suppose, define ‘history’ as the discourse of vested interests – but can we not imagine a tough minded, objective approach to historical evidence that refuses to bend in any ideological wind.
Haj Amin el-Husseini the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem is a very good case in point. I would admit that I ‘demonised’ el-Husseini to some degree in ‘Hitler’s Foreign Executioners’. Here I want to re-examine the argument in that book through the lens of recent publications. Let me say to begin with that I have not changed by core argument – that the Grand Mufti legitimised western anti-Semitic discourse in Arab or Palestinian propaganda.
Let us begin with the fact that since the events of 11 September, 2001 the historical record with respect to el-Husseini has been significantly – perhaps even grossly – distorted.
Here are some of the examples cited in Gilbert Achcar’s important new book, ‘The Arabs and the Holocaust’ (2010). Achcar argues – in brief – that since the galvanising trauma of the attack on New York on 9/11 the story of the Grand Mufti has been used to reiterate a number of ideological arguments that have become the clichéd propaganda of American neo-Conservative and right wing Zionists. (I am assuming here that the state of Israel offers an example of a democratic political culture with a diversity of opinion including constituencies that reject the opinions discussed below. See Tom Segev’s comment below.)
Take for example David Dalin and John Rothman’s ‘Icon of Evil’ which uses secondary sources to argue that there is ‘an unbroken continuity… an unbroken chain of terror from Adolf Hitler, Haj Amin al-Husseini, Sayyid Qutb and Yasser Arafat to Hamas’s founder and spiritual leader… Ramzi Yousef who panned the WTC bombing of 1993, to Osama bin Laden and Mohamed Ata…’ This book has received high praise from American neo-conservatives like Daniel Pipes – but Israeli historian Tom Segev denounced ‘Icon of Evil’ as having ‘little scholarly value…’
A cadre of German scholars has jumped on this bandwagon. I suspect that their motives are two fold. Unconsciously perhaps they wish to deflect responsibility from Germany to ‘Arabs’ for the Holocaust. In ‘Jihad and Jew Hatred’ by Matthias Küntzel, for example, it would seem that Islamism and the Muslim Brotherhood, the Grand Mufti have somehow a greater responsibility for the Shoah than the German architects and managers of the genocide. At the same time, there is a strange Germany-hating German academic type that wishes to blame Germany for the real problem of Islamic anti-Semitism. Incidentally Küntzel is an expert on Islam who doesn’t speak Arabic.
Every one of the books under discussion here feature the notorious photograph of the Grand Mufti meeting Adolf Hitler. The image has become a kind propagandist short hand – but that meeting, which did indeed take place, cannot be pinned down in a press photo. Hitler despised Arabs like el-Husseini, just as he expressed contempt for Indians. For the Grand Mufti to be ‘accepted’ in Germany he had to be re-classified as a kind of Aryan. Yet another example is Republican Party candidate Chuck Morse’s ‘The Nazi Connection to Islamic Terrorism: Adolf Hitler and Haj Amin al-Husseini’ which argues that the German ‘Final Solution’ was ‘continued against the Jews of Israel’ – by Arab and Muslim nations. Apparently ‘Nazi style anti-Semitism continues its grim goose step across the Arab and Islamic landscapes…’
Perhaps Chuck Morse doesn’t consider himself to be a historian – though presumably his book is bought by readers who think it is history. His book is merely propaganda.
Much more respectable is Klaus-Michael Mallmann and Martin Cüppers’ ‘Halbmond and Hakenkreuz’ (2006) – now available in English. The German edition features the same worn out image of Hitler and the Grand Mufti. (The English version uses the same photograph as ‘Hitler’s Foreign Executioners’ on its cover – showing Bosniak SS recruits reading what looks like an anti-Semitic pamphlet.) Mallmann and Cüpper’s book makes very good use of its German sources, but nevertheless promotes the hackneyed ‘continuity’ that links Hitler, the Grand Mufti and Islamic radicalism.
According to Tom Segev, who really is a very good historian, books like ‘Icon of Evil’ belong to a ‘genre of popular Arab bashing that is believed to be good for Israel. It is not.’
There is something fundamentally lazy about this mulching together of ‘Hitler’, ‘The Grand Mufti’ and ‘Islamism’. History exhibits fractures not unbroken continuities. That photograph of Hitler and el-Husseini means nothing in and of itself – it is an historical artefact not a transparent piece of evidence that proves anything about the relationship between the Third Reich and contemporary Middle Eastern ideologies.
The Neo Con American right dominates this kind of pseudo historical discourse. That is unfortunate – and not in the interest of historical analysis. That is not to say that German anti-Semitism did not infect (and inflect) the thinking of el-Husseini and that this kind of racial stereotyping has not poisoned the political discourse of Hamas and other factions. Nor is this to say that many Arab intellectuals do not reject the stereotyping of Jews and Israelis promoted by Hamas.
I think this is what Bernard Lewis was getting at in his book ‘Semites and Anti-Semites’:
‘It would be palpably unjust, even absurd, to assert that all critics or opponents of Zionism or Israel are moved by anti-Semitism; it would be equally mistaken to deny that anti-Zionism can on occasion provide a cloak for a prejudice which, at the present time and in the free world, is not normally admitted in public…’
It is not surprising that the intellectual origins of a propagandist exploitation of history originate in Germany. In the post war period, German conservatives recognized that ‘philo-Semitism’ and good relations with Israel were a prerequisite for the Federal Republic’s acceptance as a Cold War ally. It is not surprising that this philo-Semitism went hand in hand with a failure to come to terms with responsibility for the Holocaust. This German philo-Semitism was traditional anti-Semitism turned on its head. Here is Konrad Adenauer essentially reiterating some of the most potent myths of anti-Semitism:
‘We had done to the Jews so much injustice, we had committed so many crimes against them, that somehow these had to be expiated…if we wished to gain respect and standing among the world’s nations. Moreover, the power held by the Jews, even today, especially in America, should not be underestimated.’
The perverted morality of this statement is grotesque. Adenauer’s government was riddled with former SS and Gestapo men, as well as key functionaries of the Reich such as his national security advisor Hans Globke and the Minister for Displaced Persons Theodor Oberländer.
Political hypocrisy fosters historical distortion. German philo-Semitism or anti-Semitic hostility to Zionism or the State of Israel seek to refract reality through the prism of propaganda – and ultimately hatred. Anti-Semitism remains a grave danger – but opposition to racism is not validated by different species of racism. Analysing the actual historical experience even of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem rather than reiterating a myth is not the same as condoning his active, document and indeed admitted involvement in the Holocaust.
Nor should we ignore that Mahmoud Abbas, known as Abu Mazen, leader of Fatah wrote his doctoral dissertation based on the ‘work’ of Holocaust denier Robert Faurisson – and contributed a preface to Faurisson’s own pamphlet denying the existence of gas chambers. We should not brush under the carpet the vicious anti-Semitism of the Saudi regime and its Wahhabi monarchy – which, like Israel, buys German arms.
No should we forget that Harry S. Truman – that hero of the Americna right had this to say of Jews:
‘The Jews I find are very very selfish… Yet when they have power, physical, financial or political neither Hitler not Stalin has anything on them for cruelty or mistreatment of the underdog.’ 21 July, 1947.