Turning a blind eye

3rd February 1995 at 00:00
The Holocaust and the Liberal Imagination: A Social and Cultural History By Tony Kushner, Blackwell Pounds 45. 0 631 19482 7, Pounds 14.99. 0 631 19483 5. A Cat called Adolf By Trude Levi Vallentine Mitchell Pounds 13.50 0 85303 289 0.

Julia Neuberger on the part played by liberal ambivalence and nationalism in allowing the Holocaust to happen.

The first major historians of the Holocaust, Leon Poliakov in France and Gerald Reitlinger in England, were in close agreement that the voice of the Jews themselves would be used sparingly in their narratives . . . Both . . . were aware of the incredulity of their audience . . . 'authenticity' was thus required and it was assumed that evidence from the victim was somehow less persuasive and objective; it was somehow softer than material emanating from the persecutor." Tony Kushner goes on to explain that many testimonies from those who experienced or witnessed events in the camps are hardly regarded as constituting firm historical evidence.

How peculiar that the words of those who saw and experienced the horror should not be taken seriously. Were they so prone to exaggeration that they would invent the horror? Or were they, as people had thought before the war when the persecution in Germany had begun, simply whingeing about minor problems in their lives?

But there is another interpretation of the concentration on the perpetrators, and using that as "hard" evidence Kushner points out, in his study which uses the modern disciplines of gender and social history to throw new light on events, that history has been, before and in the immediately post-war period, a discipline focusing on individuals, and male individuals at that, the "hard men" of history. "A form of machismo was at work, shown in the preference for perpetrator evidence and a concentration on the `hard' world of the male mass murderers."

It took several decades for the evidence of the victims, those who saw and experienced and mostly perished, to be seen as "hard", but it was their evidence which changed the perception of them from being merely uniformly passive as they were destroyed to being resisters, delayers, and subject to major geographical differences.

But there was also the issue of the Holocaust being seen as a thoroughly German problem in the immediate post-war years, until scholars began to look at what had gone on country by country and found, for instance, that the anti-Jewish measures of the Vichy government in France rivalled the German ones, and that collaboration with the regime varied hugely from place to place, as did the extent of endemic anti-semitism. Kushner quotes David Bankier's work, which he admits is pessimistic, which argues that "Nazi anti-semitism was successful not because the German population changed course, and suddenly became devotees of racial theory; it was effective because large sectors of German society were predisposed to be anti-semitic." Hence ordinary people knew and acceded to what was going on; they could not have been ignorant, but they probably did not care.

Kushner proceeds by telling the story, chronologically, of the reactions of liberal democracies to the Holocaust and what went before, from the vantage point of the British Home Secretary, Sir John Gilmour, who argued in the House of Commons that each case of a German Jew seeking to come to Britain would be judged on its merits. The fear of anti-semitism was a major part in the reluctance to admit too many, particularly too many of the "wrong sort" of Jew.

Similarly, the question of the dilution of national identity was seen as a factor in determining to keep refugees, however deserving, out of Britain and British culture. It was unusual people who took a different view. Kushner has dedicated this volume to the remarkable and humane Eleanor Rathbone, MP, who campaigned for Jews, tried to bring the issue of what was happening in Germany to public attention, and helped many refugees, including my maternal grandparents. But she was unusual. Of the public, she wrote (in 1933): "(It) . . . jaded with horrors and pre-occupied with its own distresses, only knows vaguely that the German government is persecuting the German Jews, feels sorry about it, and turns to its own affairs."

But there were those who believed that there was a deliberate conspiracy of silence in the House of Commons, with no debate on the persecution of the Jews at all in 1933, as well as a desire by the liberals to play down what was going on because it fitted so badly with their view of the world.

Kushner carries on with descriptions of how refugees were treated, from being encouraged to "BE ENGLISH!" to, especially the women, put "below stairs" in domestic service, where they would not be seen or heard. The refugee organisations were frightened that the general acceptance of admitting refugees would change if the refugees were too noticeable. But it is clear that this has to be set against a background where those same liberals who allowed the Jews into Britain, and stopped them from entering Palestine, could also know as much as they wanted about the Nazi treatment of the Jews, and that many of them must have done so.

This is a wonderful book, written with passion and minute scholarship combined. I could not put it down. It depresses, challenges, and reinterprets Holocaust history in the light of what the British and Americans did and thought. The Nazi destruction of the Jews without strong British protest came about as a result of the "liberal ambivalence" between a genuine desire to help and a trenchant nationalism that wanted to keep foreigners out.

An example of a neglected personal memoir is to be found in Trude Levi's A cat Called Adolf. This is the story of concentration camp survivor Trude Levi, who was married to a schizophrenic and the suicide of her only son as part of her personal aftermath of the Holocaust.

Teenagers could and should read this account, for Levi tells the story as plainly as she can, with a considerable amount of self-deprecation and courage. Kushner's work synthesises reactions to the Holocaust, but he rightly records that the personal memoirs of those who were the concentration camp victims have been too long ignored. Trude Levi's volume is one in a relatively new series that goes some little way to making up the deficit.

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