In his book The Holocaust Industry, political scientist Norman Finkelstein argues that an ideological construct has taken shape around the Holocaust that is used to cloak Israel with the status of “victim state” despite its “horrendous” human rights record. One of the key planks of this ideology is the notion of ‘uniqueness’, both of the European Holocaust and of Western Jews as victims.
In November 2019, Roger Hallam, one of the founders of the environmental movement Extinction Rebellion, was caught up in a highly controversial media storm in which he was accused of antisemitism. Hallam had contradicted the ideology Finkelstein had identified, describing the Holocaust as just another genocide—as he phrased it “just another fuckery in human history“—which, by example, he compared to the death toll in the Belgian Congo.
The constructed media notion of supposed offence to European Jews was highly specialised in that it was restricted to white, heterosexual, able-bodied, politically conservative victims. If insult had been genuinely given by Hallam it was also an offence to gay, disabled, black and leftist victims of Nazi eugenics and extermination policies.
Germany had been occupied at the close of the First World War by French-African colonial troops branded the ‘Black Horror’ by the Germans. The colonial troops fathered a generation of mixed race Germans known pejoratively as ‘Rhineland Bastards’ who were smeared as ‘half apes’ by Adolf Hitler in his autobiographical screed, Mein Kampf.
These inconvenient black victims are hardly ever mentioned in the Western media’s Holocaust-invoking, pro-Israel reportage; though they, along with the disabled and gay, were among the first to be victims of Nazi sterilisation and forced euthanasia policies.
Similarly, political victims of the Nazis are now also excluded from mention, despite the fact the resonant postwar reflection about fascist oppression was Martin Niemöller’s poem beginning, “First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist (Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a trade unionist).”
Ironically the left, and particularly the UK Labour Party, are the prime targets of the current pro-Israel media witchhunt, which has demonstrated both the totalitarian nature of attacks on ordinary working-class socialists and the strategic function of excluding them from the list of historic Nazi victims. It is also worth recalling that the people that actually fought during the Second World War and were responsible for postwar reconstruction used the inclusive term ‘Nazi Crimes against Humanity’. Decades later we have—as Finkelstein has observed—slipped into using highly selective labels like Shoah and Holocaust which implicitly create a hierarchy of victimhood.
As for Hallam’s comparative comments, Adam Hothschild, in his history King Leopold’s Ghost, cites the Belgians killing of 10 million Africans in the Congo. This genocide was caused by a horrific regime of mass castrations, floggings and starvation on an almost industrial scale.
The horrors of the Belgian Congo are so well established in history that Mark Twain can be cited as one of the early anti-colonial campaigners against the slaughter. The missionary Alice Seeley Harris photographed the colonial disciplinary practice of cutting off the hands of the children who had, held in forced labour, failed to meet rubber harvest quotas (see image below). The death toll of victims from this practice was considerable, and the collection of hands became a form of currency by which soldiers proved they’d upheld colonial authority and carried out their kill rates.
However, the weight of historical evidence does not shame those political and media elites who are structuring the current moral panic upon a hierarchy of victimhood privileging a specific white ethnic identity. The black-Jewish political activist Jackie Walker similarly tried to point out that victims of slavery were absented from Holocaust Memorial Day. The fact that a figure of “60 million and more” has long been the accepted number of victims of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and even featured in Toni Morrison’s Pulizer Prize-winning novel Beloved did not protect Walker from being smeared as a anti-Semite.
Walker, however, was correct: slavery and the other colonial Holocausts that—like the state of Israel—are a manifestation of white settler domination, are systematically excluded from Holocaust Memorial Day. The same media that claims to care about antisemitism covers up this racist double standard rather than treat it as a scandal. In fact, strategies of black Holocaust denial were a feature of Cathy Newman’s infamous interview with Walker on Britain’s Channel 4 News in September 2016.
The largest Holocaust in human history is not included in Holocaust Memorial Day, and is now rarely mentioned in contemporary media coverage of the event. David Stannard, in his book American Holocaust, cites 100 million killed in the conquest of the Americas. In the United States you can hardly bump into a Native American; there are now about 6.5 million left, often ghettoised in the reservation system, out of a general population of 327 million.
In the week both before and after Hallam’s comments, the BBC twice broadcast a biographical documentary about the novelist Ursula K. Le Guin. In the film, Le Guin talked about her parents, anthropologist Alfred Kroeber and his wife Theodora’s friendship with Ishi, the last surviving member of the Native American Yahi people. When Ishi died, his tribe died with him. So within the timeframe that Hallam was being smeared, popular culture was highlighting that an ethnic group can actually become extinct due white colonial Holocaust. Yet this extermination was still being given subordinate treatment compared to to white Western victims.
The UK establishment has a vested interest in downplaying the horrors of historic Western imperialism. The British had torture camps in Kenya, and have recently had to compensate victims of torture and military rape in colonial Cyprus. Britain’s conquest of a quarter of the planet was facilitated by a eugenics ideology in which the victims of imperialism were (whatever their ethnic identity) regarded as interchangeable lesser human ‘wogs’, a term that originated as a slur targeted at the African disapora but was used throughout the empire.
The extent of the death toll in colonial India was described by historian Mike Davis in his book Late Victorian Holocausts. Contradicting the media spin that colonial deaths took place over a much longer time period than the Nazi Holocaust, historian Amaresh Mishra in his book War of Civilisations: 1857 cited how the British, in putting down an Indian uprising, presided over “untold Holocaust” which caused the deaths of almost 10 million people over 10 years beginning in 1857.
The historian and former UN under Secretary General Shashi Tharoor recorded the figure of 35 million deaths attributable to the entire history of the British Raj in his books Inglorious Empire and An Era of Darkness. Again, this death toll is not mentioned on Holocaust Memorial Day.
The only qualitative difference between white settler Holocausts and Nazi crimes is that the Western empires and independent colonies relied on mixed military slaughter and methods derived from the theories of population sustainability popularized by cleric and scholar Thomas Robert Malthus, whereby disease and starvation were deliberately imposed on Indigenous peoples. The Nazis, by comparison, utilized the machinery of militarism coupled with Fordist industrialised methods. There is, however, no reason outside of racism and complicity in the ideology of global Western expansionism to explain away why black and brown deaths should be treated as somehow subordinate or second-class.
An early example of German empire envy illustrates the lack of genuine demarcation between Western colonial Holocausts and later Nazi crimes. In 1904, many years before the Nazis came to power, Germany exterminated 75 percent of the Herero tribe in Namibia (amounting to 60,000 people), and embarked on a horrific project of human experimentation on tribal survivors that was later resumed against Europeans—including a overwhelming number of western Jews—in Second World War death camps. For black historians like Clarence Lusane and Tina Campt, the Nazis simply brought Western colonial, eugenics-motivated slaughter back to the European mainland. Isn’t the corporate media being racially selective about which victims matter, simply replicating Nazi racist hierarchies?
Perhaps the answer is that racist double standards of the comparative value of human life and Nazi rhetoric are with us once again, covertly advancing the agendas of both the Israeli colonial project and those who champion the current manifestation of Western imperialism. Israel not only oppresses the Indigenous Palestinian population, it has subjected black Jews to long-term forced contraception injections, established neighbourhoods operating whites-only housing policies, and authorized hospitals to dump so-called ‘black blood’ donations as unclean. However, based on the ‘uniqueness narrative,’ the International Holocaust Remembrance Coalition (IHRC) working definition of antisemitism attempts to exempt Israel from scrutiny of racist practices. This begs the question: If Israel could stand up to examination on these issues, why would it need an exemption from scrutiny?
The US-led Western powers are responsible for over a million deaths in Iraq plus more across the region. In subsequent election campaigns, Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee suggested voters should ignore the death toll and instead vote New Labour on the basis of its alleged investments in infrastructure. This was a version of the old Nazi apologist mantra “never mind the death camps, look at the autobahn”. More recently, Nick Robinson of the supposedly impartial BBC characterised criticism of Western imperialism as “a failure to support our armed forces”. Interestingly, this is the same slur Nazis hurled at the German White Rose Peace activists they persecuted.
Much of the rhetoric supporting the new imperialism—particularly the spin of people like Nick Robinson—is based upon a traditional ‘civilising the primitive savage’ ideology. Within this framwork, the black and brown peoples of the world are supposedly too inferior for their countries to be permitted to evolve, make mistakes and develop without violent Western exploitation. The enormous number of deaths from historic and ongoing conquests are subsequently ‘buried’ in corporate media coverage.
It is interesting to reflect, even on recent history, where these notions of innate Western superiority versus Indigenous inferiority have led us; sometimes characterised as ‘the onward march of Western civilisation’. Long after the Second World War, when the West had supposedly learned from failing to recognise the humanity of white Europeans, the stuffed and mounted bodies of black and Indigenous peoples were still to be found in Western museums as examples of ethnic primitiveness. The Negro of Banyoles, a controversial piece of taxidermy of a San individual, which used to be a major attraction in the Darder Museum of Banyoles, was only returned to Africa in 2000 after activists had shamed the neighbouring 1998 Barcelona Olympics and subsequently kept up their protests. The Royal Society of Tasmania kept Truganini’s remains until 1976 and the French only returned Saartjie Baartman, the so-called Hottentot Venus, in 2002.
Currently, it appears horrified indignation at racism is now only to be expressed within a hierarchy of victimhood, strategically sympathetic to those supporting a global ideology of the onward march of white Western civilisation.
Gavin Lewis is a freelance black-British mixed-race writer and academic. He has published in Australia, Britain, Canada and the United States on film, media, politics, cultural theory, race and representation. He has taught critical theory, film and cultural studies at a number of British universities.