The perils of ignoring Holocaust history

Story highlights

  • On Holocaust Remembrance Day, Deborah Lipstadt calls Livingstone linking Hitler to Zionism "ludicrous"
  • London mayor's attempt to twist history indicative of an effort to stir "disgust by association," she says

Deborah E. Lipstadt, Dorot professor of modern Jewish and Holocaust studies at Emory University, is the author of "History on Trial: My Day in Court with David Irving." She was the target of a British libel lawsuit by Irving, a historian she said had become a spokesman for Holocaust denial. Lipstadt won the case in April 2000. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

(CNN)Hitler was a Zionist.

Pardon me?
    Until recently anyone who uttered such a statement would have been deemed mad. This past week, however, Ken Livingstone, former mayor of London and a member of Parliament, did just that, saying "Hitler was supporting Zionism" while surrounded by reporters and cameras. So far, he seems unwilling to plead insanity or to apologize for his remarks.
    Professor Deborah Lipstadt
    The charge that Zionists and Nazis were in cahoots is not new. Holocaust deniers, anti-Israel extremists, and neo-Nazis, but generally not MPs, have long made it. They insist that Zionists and Nazis shared a goal of a Jew-free Europe and a Jewish homeland. Livingstone is both wrong on his history and playing into a dangerous contemporary trend toward vilifying Jews who lived (and struggled to survive) in Hitler's Germany.
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    This accusation is ludicrous in its historical inaccuracy. Hitler considered a Jewish homeland a threat to humanity. The Nazis believed that the Jews did not need a state, because they were more powerful than any state; the Zionists believed that the Jews needed a state, because they were powerless without one.
    It is also completely historically wrong to argue, as Livingstone did, that "until Hitler went mad," he was a compatriot of the Jews. Already in "Mein Kampf," published in 1925 before he became chancellor in 1933, he warned of a "Jewish virus," described Jews as "vile" and a "pestilence," and called for their expulsion from society.
    From the outset of the Third Reich under Hitler's leadership, Germany made life difficult for Jews. They were forced out of jobs, physically harassed, and expelled from universities. Their stores were boycotted. Jewish schoolchildren were humiliated. In 1935 the Nuremberg Laws deprived Jews of their citizenship. A relentless propaganda campaign reinforced these legal maneuvers: posters, cartoons, children's books, and newspaper articles depicted Jews as Germany and the world's "misfortune."
    How do Livingstone and his compatriots hatch this absurd claim? Like other demagogues before them, they twist historical fact beyond reality until it is no longer recognizable.
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    In Livingstone's case, he has distorted the fact that in August 1933, German Zionists, desperate to help Jews get out of the Reich, concluded the Ha'avara or Transfer agreement, the only formal contract between Nazi Germany and a Zionist organization. Under its provisions, Jews, after paying an increasingly debilitating emigration tax, could deposit a sum of money with the Zionist organization and then, upon arrival in Palestine, use credit on those funds to buy property.
    The agreement was of tremendous financial benefit to the Germans, because under the agreement Jewish emigrants often had to forfeit many of their possessions before leaving the country. And it was hardly a negotiation between equals. There was no finding of common ground. The Nazis held the power and the Jews only had ideas to try to blunt the assault directed at them. While no Jews celebrated this interaction with the Nazis, it nonetheless saved approximately 60,000 lives.
    So Livingstone credits his "knowledge" to a book by an American Marxist that is so far outside the historical mainstream as to be dismissed as irrelevant by virtually all Holocaust scholars. The book contends that the Nazis and the Zionists worked in collaboration with one another and that, therefore, Israel has its roots in Nazism with all its attendant evils. One of the few entities to embrace it is the Institute for Historical Review, the home of Holocaust denial activities in the United States.
    It's important to note, though, that Livingstone isn't an edge case; his comments are indicative of a broader assault on history that has a contemporary objective: to tarnish the reputations of German Jews and Zionists alike. Today, when "Hitler" and "Nazism" are two of the remaining terms about which there is a general sense of opprobrium, to claim that the Zionists worked with the Nazis or, in Livingstone's terms, that Hitler was a Zionist and wanted Jews to go to "Israel," which did not even exist at the time, is to link the terms "Zionism" and "Israel" with "Hitler" and "Nazism" and to generate disgust by association.
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    While many people, myself included, may have differences with aspects of Israeli policies, to link Israel with the Third Reich is not only historically farfetched but is also revolting. The notion that the murderers and the victims were working together is so far beyond historical acceptability as to be beyond the pale.
    Lenni Brenner, the author of "Zionism in the Age of the Dictators," the book to which Livingstone credits all his knowledge on the topic, and these other critics from the left are suggesting that no truly ethical or moral entity would ever have considered cooperating with Hitler. From Livingstone's comfortable position in Westminster and the offices on the university campuses occupied by professors who see Israel and its supporters as the epitome of evil, they all seem to know in their hearts that they, unlike "Zionists," would have taken the high road.
    If only life were that easy. As a professor of modern Jewish history and Holocaust studies, I know the opposite is true. Toward the end of my course on the history of the Holocaust, I ask my students a question but tell them I don't want an answer. "Imagine you are in a ghetto and you have a chance to escape. Do you go?" Then I add a caveat. "If the Germans discover you have escaped it is likely that your family -- parents, younger siblings, grandparents -- will be deported to death camps. Do you go or stay?" Then I repeat my admonition: Don't answer.
    It is impossible, even after a semester of intense study, to truly grasp the horrors Jews endured. Though I generally eschew "what if" questions and playacting history, I pose this question to instill in my students modesty in judgment, to give them some sense of the terrible conundrums Jews faced.
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    My students are told not to answer the question, and I can't answer it either. Had I been given the opportunity to "negotiate" with the Nazis, would I have done it? I don't know. I might have stood on principle and said no. Then again, thinking about the potential of saving 60,000 Jews and their millions of descendants, I might have shelved my righteous indignation and tried to save lives.
    This is what those who designed the Ha'avara agreement managed to do. They should be praised for their actions, not vilified by uninformed onlookers like Livingston in the name of contemporary politics.