By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
In Ken Livingston’s shocking recent interviews in which he downplayed Hitler’s anti-Jewish policies, most of the media has latched onto his argument that Hitler had contacts with Labor Zionists. But the focus on that issue has distracted from the really shocking and offensive part of Livingston’s comments, the theory that Hitler was merely “mad” or crazy and that the murder of six million was due to a kind of insanity, not calculated racism and exterminationist policies.
A transcript of his first interview notes that the former mayor of London said: “He [Hitler] was supporting Zionism – this before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.” In a confrontation with Labour MP John Mann, Livingston was quoted as saying “Hitler was a mad anti-Zionist, he wanted to kill all Jews.” On a subsequent BBC interview he made a similar comment. “Hitler was completely mad, he killed six million…I have no sympathy for Hitler.” Challenged on whether there were anti-semites in the Labor party, he claimed “In a party of half million people you’ll have a handful of mad anti-semites, you’ll have a handful of racists.”
The comments about Hitler being “mad” are actually the truly disturbing aspect of Livingstone’s re-writing of history. He made factual errors in connecting Hitler with Zionism, and in his claim that Hitler wanted to send Jews “to Israel”. But why was Hitler described as “mad”, a euphemism for insane or crazy?
When Labour MPs such as John Prescott describe Israeli actions they use terms such as “brutally disproportionate” and “grossly indiscriminate” and call them “war crimes.” In Defending Labour MP Naz Shah, who was also accused of anti-semitism, Livingston noted; “The simple fact in all of this is that Naz made these comments at a time when there was another brutal Israeli attack on the Palestinians; and there’s one stark fact that virtually no one in the British media ever reports, in almost all these conflicts the death toll is usually between 60 and 100 Palestinians killed for every Israeli.”
So these Labour politicians such as Livingston know how to use words such as “brutal”, but when discussing Hitler he is presented as “mad” and Nazi crimes are sanitized. In his discussion on the BBC Livingston was presented with Hitler’s policy to expel Jews and asked if he supported it. “No, I denounce that.” When asked about Palestinians he said they were “kept in appalling conditions.”
The real story of Livingston’s interviews is actually this new version of Nazi history. Hitler is “mad” and Nazism is not so much a movement, not so much a massive, calculated process of mass murder, but a kind of spontaneous mistake. Hitler is “crazy”, not part of a larger anti-semitic and racist, extreme right wing ideology that grew out of European history and German history in particular. Instead the Livingston analysis creates an ahistorical Hitler. He is presented as sort of being a normal politicians and then “he went mad and [he] ended up killing six million.” Notice how the onus is presented as entirely on Hitler and that Hitler is turned into a kind of lunatic. This is a way to escape real responsibility for the crimes of the Nazis and a real denunciation of Nazism. It is a way to degrade the Holocaust into a spontaneous act, carried out by one crazy person, rather than part of a network, an ideology, a culture, and connected closely with racism.
Notice how in every instance of discussing racism, Livingston bifurcates racism from anti-semitism. This is because anti-semitism is seen as separate from racism. There are “mad” anti-semites, just “crazy” people, and there are doctrinaire racists. Racists are part of a mindset, anti-semites are just a few “mad” people. This is way to not only excuse but to diminish the nature of anti-semitism, not only to make it different than racism, but to reduce it and make it seem less serious. The concept is to actually strip Hitler and the Nazis of culpability. If they were “mad” and “crazy”, then they are not really responsible. If only “mad” people hate Jews, then there is no need to address and condemn anti-semitism, because crazy people are not responsible for their crimes. This is a way to reduce anti-semitism to something irrational. Irrational acts cannot be confronted or educated against, and they don’t even need to be condemned.
Reducing, excusing, and unwillingness to be outraged and confront hatred of Jews is a hallmark of how some on the left and right in the UK have allowed anti-semitism to grow. One commentator described a survey of British Muslims that found that some hold “dodgy” views of Jews. What is “dodgy”? Another word like “mad” that reduces the racism into something just “odd” and “crazy”.
Educating about intolerance and Nazism is a key to teaching anti-racism. By turning Nazism into an ahistorical “crazy” event it reduces it. Are other types of racism considered just “dodgy” and “mad”. Is Islamophobia just a bit of “mad Islamophobia”? There is a willingness often to confront all forms of racism and take them seriously and express outrage, except when it comes to hatred of Jews. Consider Livingston’s deep anger about treatment of Palestinians, the descriptive words such as “brutal” that are often used. But the Holocaust is never “brutal”, it rarely gets the rousing touch that Churchill might have described Nazism as. Nazism isn’t evil, it isn’t seen as an extension of other types of intolerance. It’s slaughter of 6 million people, an unprecendented event, is seen as momentary “madness” perpetrated by one man, not by millions of Germans and collaborators throughout Europe.
The reduction of the Holocaust into an act of “madness” is actually a far more dangerous issue than the claim that Hitler was a Zionist. The decision to make anti-semitism not a part of general racism, but merely something else, something perhaps “dodgy”, is part of the need to reduce the outrage over anti-semitism and to reduce the historical importance of the Holocaust.