Burning denial down by the Tiber

20170207_163216I miss the days before Kindles and iPods, when you could get to know someone better by browsing through their book and music collections. Our Dutch friend Merel, at whose house we spend New Year’s Eve, has a good variety of recent fiction and books on sustainable development and the like. I’m a little taken aback to see on her shelves quite a range of books on dictators and fascism, including two by the disgraced Hitler apologist David Irving. Thankfully it turns out they belong to her landlord.

Irving is a Nazi activist who used to get away with pretending to be a historian. He was the subject of a 2016 film starring Rachel Weisz and Timothy Spall, which depicted his failed attempt in 2000 to sue the historian Deborah Lipstadt for pointing out that he had systematically distorted details about the Holocaust in his books in order to let Hitler off the hook. The judge concluded that:

Irving has for his own ideological reasons persistently and deliberately misrepresented and manipulated historical evidence; that for the same reasons he has portrayed Hitler in an unwarrantedly favourable light, principally in relation to his attitude towards and responsibility for the treatment of the Jews; that he is an active Holocaust denier; that he is anti-Semitic and racist, and that he associates with right-wing extremists who promote neo-Nazism.

As it happens I’d come across a physical copy of one of his books before, about twenty years earlier in my local library in Dublin. I took it out and disposed of it, and then explained to the library what I’d done and why. They understood my point and once I’d agreed to pay the cost of the book they agreed not to replace it. The film about the trial of the book’s author is no classic but it sets out the main details, featuring real footage of Irving giving Nazi salutes to audiences of skinheads in Germany and Austria, where he once spent a year in prison for continuing to spread lies about the death camps. It also makes the link with other kinds of denial – one of the key lines spoken by the main character is ‘Elvis is dead. The icecaps are melting. And the Holocaust did take place’. The fact that Holocaust denial is booming online and that many of those espousing it also deny that the earth’s climate is changing is no coincidence. Hitler launched his campaign to conquer Europe in order to extend Germany’s ‘Lebensraum’, living space. In anderen Worten, he wanted to expand the Third Reich’s vegetable patch. Last week the right-wing British tabloid newspaper The Sun, owned by the climate-denying pro-Trump tycoon Rupert Murdoch, used its front page to blame Spanish people for depriving Britons of food. Inclement weather in Southern Europe has meant that there are fewer vegetables to export to British supermarkets, and The Sun wants its readers to blame foreigners rather than asking why global weather patterns are changing. As I have long argued that climate denial and racism are intimately linked, I can’t help but feel at the same time a little vindicated and also really rather scared for the future.


Once I’d explained the books’ provenance to Merel, she was more than happy for me to take them away and get rid of them. It was just a case of finding the time (my wife was heavily pregnant until last Monday :-)) and the place (we’ve only lived in Rome since last September). I decided to post a question in a friendly group for local foreigners on Facebook. Things I’ve posted there in the past on related topics have generally got a good reception, although I’d been surprised when, in response to a piece I’d written in which I called  the Italian fascist group Casapound ‘openly racist’, an Italian guy popped up and invited me to join them. My post about the books got a mixed response. Several people were consternated until I pointed out what kind of books they were, but some contributors continued to remonstrate, calling me a Nazi for wanting to burn books. Thankfully a sensible person pointed out that while the Nazis had indeed gone in for a bit of book-burning, it wasn’t by any means the worst thing they had done. A couple of people made witty but pointed reference to the fact that one of Rome’s (very best) bookshops is called ‘Fahrenheit 451’. I replied, arguing that the two items in question didn’t really deserve the hallowed status of ‘book’. I made the same point to a young Italian guy who promptly sent me a PM asking if he could have the books ‘for research’ because he was ‘interested in the topic’:


…which gives a new dimension to the phrase ‘you’d have to have been there’.

Although Irving has long been a discredited and bankrupt irrelevance in terms of serious history, both the Guardian and The Independent for some reason decided to give him a blast of publicity in the wake of the film. He claims that the election of a US President who openly consorts with Holocaust deniers (and, it should go without saying, climate liars) has revived interest in his ‘work’, with ‘thousands’ of young people contacting him to find out more about his ‘research’. He continues to use YouTube to propagate the lie that he’s a proper historian.

20160914_111306Someone in the Facebook group had suggested a far-off part of town crummy enough that few would be bothered by the sight of someone burning some books, but I didn’t really want to drag a one-week-old-baby across Rome and end up getting us both arrested for arson. Instead I thought of a largely abandoned area round the corner, next to the river, so I could get the whole thing out of the way in half an hour and not neglect my parental responsibilities. As it happens the area isn’t uninhabited; there’s a community of gypsies scattered along a stretch of the Tiber. Elsewhere on Facebook I read about the impending destruction of a similar settlement in Napoli, where my wife was born. The European Roma Rights Centre reports that:

The proposed forced eviction will render more than 340 Romani families homeless, including pregnant women, young children, and persons with disabilities. These Romani families, like most Roma in Naples, are a part of the city, having been resident there for a number of years. Despite this, the municipality of Naples has not provided them with any alternative housing.

I’m sure Irving himself would approve. Anti-gypsy racism seems particularly rife (indeed respectable) in Italy. The Telegraph reported in 2008 that a class of Italian schoolchildren had produced drawings supporting the burning of a local gypsy camp. As a novice arsonist myself I had to hope that the fire I was about to start wouldn’t burn out of control and have a similar impact. Whatever it was I wanted to achieve by burning the books, it certainly wasn’t that.

Thankfully there was a good omen. The place I settled upon also has some fitting graffiti (‘YESTERDAY PARTISANS, TODAY ANTI-FASCISTS’). As it happens, the only elected representative of the aforementioned fascist group Casapound recently dismissed the Italians who took up arms against their own fascist Government and the Nazi regime which stepped in to save it as ‘rapists’.


It would be nice to see someone like Irving as a detail of history, a footnote: there were some Nazi sympathisers who denied the holocaust, but they were ignored. But that’s not the case. Next month the French may well elect a President whose biological and political father has repeatedly described the systematic murder of millions of people as exactly that: “a detail of history”.


The reasons that some things are beyond debate is that people often lie about their interests and their ideologies. David Irving knows the Holocaust happens, he just can’t admit publicly that he thinks it was a good thing and should be repeated.


As people like to say these days, this is why we can’t have nice things. It also explains why I wanted to burn these books.


Holocaust denial and climate denial have much more in common than has been so far acknowledged. Exxon executives knew several decades ago that the company’s activities were causing the planet to overheat and would make human life impossible, but they kept quiet because admitting it could hurt their profits. They and other such companies then invested billions of dollars in spreading lies about climate science, funding people to speak up for them who are no more proper climate scientists than David Irving is a proper historian. These are the kind of trolls who would take the last six words of the last sentence and remove them from their context. If I could I would burn all attempts to deny that the climate is changing. I would set fire to millions of web pages and happily watch them go up in smoke.


By denying death, they deny life.


Afterward the well-known events took place.

Our inventions were perfected. One thing led to another,
orders were given. There were those who murdered
in their own way,
grieved in their own way.
I won’t mention names
out of consideration for the reader,
since at first the details horrify
though finally they’re a bore.
(Dan Pagis)


and even though there are those
hidden behind platinum titles
who like to pretend
that we don’t exist
that the marshall islands
and typhoon haiyan in the philippines
and floods of pakistan, algeria, and colombia
and all the hurricanes, earthquakes, and tidalwaves
didn’t exist

there are those
who see us

hands reaching out
fists raising up
banners unfurling
megaphones booming
and we are
canoes blocking coal ships
we are
the radiance of solar villages
we are
the rich clean soil of the farmer’s past
we are
petitions blooming from teenage fingertips
we are
families biking, recycling, reusing,
engineers dreaming, designing, building,
artists painting, dancing, writing
we are spreading the word

and there are thousands out on the street
marching with signs
hand in hand
chanting for change NOW

they’re marching for you, baby
they’re marching for us

because we deserve to do more than just
we deserve
to thrive

dear matefele peinam,

you are eyes heavy
with drowsy weight
so just close those eyes, baby
and sleep in peace

because we won’t let you down

you’ll see

(Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner)

Denial 3: Remarks on ‘Shoah’

To sit down for a full nine and a half hour showing of the Holocaust documentary ‘Shoah’ is to embark on a long-haul flight into terrible, dark skies. It may be a little glib to suggest that it would be of an ideal length to show on transcontinental journeys to and from Germany and Poland (and perhaps also Israel, of which more later), but in the face of the testimonies presented in the film, all aspects of life and all commentaries take on shades of glibness. It is oddly salutary to note that the same cinema that presented the film is also currently showing one by the noted Holocaust affirmer Mel Gibson (affirmer in the sense that those who would deny the Nazi genocide took place know full well that it did, they just thought it was a good thing).

The interviews are conducted in German, English, French, Polish, Hebrew and Italian. The consecutive translation from Polish meant that I was always trying to make sense of what could not be understood, which seems apt. Another curious thing is that a lot of the language used can be called Business German, given that people are describing, in the words of one former SS commander, ‘an efficient production line of death’. The talk is of Ware (merchandise), Verschiffungen (shipments), Verarbeite (processing) and technische Änderungen (technical changes). The purpose of the enterprise was partly to appropriate Jewish goods, a wealth accumulated over centuries during which repeated attempts were made throughout Europe to seize it; hence the Nazi’s Endlösung (final solution).

Now as I mentioned it is practically impossible to talk about the events described in the film without sounding trivial or as if one is revelling in the morbidity of it all. If Adorno famously found it impossible to conceive of how poetry could be written and art created after Auschwitz, a blog post written by me is certainly not going to add anything of meaning. The instrumental use of the Holocaust as a moral yardstick with which to draw comparisons is something explicitly rejected by, for example, the director of the film. However; it is hard to watch this scene without hearing future echoes in one’s brain of what happened in and after 1948, indeed is very much still going on, in another part of the world. I do not want to focus on this explosively contentious analogy here, nor is this the place to explore the uncanny resonances when the historian Raul Hilberg talks about what happened when the Greeks were unable to acquire enough Deutschmarks in order to exchange their stolen Jewish drachmas so they could pay for the selfsame Jews’ journey to death: they were forced to default.

One word that crops up repeatedly in Shoah is Gold. The Jews were the victims, Polish villagers tell us, not only because they were rich and lazy and their women were like sirens to the local men, but ‘because they were the richest’ and ‘they controlled the capital’. Primitive accumulation is clearly one of many reasons for the Nazi genocide.

We may be about to enter very deep waters of glibness, to coin a somewhat ungainly phrase. But still.
sjff_01_img0451We are in a period in which what is most of value in this society is being converted into money. From the Cash for Gold ads on TV to the impending attempts to sell off our future health to the highest bidder, it is a process which David Harvey has characterised as ’accumulation by dispossession’. Everything must go, we are told: islands in Greece, pensions in Spain, social welfare here in the the UK, the sentimental objects you have accumulated in your attic. There is no alternative; everything, as Mark Fisher has pointed out, must be evaluated in terms of its immediate or potential exchange value, including ourselves. News has become Business News, philosophy has become Business Philosophy, and all this business is conducted in the new global language of Business English.

About this time last year I was at a music festival and I got chatting to a young woman who had just graduated in a health-related discipline. I mentioned that this was possibly not a great time to be doing so what with the impending destruction of the NHS, but she corrected me, saying that in her field of private health consultancy things were about to boom and opportunities abounded.

Now, I think in the broadest possible sense we as humans today tend to avoid reflecting too much on the broader consequences of the things we do all day at work, especially when jobs and careers are very difficult to obtain and easy to lose. Few people would be happy to fully accept that what they do for eight hours or more in their jobs makes the world a worse place. In any case, we are not for the most part the ones pulling the switches and deciding where the particular train on which we are riding is going to go. The same is true in the film; four Nazis are interviewed and they all have excuses and explanations – inevitably they did not know, or ‘they saw’ prisoners being beaten to death, by others doing the same job, and it was terrible, terrible for me…or literally in this case, I was so very busy working I never got round to asking where the trains I was coordinating were going, nor why there so very many of them, over such a long period, and anyway it wasn’t the done thing to ask…

To return for the final time this week to Zizek, he writes in ‘Violence’:

‘Hannah Arendt was right: these figures (the Nazis) were not personifications of sublime Byronesque demonic evil: the gap between their intimate experience and the horror of their acts was immense.’
weinsteinNo-one sees themselves as a personification of evil; we all have interior rationalisations of what we do. The horror of capitalism is not only that in commodifying our time and our mental and physical energies it also forces us to sell off our ethical consciousness; it is that it does the same to those around us, and our sense of what we should do is largely based on copying what others seem to think they should do. Zizek goes on to remind us:

‘The experience that we have of our lives from within, the story we tell ourselves about ourselves in order to account for what we are doing, is fundamentally a lie — the truth lies outside, in what we do.’

Much was written a number of years ago rightfully castigating the Sinead O’Connor line on the Hitlers and Stalins of history, that they were probably abused as children or something. But we were all abused as children. We simply cannot use it as an excuse to abuse others. And if we know that abuses are going on elsewhere in our name or for our cause, or as a result of our daily enterprises, whether for financial gain or out of some vicious inexplicable cruelty, we have an absolute moral imperative to stop them.


Denial 1: On denialism

mmezqI mentioned to a friend that I had foolhardishly bought a ticket for a full showing of the nine and a half hour long Holocaust documentary Shoah. He responded that it would be effective aversion therapy for a Holocaust denier. Now personally I have never thought of myself as a Holocaust denier, but I guess there must be a reason why I have decided not just to subject myself to presumably the most upsetting and depressing celuloid experience of my life but also to pay a much delayed visit to Auschwitz this summer. Maybe, deep down, without knowing it, I am a Holocaust denier. Or maybe my interest is more casually macabre, like this guy (or on another level WG Sebald may have something to do with it). Perhaps we all are Holocaust deniers, in that most of the time, we go about our daily lives not reflecting upon the import not only of that most base of human achievements, but all the horrors that we know full well are going on around us, some of which we know at some level that we are deeply implicated in (and the means we increasingly use to try to escape from this reality allow us to also avoid our ethical responsibilities: a friend’s facebook profile reads, ‘Zen is not some kind of excitement, but concentration on our usual everyday routine…’…hmm, no need to worry about the ethical consequences of what we do all day at work then). Perhaps, as someone wise once speculated, we simply choose to be blind.

As Zizek pointed out, some traumas are too, well, traumatic to be integrated into the human psyche. There is no rational or appropriate response to knowledge of the Holocaust. It simply defies our categories of knowledge and belief, shatters the coordinates of our reality. In a very similar way, there would be no appropriate response to the coming horrors of climate chaos, and no visible means by which we can alert ourselves, those we love and those who do not exist yet in order to somehow prevent it from happening. So we all, at some level, deny it is happening.

Speaking of the holocaust, the French philosopher Raymond Aron articulated very well how ideology works today: ’“I knew, but I didn’t believe it, and because I didn’t believe it, I didn’t know.” Sven Lindquist said something similar: “You already know enough. So do I. It is not knowledge we lack. What is missing is the courage to understand what we know and to draw conclusions.” George Marshall of the Climate Outreach Information Network makes a similar point with reference to Climate Change: we need to stop calmly telling people about what is happening and concentrate on showing them how scared and angry we are. Actually, he didn’t say scared, I did. Here is a video in which he explains what he means; you can find much more of this sort of thing here: