Slavoj Žižek: Debating whether the Holocaust or colonialism was worse is obscene… both were unspeakable monstrosities
In the last months, a new ‘historikerstreit’ – a debate between historians – has exploded in Europe over the relative horrors of the Holocaust and colonialism. In my opinion, it is an argument where there can be no winner.
On one side, Achille Mbembe, Dirk Moses, and some others argue that distinguishing the Holocaust from other violent crimes in human history is Eurocentric, and neglects the horror of colonialist crimes. On the other side, Saul Friedlander, Juergen Habermas, and others insist on the unique character of the Holocaust. I think that both sides are, in some sense, right and wrong. One cannot help but repeat here Stalin’s answer to the question of which deviation is worse, leftist or rightist: “They are both worse.”
It is unquestionably true that the wider public in the developed West is not fully aware of the breathtaking horrors of colonialism and its by-products. Just remember the horror of the two Opium Wars fought by the British Empire (and others) against China. Statistics show that, until 1820, China was the strongest economy in the world. From the late 18th century, the British were exporting enormous amounts of opium into China, turning millions of people there into addicts and causing great damage. The Chinese emperor tried to prevent this, prohibiting the import of opium, and the British (together with other Western forces) intervened militarily. The result was catastrophic: soon after, China’s economy shrank by half. But what should interest us is the legitimization of this brutal military intervention; free trade is the basis of civilization, and thus the Chinese prohibition of importing opium was a barbarian threat to civilization… It’s hard to refrain from imagining a similar act today: Mexico and Colombia acting to defend their drug cartels and declaring war on the US for behaving in a non-civilized way by preventing free opium trade.
The colonial list of horrors is long… very long: Belgian Congo, regular famines with millions of dead in British India, the devastation in both Americas. The cruel irony is that, with European modernization, slavery reemerged at the very moment when, in our ideology, the central topic was freedom – the fight against the slavery of women, of workers, of citizens in authoritarian regimes. Slavery was discovered everywhere, in all metaphorical senses, but ignored where it existed in its literal sense.
Colonialism brings out what can only be designated as the catastrophe of modernity: the often terrifying impact of modernization on pre-modern communal life. Recall, for example, the fate of Attawapiskat, a remote Aboriginal community in northern Ontario, which drew the attention of the media in early 2016. A report in the Guardian exemplified the way the Canadian Aboriginal people remain a broken nation, unable to find the minimal stability of a life pattern.
“Since autumn there have been more than 100 suicide attempts in Attawapiskat, which has a population of just 2000. The youngest person to attempt suicide was 11 years old, the oldest 71. After 11 people tried to take their own lives on Saturday evening, exhausted leaders declared a state of emergency. On Monday, as officials scrambled to send crisis counsellors to the community, 20 people – including a nine-year-old – were taken to hospital after they were overheard making a suicide pact. ‘We’re crying out for help,’ said Attawapiskat chief Bruce Shisheesh. ‘Just about every night there is a suicide attempt.’”
In searching for the reasons for this toll, one should look beyond the obvious – overcrowded houses riddled with mould, drug abuse, alcoholism, etc. Foremost among the systemic reasons is the devastating legacy of the residential school system which disrupted continuity between generations:“For decades, more than 150,000 Aboriginal children were carted off in an attempt to forcibly assimilate them into Canadian society. Rife with abuse, the schools aimed to ‘kill the Indian in the child’, as documented by a recent truth commission. Thousands of children died at these schools – the absence of dietary standards in the schools left many undernourished and vulnerable to diseases such as smallpox, measles and tuberculosis – with hundreds of them hastily buried in unmarked graves next to the institutions. In nearly a third of the deaths, the government and schools did not even record the names of the students who had died.”No wonder, then, that we are slowly learning the true story of the residential schools – we now regularly get news like the following, reported by CBS in June: “A Canadian Indigenous group said Wednesday that a search using ground-penetrating radar has found 182 human remains in unmarked graves at a site near a former Catholic Church-run residential school that housed Indigenous children taken from their families.”
To this, we should add massive sexual exploitation in residential schools run by the Church – in some cases, up to 80% of the children were abused. What adds insult to injury is that the very institution which pretends to embody morality performs such crimes, as has been found to also be the case in France. As CNN reported this week, “Members of the Catholic clergy in France sexually abused an estimated 216,000 minors over the past seven decades, according to a damning report … that said the Church had prioritized the protection of the institution over victims who were urged to stay silent.” The truly shocking aspect here is that, since many of these crimes concern paedophilic homosexuality, the very institution responsible for them is the same institution which presents itself as the harbinger of morality and leads the public campaign against homosexuality. And the sad thing is that there is no return to pre-modern normality: it is easy to discover in pre-modern societies what appears to our modern sensitivity as brutal abuses of human rights, of the rights of women and children etc.
While admitting all this, the other side emphasizes the uniqueness of the Holocaust: its goal was not just the submission of the Jews but their total annihilation, in a well-planned, modern industrial way. Jews were not a lower race in a hierarchy of races, they were seen as the absolute Other, the principle of corruption embodied. They were not an external threat, they were – to use the neologism of Jacques Lacan – ex-timate, a foreign intruder in the very heart of our civilization. That’s why they have to be annihilated, the thinking goes, if one wants to re-establish the proper order of civilizations.
But here comes my first hesitation: years ago, Etienne Balibar pointed out that, in today’s global world, the distinction between inner and external gets blurred, which is why all racisms more and more resemble anti-Semitism. Half a century ago, Huey Newton, the founder and theorist of the Black Panther Party, saw clearly the limitation of local – or national – resistance to the global reign of capital. He even made a key step further and rejected the term “decolonization” as inappropriate – one cannot fight global capitalism from the position of national unities.
Here are his statements from a unique dialogue with the Freudian psychoanalyst Erik Erikson from the 1973 book ‘In Search of Common Ground’. “We in the Black Panther Party saw that the United States was no longer a nation. It was something else; it was more than a nation. It had not only expanded its territorial boundaries, but it had expanded all of its controls as well. We called it an empire. We believe that there are no more colonies or neocolonies. If a people is colonized, it must be possible for them to decolonize and become what they formerly were."
“But what happens when the raw materials are extracted and labor is exploited within a territory dispersed over the entire globe? When the riches of the whole earth are depleted and used to feed a gigantic industrial machine in the imperialists’ home? Then the people and the economy are so integrated into the imperialist empire that it’s impossible to ‘decolonize,’ to return to the former conditions of existence. If colonies cannot ‘decolonize’ and return to their original existence as nations, then nations no longer exist. Nor, we believe, will they ever exist again.”
Is this not our predicament today, much more than in Newton’s time? Furthermore, the difference between justified critique of Israel and anti-Semitism is very ambiguous and open to manipulation. Bernard Henri-Levy claimed that the anti-Semitism of the 21st century would be “progressive” or there would be none. Brought to the end, this thesis compels us to turn around the old Marxist interpretation of anti-Semitism as a mystified or displaced anti-capitalism (instead of blaming the capitalist system, the rage is focused on a specific ethnic group accused of corrupting the system). For Henri-Levy and his partisans, today’s anti-capitalism is a disguised form of anti-Semitism. Can one imagine a more dangerous way of inciting anti-Semitism among today’s critics of capitalism?
But what we are witnessing today is a weird reversal: not an anti-Semitic critique of Israel, but anti-Semitic support of Israel. Some rightist anti-Semites support the State of Israel for three obvious reasons: if Jews go to Israel, there will be fewer Jews here in the West; in Israel, Jews will no longer be a homeless foreign group whom we cannot fully trust, they will become a normal nation-state grounded in their earth; and, last but not least, they will function there as representatives of highly developed Western values against the oriental barbarism – in short, with regard to the local Palestinian population, they will do the work of colonization. In order to get the support of Western states, Zionists themselves sometimes presented themselves as colonizers. Derek Penslar, a former professor of Israel studies at Oxford University, points out there are multiple – sometimes contradictory – ideological and political issues embedded within Zionism and Israel: “The Zionist project combines colonialism, anti-colonialism, and postcolonial state-building. The entire twentieth century, wrapped up in one small state.”
In 1896, Theodor Herzl wrote in Der Judenstaat, the founding text of Zionism: “For Europe, we will build there (in Palestine) a part of the wall against Asia, we will provide ramparts against barbarism.” Even the term “colonization” was used by early Zionists. Unfortunately, this stance rhymes strangely with a series of anti-Semites, from Reinhard Heydrich to Anders Breivik and Donald Trump. While Trump recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, some of his supporters are openly anti-Semitic – but is this really an inconsistent stance? I often reflect on a caricature published back in July 2008 in the Viennese daily Die Presse: two stocky Nazi-looking Austrians sit at a table, one of them holding in his hands a newspaper and commenting to his friend: “Here you can see again how a totally justified anti-Semitism is being misused for a cheap critique of Israel!” This caricature turns around the standard argument against the critics of the policies of the State of Israel, and when today’s Christian fundamentalist supporters of Israeli politics reject leftist critiques of Israeli policies, is their implicit line of argumentation not uncannily close to its reasoning?
Remember Anders Breivik, the Norwegian anti-immigrant mass murderer: he was anti-Semitic, but pro-Israel, since he saw in the State of Israel the first line of defense against the Muslim expansion. He even wants to see the Jerusalem Temple rebuilt, but he wrote in his ‘Manifesto’: “There is no Jewish problem in Western Europe (with the exception of the UK and France) as we only have 1 million in Western Europe, whereas 800 000 out of these 1 million live in France and the UK. The US on the other hand, with more than 6 million Jews (600% more than Europe) actually has a considerable Jewish problem.” His figure thus realizes the ultimate paradox of the Zionist anti-Semite – and we find the traces of this weird stance more often than one would expect. Reinhard Heydrich himself, the mastermind of the Holocaust, is quoted in ‘The Order of the Death’s Head: The Story of Hitler’s SS’, as writing in 1935, “We must separate the Jews into two categories, the Zionists and the partisans of assimilation. The Zionists profess a strictly racial concept and, through emigration to Palestine, they help to build their own Jewish State… our good wishes and our official goodwill go with them.”
The clear division between the uniqueness of Jews and European colonialism thus gets complicated: Zionists themselves flirted with colonialism to gain support in the West, and anti-colonial struggle itself sometimes gets dangerously close to anti-Semitism. Enough is being written about anti-Semitism in Arab countries and among Muslims – although I support Palestinian resistance on the West Bank, I am fully aware of this fact. One should also be careful about dismissing every call to throw the Muslims out of one’s country as a case of racist Islamophobia. In Slovenia, my own country, many of the surviving folk songs talk about the horrors inflicted by Turkish invasions, and throwing the Turks out seems to me a quite legitimate endeavor.
For all these reasons, I think the entire debate about the Holocaust versus colonialism should be rejected as something profoundly obscene. The Holocaust was a unique, terrifying, mega-crime; colonialism caused an unimaginable amount of death and suffering. The only correct way to approach these two horrors is to see the fights against anti-Semitism and against colonialism as two aspects of one and the same struggle. Those who dismiss colonialism as a lesser evil are an insult to the victims of the Holocaust themselves, reducing an unheard-of horror into a bargaining chip for geopolitical games. Those who relativize the uniqueness of the Holocaust are an insult to the victims of colonization themselves. The Holocaust is not one in a series of crimes – it was unique in its own way, in the same way that modern colonization was a unique breathtaking horror done on behalf of civilizing others. They are all incomparable monstrosities that cannot and should not be reduced to mere examples.