La Mémoire vaine: du crime contre l’humanité
by Alain Finkielkraut
Gallimard, 125 pp., fr62 (paper)
a film by Marcel Ophuls
From Hitler to Heimat: The Return of History as Film
by Anton Kaes
Harvard University Press, 273 pp., $25.00
In Hitler’s Shadow: West German Historians and the Attempt to Escape From the Nazi Past
by Richard J. Evans
Pantheon, 196 pp., $18.95
What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?: Growing Up German
by Sabine Reichel
Hill and Wang, 214 pp., $17.95
The Other Nuremberg: The Untold Story of the Tokyo War Crimes Trials
by Arnold C. Brackman
Morrow, 432 pp., $9.95 (paper)
Hirohito: Behind the Myth
by Edward Behr
Villard, 486 pp., $22.50
The sight of Rabbi Avraham Weiss from New York screaming at Polish nuns who turned an old warehouse outside the main Auschwitz camp into a Carmelite convent would have made my upper-middle-class Jewish grandparents wince: the kind of man who gives Jews a bad name, they would have said. And I am afraid they might have been right. The fanatical demeanor of the rabbi and his six fellow Americans was not made more edifying by the even worse spectacle of Polish workers spraying the protesters with cold water and tearing off their skull caps.
Rabbi Weiss sees the Carmelites as intruders in a place that has a unique significance as a symbol of Jewish suffering. The Christian cross is regarded as an affront to the memory of the Holocaust. European Jewish leaders and four cardinals took a less strident view when they signed an agreement in 1987 to build a new ecumenical center farther away from the camp. The center, though delayed, is now likely to be built, but in the meantime Weiss and some highly insensitive Polish prelates turned the affair into an unseemly battle over the symbols of martyrdom, degrading the memory of all those who died at Auschwitz, whether Jewish or gentile.
I thought of Rabbi Weiss when I read what Edgar Reitz, the German director of the haunting but questionable film Heimat, said some time ago about the TV serial Holocaust: “The Americans have stolen our history through Holocaust,” because films in the style of Holocaust prevent Germans from “taking narrative possession of our past, from breaking free from the world of judgments.”
This, in turn, reminded me of some revisionist ideas about the war, eagerly discussed these days in serious Japanese journals. The target of Japanese revisionism is what is called “the Tokyo trials view of history,” by which is meant a biased view, implanted in Japanese minds by foreign (American) propaganda, designed to justify “victor’s justice” and American domination over Japanese affairs.
I do not mean to imply political or moral parity between Weiss, Reitz, and Japanese revisionists. Weiss claims to speak for the victims of a terrible crime, for which there can be no excuse, whereas Reitz and the Japanese, while not necessarily excusing these crimes, want foreigners to keep their grubby judgmental hands off the history of their own people, the very people, that is, who committed or countenanced most of the crimes. What the rabbi, the German artist, and the Japanese revisionists have in common is certainly not politics: Reitz sees the world through a leftist, or at least Green-tinted, viewfinder, while many Japanese revisionists tend to look at things from the right. The rabbi has said he is a supporter of Gush Emunim in Israel. What all of the above have in common, however, is an exclusive idea of history, often symbolic, mythical, and seen as an indispensable compass for the continuing search for identity—racial, cultural, religious, or national, whatever the case may be.
That this struggling over …