The Other Holocaust?

Germany is an interesting country (among other reasons) because, although it is a liberal democracy, there are still certain things you’re not allowed to be or say. You’re not allowed to be a Communist or Nazi, for example; both these parties are outlawed. You’re not allowed to publish Hitler’s Mein Kampf.

However, there is an important exception where you can at least say whatever you like – if you happen to be a member of parliament (either the houses of the federal parliamant – the Bundestag or Bundesrat or of any of the state parliaments), and you’re speaking either on the floor of that parliament or in one of its committees. In those places, it seems about the worst that can happen in response to something impolitic you might say is that part (or, I guess, all) of your audience may decide to walk out on you.

This happened recently in the parliament of Saxony – a German federal state, or Bundesstaat, in what used to be Communist East Germany, whose capital is Dresden. That is, a number of Saxon lawmakers left the parliamentary assembly last January, in response to some remarks on the floor by Holger Apfel, fraction-leader there for the NPD. The Nationaldemokratische Partei Deutschlands (National Democratic Party of Germany – sorry, you’ll have to find the link to their website yourself if interested) carries the “right-extremist” label, at least from one credible source, and that is Munich’s Süddeutsche Zeitung. That paper recently reported on this incident, which was touched off by Apfel’s characterization of the destruction of Dresden in February, 1945, by allied bombers as a “bomb-holocaust,” and of the Allies as “mass murderers” (No Charges Against NPD-Chief Due to “Bomb-Holocaust”).

This characterization immediately put all sorts of German public figures in a tizzy, made worse when the actual head of the NPD, Udo Voigt, the following day congratulated his subordinate Apfel for his “correct choice of words.” In reaction, Paul Spiegel, president of the Jewish Council in Germany, asserted that “one can forbid such assertions, if one simply applies the law in a consistent manner,” and doubted very much whether “statements which clearly are designed to incite people belong under the term freedom of expression.” There were even calls to clamp down on the immunity from prosecution heretofore granted to legislator’s statements within parliaments and their committees.

An appeal was made to the Hamburg federal prosecutor to start proceedings against party chief Voigt for his apparent endorsement of Apfel’s remarks. Ultimately, though, cooler German legal heads prevailed. The Hamburg prosecutor’s office refused to proceed, noting that it could properly only evaluate the remarks against criminal justice – not moral – criteria. And legal experts quoted in the SZ article from the leading parties of both the government and the opposition (respectively, the Socialists and the Christian Democrats) were unanimous in finding the statments of Apfel and Voigt “unacceptable, but not directly prosecutable,” even though, according to the Socialist Parts expert Dieter Wiefelspütz, they are “a mendacious exploitation of the victims that is historically false.”


Now, actually, what Apfel and Voigt have to say about the bombing of Dresden (= “holocaust”) I actually find mostly historically true. “Holocaust”: a term ultimately derived from a combination of ancient Greek words signifying “burnt whole,” and generally meaning “great destruction resulting in the extensive loss of life, especially by fire.” That’s definition #1 in the Your Dictionary entry for “holocaust”, and is what I understand happened during the Allied aerial assault on Dresden: all the bombs touched off a firestorm, which then emptied the oxygen over a wide area and killed even more people than those initially consumed by the great concussions and the flames they set off. The consensus is that around 35,000 people died. In fact, the creation of that firestorm was supposedly the main objective of attacking Dresden, that is, to kill massively and otherwise terrorize the civilian population of a remaining unoccupied city of a nation that was clearly well on the way towards losing the war. Objectively speaking, that “firestorm” aspect makes the use of “holocaust” in this context (“burnt whole”) rather more appropriate than in other, more-famous contexts where the massive loss of life being described did not primarily involve fire.

Of course, we must then read further in that Your Dictionary entry, to be reminded that “holocaust” is generally taken to apply to “massive destruction of humans by other humans,” but particularly to the genocide of European Jews during World War II. As we can see by this incident, it’s clearly that destruction of the Jews that now “owns” the term “holocaust,” particularly according to German sensibility. Either Apfel and Voigt did not know that, or more likely they were attempting to shock by seemingly stretching this value-laden term back to cover that which its straightforward dictionary definition suggests that it should also cover.

All of this is consistent with the trend of the last several years of Germans finally daring to pay more attention to the suffering they themselves were made to undergo during Adolph Hitler’s grand geopolitical throw-of-the-dice (a subject this weblog has discussed before, but then in the context of German-vs.-Polish postwar property claims). I find it more alarming in the way it is consistent with the other trend towards restricting free speech in what are supposedly European liberal democracies (found also in the brief campaign to outlaw the swastika, initiated in the wake of Britain’s Prince Harry’s ill-advised choice of an Afrika Korps uniform as party costume); after all, for a while there people were agitating to limit German legislators’ rights to free speech on the parliament floor.

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