Finkelstein's Expose of the Holocaust Industry

The Holocaust Industry, Norman G. Finkelstein, Verso Books, London, New York, 2000


By Ernest Sommers

A common criticism frequently made about Holocaust revisionists is that they tend to use the debunking of the supposed genocide of the Jewish people in World War Two as a pretext for making comments about contemporary political reality. There is certainly some truth to the accusation. For example, a revisionist might present evidence indicating that there was no planned extermination of the Jewish people, and then go on to say that as a result Germany shouldn't be saddled with a guilt complex today. Or a revisionist might argue that there were no gas chambers, and that as a result the Holocaust is comparable to other mass murders and therefore the unceasing demand for reparations should stop. Or finally a revisionist might claim that the number of Jewish victims was less than six million, and therefore the state of Israel has no claims on either our pocketbook or our conscience.

   The tendency of Holocaust revisionists to link their historical analyses to political commentary is, in our opinion, one of the main reasons why their work tends to be rejected by the establishment. Continually connecting historical analysis with present-day desiderata leaves revisionists wide open to the accusation that they arrive at their views solely for the purpose of criticizing Middle Eastern politics, or for advocating the redress of German grievances in Europe. One of the greatest strengths of Norman Finkelstein's Holocaust Industry is that Finkelstein shows that it is possible to separate contemporary political analysis from a discussion of the Holocaust facts as such. It is an example revisionists would do well to note.

   Finkelstein, a professor of political science at various New York colleges, is well known to revisionists. Back in the 1980's, he authored a famous expose undercutting the claims of Joan Peters, whose From Time Immemorial had argued that the Israelis had no obligation to the Palestinians because prior to the arrival of 20th Century Zionists there were no Arabs in Palestine. A few years ago, Finkelstein emerged (or "crawled out from under a rock" according to his critics) in order to take apart Daniel Goldhagen's simplistic thesis, presented in Hitler's Willing Executioners, that the reason that the Holocaust happened was because 80 million Germans gradually became seized with an overwhelming desire to kill all Jews. Coupled with a trenchant analysis by Bettina Birn, Finkelstein's dissection appeared in A Nation on Trial.

   The background to The Holocaust Industry goes back to Peter Novick's Holocaust in American Life, which was published last summer. In that book, the University of Chicago professor built on his reputation as a dissertation adviser by attempting to come to grips with the fact that the Holocaust has come to occupy a large position in the American symbolic structure, and probably not for the best. Finkelstein reviewed Novick's book for a leftish journal, and after fleshing it out, this slim book was the result. The Holocaust Industry comprises three parts which we will describe in turn.

Discovering the Holocaust

One of the central mysteries for both Novick and Finkelstein is to explain why the Holocaust became so prominent in American life from about the time of the late 1960's, even though it was rarely described, and not even named, before then. To a certain extent the mystery is an optical illusion, because while the Holocaust was downplayed in the United States, the image of Nazi stormtroopers ready to rampage and slaughter Jews and Slavs was a common image not only for the nascent Jewish state but also for most of the postwar Communist regimes in Eastern Europe. The fact that the Holocaust did not occupy an important position in American life, but then, after twenty years, did so, suggests that the development of Holocaust memory was not organic but was rather either imported or developed as an "ideology." 

   When social scientists describe an "ideology" what they mean is a belief system that determines the goals, values, and parameters of conduct in a society. The classical Marxian explanation holds that ideologies are essentially conservative, and grow out of the existing reality of power relations, mostly economic in nature. This should be contrasted with the usual sociological interpretation ("bourgeois" to its critics) that sees ideologies or belief-systems having complicated roots which may in turn even affect power relations. Novick's explanation for the Holocaust's prominence in American life is grounded for the most part in the latter and more amorphous approach. Finkelstein's explanation, on the other hand, takes it for granted that the Holocaust as an idea became popular in the United States, not because it reflected any altruistic desire among Jews to "remember", but because it accorded well with the strategic power interests of the United States as a whole.

   The problem with Finkelstein's analysis, at least to us, is that his assumptions about politics leads him to make constant reference to small groups whose machinations determine our cultural reality. Thus references to "American Jewish elites" or even "organized American Jewry" abound in his book. Naturally, such references are bound to bring forth nervous memories of Protocols type conspiracy rhetoric, and Finkelstein has been criticized for such characterizations. On the other hand it is equally clear that these kinds of references are intrinsic to Finkelstein's idea of how political interests shape cultural reality, witness his repeated reference to "US interests" (that is, not intrinsically Jewish) adopting the Holocaust for its own purposes to support Israel as a "strategic asset" in the Middle East.

   This background on the nature of ideologies leads to one of Finkelstein's better conceptions, in which he clearly defines the "Holocaust" not as the manifold events suffered by the Jewish people in World War Two but rather as an ideological representation used for power purposes. By separating the "Holocaust" as ideological weapon from the "Nazi holocaust" as historical fact, Finkelstein makes it possible to devastate the former without dealing at all with the latter, and therefore avoiding the dread charge of "Denial."

The Holocaust as Golden Goose

In the second chapter, entitled "Hoaxers, Hucksters, and History" Finkelstein criticizes what he considers to be the main abuses of the Holocaust today. There are basically two issues that he develops: one, the idea that the Holocaust is "unique" among human suffering, and two, that the Holocaust climaxed two millennia of completely irrational gentile hatred of Jews.

   The idea that the Holocaust is "unique" is familiar to revisionists: indeed, as we indicated at the outset, one of the main impulses to Holocaust revisionism has always been the conviction that, whatever it was that happened to the Jews in World War Two, it was neither unique nor incommensurable to other examples of inhumanity. To an extent this should be simple common sense. The Jewish child, shot into a ditch, or starved in a ghetto, deserves our pity, but so do the German and Japanese children destroyed by allied bombs. Of course, the general ideological excuse offered is that the German and Japanese children had to die -- more or less by accident, one assumes -- so that their governments could be stopped from carrying out the supposedly methodical extermination of their enemies. In this way one can already see how ideas are shaped to draw a veil over our own transgressions.

   Finkelstein considers the "uniqueness" argument solely from the point of view which sees it as Israel's "prize alibi" for its misconduct in the Middle East, or even, quoting Chaumont, as a kind of "intellectual terrorism." According to him, the "uniqueness" argument makes it possible for Israel to make continual moral and financial demands on Western governments: unique evil requiring unique compensation. Finkelstein also notes that the idea of "uniqueness" leads immediately to the idea that the Holocaust cannot be understood by reason, which by extension means that it cannot be understood historically or in context. As he writes, "Rationally comprehending the Holocaust amounts, in this view, to denying it. For rationality denies the Holocaust's uniqueness and mystery." [45]

   Again, this is an idea familiar to most revisionists, and in fact we would argue that the idea is indebted to revisionist work. For once one attempts to rationally comprehend what happened in the camps, even on the assumption of a Nazi commitment to Judeocide, one begins to see that the claims of millions exterminated, gassed, and burned in very small areas cannot possibly be true. Indeed, we believe that the whole idea of the Holocaust being impervious to reason was a direct response to the perhaps hyper-rational critiques of Butz and Faurisson in the 1970's.

   The second theme Finkelstein explores concerns the idea that the Holocaust emerged from a two thousand year old hatred of Jews, a hatred apparently unlike any other in history, in that it had no roots in social, economic, or cultural frictions. Finkelstein correctly notes the Zionist roots of this idea, indeed the base idea goes back to the Russian Jewish physician Leo Pinsker's pessimistic belief that assimilation would never work and that therefore antisemitism was a virus that could only be avoided by the founding of a Jewish state. He goes on to suggest that "the Holocaust dogma of eternal Gentile hatred has served both to justify the necessity of a Jewish state and to account for the hostility directed at Israel" [50] by which he means that, since Jews can never be safe living among Gentiles, a Jewish state must exist as a future safe haven, and second, that since all Gentiles hate Jews anyway, any criticism of Israel will never be grounded in any rational basis but solely in the typical Gentile hatred of Jews.

   There is certainly some merit to these arguments. One thing we note is that inter-group hatreds of all other kinds are usually explained by historians or social scientists as being the result of caste or class stresses in societies with considerable resource competition. Frankly, there is no reason why antisemitism could not be made to fit this kind of model. The classic rejoinder is that such an explanation makes the Jews somehow the "cause" of antisemitism, but again this is a knee-jerk response. Everyone knows, for example, that lynchings in the Old South had a direct correlation with economic success or competition from the Black community, but this is not the same thing as saying that Black folk "deserved" to be hated, or lynched. Again, the obsession with assigning blame frequently gets in the way of understanding the dynamics of historical events.

   If anti-Jewish hatred can be explained according to ordinary social scientific models, then contemporary data can be used to support it. For example, there is virtually no anti-Semitism in the United States today, even though American Jews have been very successful here. The reasons for such an absence could be traced to such things as the high rate of assimilation, intermarriage, shared values, and shared interests, and the fact that the Jewish population in America is broadly distributed through all social classes. In this respect it is important to keep in mind that none of these conditions obtained in Eastern Europe in the 19th Century, which was the real flashpoint for emerging antisemitism at that time.

   Farther on in this chapter, Finkelstein then inveighs against the literature that supports the dogmas of uniqueness and out-of-nowhere antisemitism: the scholarship is "worthless", the field of Holocaust studies is "replete with nonsense, if not sheer fraud." [55]Here Finkelstein details the defects of a number of Holocaust authors, including Jerzy Kozinski and the recently exposed "Benjamin Wilkomirski" while saving some special barbs for Mr. Holocaust himself, Elie Wiesel.

   One of these claims deserves special notice, that being Wiesel's claim to having read Kant's Critique of Pure Reason at age 18 although "wholly ignorant of Yiddish grammar." Finkelstein has ridiculed this claim due to the fact that the Critique of Pure Reason was never translated into Yiddish in the first place. The Wiesel damage control experts have recently come forward arguing that Wiesel simply misspoke himself, what he meant to say was that he read a chapter of the Critique of Practical Reason that was translated into Yiddish in the 1930's in Warsaw. This is a rather odd excuse, because the critiques are not in any way comparable. The Critique of Pure Reason is one of the classics of idealist philosophy, with labyrinthine sentences that sometimes comprise almost an entire page -- even Goethe had trouble reading it -- and to claim that one could read it without a knowledge of grammar is simply preposterous. In addition, it is the Critique of Pure Reason that contains the famous antinomies that led many to religious doubt. On the other hand, the Critique of Practical Reason is a shorter and more accessible ethical tract whose main contribution is simply a dressing up of the Golden Rule (or Hillel's famous maxim) in German philosophical dress. Yet Wiesel clearly means to imply that his reading of Kant indicated not only his own preternatural intelligence but also his moral confusion. As such, he could only have had in mind the Pure Reason, and, as Finkelstein shows, he could not possibly have read it.

Reparations Without End, Amen

By far the longest section in Finkelstein's book involves a blow-by-blow discussion of the attempt by American Jewish agencies to extract reparations from the Swiss as well as the Germans, Dutch, French, and many others. Finkelstein has a personal stake in this part of the book. His parents, who both passed away five years ago, were Polish Jewish survivors of the Warsaw ghetto and several German concentration camps. As such Finkelstein has personal knowledge not only of how reparations have been distributed since the 1950's but also about the way in which the actual needs of survivors are met.

   The background is that subsequent to World War Two a collection of international Jewish agencies designated themselves the "Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany" best known simply as the "Claims Conference." This entity has been the main agent and recipient of German reparations in cash (aside from compensation in kind to Israel). Citing a recent study by Ronald Zweig, who, incidentally, has attempted to distance himself from his own conclusions since The Holocaust Industry was published, Finkelstein shows that while the German government stipulated that these tens of millions of dollars were to go directly to needy survivors in fact the funds were used from the beginning for whatever pet projects the Claims Conference had on its agenda. The long and short of it is that the Germans paid somewhere in the neighborhood of $1 billion to the Claims Conference, only a fraction of which went to survivors.

   Beginning in the mid-1990's, a few Jewish agencies, no doubt intent on increasing their profile and thus their contributions, began to supervise attacks on Swiss banks in order to recoup bank accounts supposedly abandoned by Jewish depositors during the Holocaust. The primary agent of this campaign was the World Jewish Congress, including Rabbi Israel Singer, Elan Steinberg, and, occupying a high-profile position, the billionaire failed songwriter and Napster wet blanket Edgar Bronfman. This is by far the most controversial part of Finkelstein's book, not only because of the naked cynicism of the actions described, but also because of the accusations Finkelstein levels against these agencies.

   The most explosive of these claims is that the amounts that have been "extorted" from the Swiss, the Germans, and many other countries are not in fact going to survivors, although that was supposed to be the whole idea. The Claims Conference, as the self-designated legatee of the "six million" is apparently the sole recipient of these funds, funds which they control and which they dole out at their discretion. But at the same time, since the Claims Conference essentially represents the dead, it cannot be expected that there will be much interference in what it does with the money it manages to obtain. Thus, in Finkelstein's words, a "double shakedown" is in place: European countries are extorted, while survivors are left with nothing. Finkelstein, grounding his indignation in his personal observations, and in his careful readings of such studies as the Volcker Report on the Swiss banks, concludes not only that the Swiss in particular were held up for far more than they ever owed, but that the survivors will never see the bulk of the money obtained.

   It has been the responses to these latter claims that have been the most passionate, if inarticulate: Elan Steinberg in particular has carved himself a niche in any future Bartlett's with his succinct rejection of Finkelstein's claims which was broadcast on German television: "Mr. Finkelstein is full of shit." Yet the sequel indicates that Finkelstein was right: in recent days it has been reported in the American media that a gala affair is planned for New York's Waldorf Astoria on September 12, 2000 in order to celebrate the fact that the recent settlements with European nations has endowed these Jewish agencies with hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars. The purpose of this rubber chicken extravaganza will not only be to fete those individuals responsible for this windfall (such as Al D'Amato, who rode the Holocaust nag in a failed attempt at re-election) but also to tout Democratic politicians (such as senatorial candidate Hilary Clinton as well as her husband, whose love for the Jewish people was established by DNA analysis.)

   A number of Jewish commentators have already begun to question the appropriateness of such a celebration, and the whole affair underlines the validity of Finkelstein's accusations. If, as appears to be the case, the Claims Conference now has an endowment of hundreds of millions of dollars left over, why isn't this money going to survivors? If it isn't going to survivors, why does the Claims Conference have the money in the first place? The sad truth, adumbrated by Finkelstein, is that these huge amounts of money will be channeled to pay off the lawyers, and the various expert advisors, to build still more Holocaust museums, and endow more Holocaust chairs in our universities, and to in general support all kinds of superstructural bureaucracies that will make it possible for generally undeserving individuals to make a nice living. Although the latest reparations are supposed to be the "last act" in World War Two payback, one can only predict what will happen when these bureaucracies in turn run out of cash. Meanwhile, we can only hope that a few bucks left over after the banquet will be allocated to to the elderly Jews whose suffering made it all possible, we can expect that at least a few aged and infirm Holocaust survivors will be turned over in their beds in gratitude or given a hot lunch to vary their usual penurious fare of pet food.


The Holocaust Industry is a remarkable book, written with sustained indignation and frequent biting sarcasm. It goes far beyond the more measured arguments of Peter Novick to attack what many -- and certainly most revisionists -- have long regarded as the abuse and "instrumentalization" of the Holocaust for ideological purposes. The book has been widely debated in Europe, and has been the subject of numerous reviews particularly in Britain and in Germany. It is refreshing to see that, while many critics maintain a politically correct stance about the "moral lessons" of the Holocaust, and repeat guarded expressions about the obligation never to forget what the Nazis supposedly did, there has also been general agreement about many of Finkelstein's points, particularly as they pertain to the reparations campaign of the past five years.

   It is to be hoped that such open discussion might have the result of liberating the western world, and, to a certain extent, the Jewish people themselves, from the grip of those relatively small groups who have manipulated the Jewish catastrophe of World War Two for their own financial gain. But that is not the only possible positive outcome to Finkelstein's book. For by separating criticism of the Holocaust as an ideology from the facts of what transpired at places like Auschwitz and Treblinka, Finkelstein opens a door for revisionists to proceed. In reality, historical facts should not have ideological content. Discussions about whether or not there were gas chambers, or planned extermination, or six million victims should be simply addressed on their merits, not in terms of the perceived consequences of such conclusions or the attributed agendas of their authors.

   If one wants to criticize the use and abuse of the Holocaust, Finkelstein's book, following in the tradition of Alfred M. Lilienthal and Tom Segev, offers a model for doing so. On the other hand, if one wants to establish or correct the facts of the Holocaust, which is the main plank of the revisionist challenge, Finkelstein's book serves as a reminder that one can do so without having to engage the issues of the Holocaust Industry as such. The separation of the critique of the "Holocaust" from that of the facts of the "Nazi holocaust" remains, in our view, the most fruitful of all of Finkelstein's contributions.



Installed: 07/27/98, 1: 00 AM, PST

Source: The Revisionist, Codoh Series, No. 1, 2001, pp. .
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