One of the themes that has emerged in the recent convulsion of reparations demands is that Jewish Holocaust victims should be compensated for all the monies and properties lost as a result of Nazi tyranny. In a sense, this seems only just, because if a person has their belongings stolen they deserve to get them back. The problem with this kind of approach is that it sets the stage for endless feuding, revanchism, and war psychosis.
The idea that Jews should be compensated for
Holocaust-era losses is only possible if we take the Holocaust completely out of its historical context. In fact, the Holocaust did not take place in a vacuum, but during a world war in which not only six million, but tens of millions of Europeans, mostly of Central and East European background, were dehoused, deported, plundered, and saw their assets seized if not by nationalist governments then later by postwar communist regimes. Farther back, many of the inhabitants of Eastern Europe suffered through property losses and loss of life as a result of the First World War, the Russian Revolution, and the four year Civil War that ensued thereafter. In reality, Jewish claims for restitution for
Holocaust-era losses seem remarkably self-centered when we remember that this was a World War-era, a Revolution-era, a Collectivization-era, and a Communist takeover-era as well.
If Jews should be compensated for Holocaust-era insurance policies, is this to imply that no German, Pole, Hungarian, or Balt ever had an insurance policy that was never redeemed? If Jewish or other forced laborers who served the Nazi state deserve compensation, then what about the millions of Germans who were forced to labor for up to ten years after the war was over? If Jews deserve recompense for property seized by the Nazis, does that mean that they deserve equal recompense for property seized by the numerous communist revolutions that occurred in Eastern Europe? That would appear to be the case, unless we argue for the Holocaust's "uniqueness" a claim that has been dealt with by Norman Finkelstein in his recent book,
The Holocaust Industry.
If property restitution is called for in cases where people were deprived of their belongings on the basis of ethnic identity, it would be hard to ignore the 14 million Germans deported after World War Two solely on the basis of their German ethnicity, who lost much more than even the maximum six million Jews. Do we endorse the principle of compensation for them as well? And who would pay? Certainly not the government of Poland, whose entire gross national product would barely cover some of the financial claims recently made against Germany. And, by the way, among the Poles, who is to compensate them for the 40% of their territory seized and kept by the Soviet Union in 1939? Surely not the Republic of Byelorussia, where the median income is about $5,000 per year. And the list of grievances could be extended infinitely.
A basic historical perception of 20th Century European history is that the World Wars, the Russian Revolution, the Holocaust, and the governmental turmoil in East Central Europe were all indicative of a process of social realignment and wealth redistribution. In this context and in this overall fifty year time frame, not six million, but more like a hundred and sixty million individuals lost all they had, and in the case of tens of millions, not only their belongings but their lives as well. In this mix, to what special category should Jewish losses be placed?
There are two ironies here. As Raul Hilberg and Norman Finkelstein have noted, the Jewish people have been very successful in the postwar period, certainly more successful than the peoples of Eastern Europe who were hobbled for decades with communist governments. In this kind of case, the demand for recompense violates not only a simple sense of justice but seems vindictive as well: it conjures the image of a rich man bullying a pauper for money, because the pauper's grandfather stole from the rich man's ancestor. This kind of thinking, while not explicitly "collective responsibility" is in effect to brand innocent people who are after all just trying to get by with the Mark of Cain. The next thing you know, an idea will develop that holds that guilt can be transmitted across generations, a concept that is repulsive on its face and that no Jew mindful of Jewish history could ever endorse, even though some Jewish agencies evidently do just that.
The second irony is that while the interests of Jews in this matter are being addressed, such justification for reparations is studiously ignored elsewhere. Here we don't mean merely the equally legitimate claims of other Europeans. We have in mind rather the situation in the United States, where 20 million African Americans had their labor exploited during the days of slavery. If the principle of reparations is consistently followed, they too deserve compensation. For that matter, so do the Native Americans whose lands the White Man stole Come to think of it, those of us descended from the indentured laborers of the pre-Revolutionary days should theoretically be entitled to file a class action suit against the British Crown. It appears that some of these Jewish agencies are blind to all this: one of them recently announced its intention to recoup all Jewish property lost as a result of the Russian Revolution! Of course, the previous owners of this property will no doubt be hard to locate, but not to worry, the agency in question will simply accumulate the capital in an interest-bearing account and doubtless figure out ways to spend it later.
Calls for reparations and compensation constitute a myth because the implication is that in this way things will be put right and justice achieved. But in Modern Europe, everyone has a grievance. The mechanism of reparation and compensation is only justifiable insofar as it allows for a controlled means of redistributing wealth, a means that will avoid the inequalities that lead to war and revolution in the first place. But to abuse the process, such that the truly needy or deserving are ignored, with the result that only those with the power to extract such retribution in the first place merely increase their wealth and power, is neither just nor fair. It also is bound to create ideological tensions that will serve no one's interests.