Secondary Anti-Semitism: From Hard-Core to Soft-Core Denial of the Shoah

By Heni, Clemens | Jewish Political Studies Review, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

Secondary Anti-Semitism: From Hard-Core to Soft-Core Denial of the Shoah


Heni, Clemens, Jewish Political Studies Review


The core principle of secondary anti-Semitism is the refusal or rejection of remembrance of the unprecedented crime which Germans committed during the Second World War, namely the Shoah. This has a specific dimension in Germany which basically reflects the country's unique political culture. The cruelest version of secondary anti-Semitism is Holocaust denial. Three categories of soft-core denial are proposed: distortion, universalization and projection of guilt/relativization/trivialization. People who generate such a soft-core denial do not often refer to the Holocaust as a lie or fabrication by Jews or their sympathizers. It is much more subtle. Disguising history by talking about history is the unstated aim. Research on anti-Semitism must be vigilant in the coming years to develop new strategies to fight this new brand of Jew-hatred. Soft-core denial today is already at least as dangerous and widespread as Neonazi, Islamic or Iranian varieties: liberals, left-wingers, conservatives, clergy and scientists of all persuasions are using this form of post-Auschwitz anti-Semitism in good conscience.

This article seeks to introduce secondary anti-Semitism, a relatively unknown and rather new concept for the analysis of anti-Semitism. It refers to the refusal or rejection of remembrance of the unprecedented crimes which Germans committed during the Second World War, which initially developed in Germany and other European countries. While the refusal to acknowledge the Holocaust as an unprecedented crime against Jews as Jews exists all round the world, in Germany it has a specific dimension which basically reflects the country's unique political culture. Outside Germany, political activists and journalists tend to be unfamiliar with this concept perhaps because it is difficult to clearly distinguish between primary and secondary antiSemitism.

Secondary anti-Semitism is anti-Semitism after Auschwitz. Israeli psychoanalyst Zvi Rex described its essence: "Germans will never forgive the Jews for Auschwitz."1 German scholar Peter Schönbach, who worked with Theodor W. Adorno in Frankfurt in the 1960s originally coined the term secondary anti-Semitism.2 While Schönbach concentrated primarily on the generational problem and the "afterlife of Fascist antiSemitism," or more precisely National Socialist anti-Semitism, today the problem is more extensive. Jew-hatred is particularly easy to detect in the generations after 1945 and also after 1968. However, under a cloak of responsibility and mainstream consensus they have generated a secondary form of anti-Semitism.3

The cruelest version of secondary anti-Semitism is Holocaust denial. After 1945, Nazis and their sympathizers immediately began to deny the Holocaust. The first known Holocaust denier was French fascist Maurice Bardèche, according to historian Deborah Lipstadt.4 Later, such books as Richard Harwood's Did Six Million Really Die? published by Erich Zündel in 1974, simply propagated the same lies as Bardèche. But what happened in mainstream societies, especially, but not exclusively, in Germany - in both Germanys - and postHolocaust Europe? French-Jewish survivors like the philosopher Vladimir Jankélévitch witnessed the silence surrounding crimes against the Jews, the deportations to the concentration camps, the expropriation of Jewish homes, and the transport of the Jews from railway stations "to the East," all of which was widely known, and the mass murder during the Holocaust.

In an important early article in 19485 Jankélévitch describes a typical Sunday afternoon stroll down the Champs Elysees in 1943, an enjoyable event where ordinary French people window-shop for new clotbes, shoes, etc. Furthest from their minds are the Jews who had been deported the night before. The French silence persisted long after the Liberation in 1944. In Germany itself the situation was even worse. Not only was there no public debate about the crimes the Germans had perpetrated, but some former mass murderers received Persilscheine, de-nazification certificates of good conduct named after a popular laundry detergent. …

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