Germany Cancels Award to Israeli Historian Accused of Bosnian Genocide Denial

Prof. Gideon Greif denies that he minimized the death toll of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre in which around 8,000 Bosnian Muslims were murdered by Serb nationalist forces

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A woman cleaning the grave of her husband near Srebrenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina, in 2015.
A woman cleaning the grave of her husband near Srebrenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina, in 2015.Credit: Dado Ruvic / Reuters
Samuel Sokol is a freelance journalist based in Jerusalem. He was previously a correspondent at the Jerusalem Post and has reported for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, the Israel Broadcasting Authority and the Times of Israel. He is the author of Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews.
Sam Sokol

The German government has reversed its decision to honor an Israeli Holocaust historian who in recent years has come under fire for allegedly engaging in genocide denial regarding the 1992-1995 Bosnian War.

The move followed harsh criticism of the German government for bestowing the award on Gideon Greif, an expert on the history of Auschwitz.

“The proposal to award Professor Greif the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany was withdrawn. This was done by the previous federal government,” the German Foreign Ministry said in a statement Thursday, referring to the government of then-Chancellor Angela Merkel.

The ministry mentioned the commission on Srebrenica headed by Greif on behalf of Republika Srpska, the autonomous Serb enclave in Bosnia Herzegovina. It said the commission’s conclusions “contradict the case law of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, the International Court of Justice and the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide.”

Berlin’s decision “does not, however, reduce the recognition of the services that Professor Greif has earned in researching the Holocaust and the German Jews who emigrated to Israel,” the ministry added.

In a letter to a Bosniak Islamic scholar cited in the Bosnian-language media Wednesday, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier linked the reversal to Greif’s position as head of a commission that minimized the death toll of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, in which around 8,000 Bosnian Muslims were murdered by Serb nationalist forces.

Greif, who is famous for his groundbreaking Holocaust research, has been widely criticized for his participation in the commission, which also contested claims by international criminal tribunals that the incident constituted an act of genocide.

Greif had told Haaretz on Thursday that he had been unofficially informed in recent days that he would probably not be receiving the award.

“The fact that I am Jewish and an Israeli scholar is the reason for such violent, vicious personal attacks,” Greif said, blaming “Islamic Brotherhood organizations” in Bosnia for orchestrating a smear campaign against him. “It’s a black stain on Germany. They are murdering the Holocaust victims for a second time.”

Prof. Gideon Greif in Tel Aviv in 2019.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

The news was welcomed in Sarajevo, with Bosnian Foreign Minister Bisera Turkovic telling Haaretz in a statement that “no one should be allowed to minimize events that have been judicially and legally established in international courts. Denial of the Holocaust and the Srebrenica genocide empowers perpetrators, which results in the glorification of the convicted war criminals and threatens the repeat of the most horrendous events in our history.”

Turkovic recently attempted to enlist Israel in her campaign against the increasingly bellicose rhetoric of Bosnian Serb nationalists, who have ramped up calls for separatism while opposing a recent law criminalizing denial of both the Srebrenica massacre and the Holocaust.

In a letter to Foreign Minister Yair Lapid earlier this month, Turkovic called on Israel to rally the international community, as long-standing tensions threaten to further fracture her small Balkan nation along ethnic and religious lines.

“The German government’s decision not to honor Gideon Greif with the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany is wholly appropriate,” said Menachem Rosensaft, associate executive vice president of the World Jewish Congress and a lecturer on genocide law at Columbia Law School.

“Gideon Greif has emerged as the poster child for Srebrenica genocide denial, and honoring him, even with respect to his prior academic work … would have been tantamount to endorsing his wholly specious and both morally and jurisprudentially offensive distortion of the facts regarding the slaughter of Bosniak Muslims.”

Prof. Jelena Subotic, a political scientist at Georgia State University who focuses on memory politics in the Western Balkans, added: “This is not terribly surprising as the controversies around Gideon Greif’s involvement in the revisionist Srebrenica commission have only grown. The German government has to be very careful about stepping into controversies around genocide and Holocaust revisionism. Germany doesn’t need this headache.”

Greif, however, disputed that his report minimized the number of victims at Srebrenica. In a statement, his lawyer, Marcus Goldbach, who was also a member of the commission, said that “neither Mr. Greif nor any member of the commission does question the number of the victims killed or the identity of those victims.

“On the contrary, there were two forensic experts who have found that thousands of victims were in the mass graves and who have also concluded that there must be additional mass graves and victims that have been killed during the shelling of the column that have not been buried in mass graves. So the finding of the report is that not all of the 8,000 victims have been executed but have been killed by other means.”

But Rosensaft of the World Jewish Congress and Columbia Law School had harsh words for the members of the commission.

“The Greif report goes to great lengths to minimize the number of victims at Srebrenica,” he said. “Greif’s and Marcus Goldbach’s much belated attempts to wriggle out from under their disastrous report are disingenuous at best.”

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