Historians of World War II and the Holocaust have never found a document actually ordering the eradication of European Jewry.
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The lack of such documentation has given rise to various schools of thought regarding the genesis of the Holocaust, ranging from Lucy Dawidowicz’s position that Hitler had already decided on the extermination in 1919 to Martin Broszat’s thesis that Hitler never took an actual decision or issued an order for the Final Solution.
Historian Christopher Browning believes the turning point came sometime in October 1941, by which time, the rampages of the Nazi Einsatzgruppen through the occupied areas of the Soviet Union had paved the way for institutionalized mass-murder. It may not have been a written, or even a verbal, order, but at that point in October activity became policy.
Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, met with Hitler for the first and – as far as is known – only time on November 28, 1941. By then, hundreds of thousands of Jews had already been shot to death in the western Soviet Union and the Final Solution, if Browning is correct, was already an established fact in the Nazi bureaucracy.
In other words, Husseini certainly came to know about the Holocaust from his contacts with senior Nazis and was by all accounts an enthusiastic supporter, but he wasn’t – and couldn’t have been – a factor in its genesis. The Holocaust was probably, as Browning puts it, a “cumulative radicalization” of the German state in dealing with its “Jewish problem” – a process that began long before Husseini arrived in Berlin in October 1941.
What then is one to make of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s statement on Tuesday night that Hitler wanted to expel the Jews, not kill them, and that it was Husseini who persuaded him to choose the path of mass slaughter?
(As reported in Haaretz, Netanyahu said: "Hitler didn't want to exterminate the Jews at the time, he wanted to expel the Jew. And Haj Amin al-Husseini went to Hitler and said, 'If you expel them, they'll all come here (to Palestine).' According to Netanyahu, Hitler then asked: "What should I do with them?" and the mufti replied: "Burn them.")
The first thing we can conclude is that Netanyahu is no historian. Himself the son of a crackpot historian, Bibi has adopted a fringe and discredited theory with no historical basis and made it the cornerstone of his understanding of the most traumatic and decisive event in Jewish history.
That might not be so bad, were it not for the fact that the prime minister takes great pride in the breadth of his historical perspective. His public statements are littered with resonant references to the Munich capitulation (in connection with the Iranian nuclear project,) the Holocaust, pogroms and historical anti-Semitism, not to mention the Zionist certainties of the 1948 period, which, as the New Historians proved, are debatable at best. History is Bibi’s bread and butter.
If Netanyahu can get the provenance of the Holocaust so appallingly wrong, what does it say about all the other historical “truths” that underlie and buttress his maximalist Zionism – which, it goes without saying, is the governing creed in the country today? How many other crank theories are hidden in the dark crevices of the prime ministerial mind?
The second takeaway from Tuesday night’s speech is that Netanyahu has lost it. He’s raving. His hatred of the Palestinians and his frustration at their refusal to succumb to his brutality has become an obsession in which even Hitler, the archetype of evil and Jew-hatred, has to play second fiddle to Mahmoud Abbas and his Palestinian predecessors.
Hitler had many allies in his drive to kill the Jews – Ukrainians, Romanians, Lithuanians, Hungarians etc. Al-Husseini was just one of them, neither the most dastardly nor the most influential. Like all the others, he was motivated by his own national objectives, rather than by what historian Timothy Snyder calls the “ecological” hatred of Jews which was Hitler’s alone.
To put anyone on a par with Hitler as regards the Holocaust is a form of Holocaust denial. It perverts the historical truth of the Holocaust and opens the door to all sorts of other lunatic and dangerous theories. It is something that no intelligent and aware person should do, let alone the prime minister of Israel.
Netanyahu’s outburst on Tuesday night was a watershed. Much of the western world has long considered him a little over the top and now they have proof. He has lost whatever grip he may have had and he’s gone rogue. Benjamin Netanyahu is an existential danger to Israel.
Roy Isacowitz is a journalist and writer living in Tel Aviv and an editor at the English edition of Haaretz. He has worked on newspapers in both South Africa and Israel.