Holocaust Statements and Identity in/of/for the World

an image of a holocaust sign

by Martin Shuster

On January 27, 2017, the Trump White House issued, like many administrations before it, a statement on the Nazi genocide in remembrance of International Holocaust Remembrance Day. What was striking about this statement, however, was that it failed to mention the Jews. Trump’s statement merely noted that: “It is impossible to fully fathom the depravity and horror inflicted on innocent people by Nazi terror.” The problem is that this is exactly how those who deny or minimize the Nazi genocide talk about the event (as Senator Tim Kaine noted, Richard Spencer confirmed, and as a cursory glance at white supremacist forums will show). The White House, however, doubled down when the administration’s spokeswoman, Hope Hicks, claimed that the statement was intentional and that, “despite what the media reports, we are an incredibly inclusive group and we took into account all of those who suffered.” Similarly,  Chief of Staff Reince Priebus remarked that, “everyone’s suffering in the Holocaust” (adding, “obviously all of the Jewish people”).

There are a lot of questions here. As Josh Marshall suggests, wouldn’t it have been wiser—if indeed that was the goal—instead to mention all of the groups you had in mind? How will this affect the relationship between conservative Jews and Trump, especially when that relationship is often based on a shared support for Israel that seems, mistakenly, also to signal support for Jews? How will such Jews weigh the importance of Israel in relation to the importance of acknowledging the Nazi genocide? As Jordan Weissman points out, the White House seems to have “all lives mattered” the Nazi genocide.

These are important questions, but I want to develop an alternative point. First, in a perhaps odd twist of events, it has been reported that the statement was authored by White House aide, Boris Epshteyn, who is himself Jewish. Because we know that anyone can adopt any idea—including Holocaust denial or anti-Semitism—for any reason, we should use Epshteyn’s strong and persistent affirmation of Trump and Steve Bannon’s worldview to guide our assessment of the statement (see this, this, and this, and the fact that the White House might have bypassed a statement prepared for them by the State department).

Allegedly, in conversation with a writer from The Daily Beast , Bannon claimed that he was a “Leninist” and that he, like Lenin, “wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.” This doesn’t seem particularly unlikely given other things that Bannon has said officially, namely, in a comment to the Washington Post, that “we think of ourselves as virulently anti-establishment.” Combine this sentiment, with his quasi-apocalyptic outlook about the state of world affairs, as when he mentions in his extensive interview with Buzzfeed, that “we’re at the very beginning stages of a very brutal and bloody conflict…[where we need] to not just stand with our beliefs, but to fight for our beliefs against this new barbarity that’s starting, that will completely eradicate everything that we’ve been bequeathed over the last 2,000, 2,500 years.”

In the same Buzzfeed interview, Bannon also suggests two more points. First, he argues that it is crucial to form a broad right and far-right leaning coalition, involving even white nationalists, and one need not be afraid of the ‘white supremacy’ here, since that ultimately “washes out,” leaving only the nationalism. And second, he contends that one of the chief problems with the United States is its inability to produce a strong American nationalism, since it is perpetually undermined by the fact that “there are people in New York that feel closer to people in London and in Berlin than they do to people in Kansas and in Colorado.” In other words, there is a component to globalization that orients subjectivities and identities beyond the local or regional to the global.

The overall picture here is an apocalyptic one: we are at a moment in history, where we need to use whatever means necessary to survive, including allying the far right with elements traditionally opposed to it, like Leninists, and potentially even destroying our state in its entirety. This is because the present state is composed of folks who feel connections to other countries, and whose potential sympathies and interests then make it impossible to wage the sort of apocalyptic war upon us.

Through such destruction, however, we can reconstitute the state in a stronger, say, potentially indivisible form, so that it can confront the impending threat, which, as the Buzzfeed interview highlights, is Islam. This is a way to understand the chaos of the first few weeks of Trump’s presidency as well as the imposition of a Muslim ban from certain regions of the world (see this and this). But what does this have to do with the White House statement on the Holocaust?

By removing any mention of the Jews as the primary target of the Nazi genocide—indeed any mention of any victim group whatsoever—and replacing such a mention with an empty marker like ‘innocents,’ the statement advances another essential element to the current White House worldview: the undermining of the construction of human identity altogether.  Essential to any identity operation is a sense of a history (whatever that history might be): it is the necessity of having a history.

By literally whitewashing the history of the Nazi genocide, and especially by employing a form of softcore Holocaust denial, the White House—in parallel with Bannon, is oriented by two thoughts. First, such a statement produces a historical narrative that casts everything in entirely ahistorical terms, suggesting a thoroughly mythological approach to history as a narrative of the struggle between good and evil, innocent and not. Second, the statement exemplifies the overall relationship towards truth adopted by this administration: that truth is both quite simple and yet perpetually suspect, the latter because it is mucked up by the media, and the former because it is easily available from the White House.

On one hand, then, critics of this statement are exactly right to note that it aligns all too well with white nationalist narratives. On the other hand, these critics do not go deep enough to an equally troublesome issue, which is that this statement is part of a broader approach that aims to destabilize the construction of any identity whatsoever by erasing the markers that locate and generate historical identity in the first place.

These are exactly the sort of subjects that Arendt describes as essential to totalitarian rule in her Origins of Totalitarianism, where she notes that gullibility (say, the ignorance of concrete facts of the matter) and cynicism (say, the rejection of concrete facts of the matter) go hand in hand to create a situation where citizens are able to “believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and nothing was true.” The identities of the victims—notably, the Jews, but also others like the Roma, alleged ‘sexual deviants’, left-wingers, the disabled, and so forth—thereby, matter because they affect the truth; they are the truth. Naming these victims is morally important because to ignore them is to kill them again. Suffering gives voice to truth. Failing to name the victims is to assert the priority of a single identity: the mythical, apocalyptic, white nationalism that Bannon embraces.

In asserting this priority, though, we in fact undermine the construction of identity altogether, not only for these groups, but for all of us who in fact construct our identities in relation to theirs, our stories in relation to theirs. Our world is a world of plurality, and we are each plural because of it.


Martin Shuster is Director of Judaic Studies and Assistant Professor at Goucher College in Baltimore, MD, where he is a member of the Center for Geographies of Justice and Cultures. In addition to many articles, he is the author of Autonomy after Auschwitz: Adorno, German Idealism, and Modernity (University of Chicago, 2014) and the forthcoming, New Television: The Aesthetics and Politics of a Genre (University of Chicago). With Anne O’Byrne, he is presently finishing putting together an edited collection called Logics of Genocide: The Structures of Violence and the Contemporary World (Indiana University Press). He is also the general editor of Adorno Studies. You can find more about him here.

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