Auschwitz. Photo: Pixabay Auschwitz. Photo: Pixabay

On the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, Kevin Ovenden takes on the mistaken politics of relativisation and argues that Europe must take responsibility for its history.

It is concerning to see from some quarters a response to the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz that goes into great contortions to avoid the centrality of the particular fate of Europe’s Jews.

“The Jew” had a unique place in the Nazi racial imagination. Instead of recognising that and explaining it as critical to understanding the rest of the Nazi perversion, some seek to counterpose other crimes – during the Second World War, before, or since.

It is important to understand this is not coming from the pro-Palestinian movement or Muslim communities under the lash of Islamophobia. Rather it is from the fringes – where it should remain, not through bureaucratic and “call-out” methods, but robust intellectual argument and the practice of the anti-racist, pro-Palestine and other progressive movements.

Among other things, what this “whataboutery” rhetoric fails to grasp is that it has origins on the right and is used by the right in all sorts of spheres.

To give one example – the transatlantic slave trade.

It is the pre-eminent horrendous crime directly associated with the emergence and growth of the modern capitalist system on both sides of the Atlantic. And it is the slave rising in Haiti which was the greatest early blow to the capitalist system and its colonial powers.

Some of the justifications of the slave trade then have continued since the end of slavery and in the form of attempts to relativise its unique features and barbarity.

Few would seriously try to justify the centuries-long trade directly. But you hear all sorts of arguments that are the equivalent of the magician’s art of distraction.

So we are told that there was war, conquest, extorted labour and forms of subjugation among the various states on the African continent and that the slave trade is nothing special compared with those.

Or that there was a Saharan slave trade (true) by Arabs. There was such a trade – microscopic and localised compared with the savagery of the system brought by early European capitalism.

Or that Irish labour was also enslaved, so there was nothing special about the turning of Africa into, to use Marx’s words, “a warren for the hunting of black skin”. That claim is not true – indentured Irish and other labour was brutal. It was not chattel slavery and nor was it a mechanism for the creation of the modern abomination of racism, as the transatlantic slave trade was.

And it is out of the relativisation or dismissal of racism that the myth of Irish slaves in the Americas has been promoted by those who refuse to confront the realities of anti-Black racism in the US today.

So those who answer to the fate of the Jews of Europe in the 1930s and 1940s – but what about Black slavery – should understand that, among other things, they deploy a method which has been and continues to be deployed against the acknowledgement of the scale, savagery and specificity of the Black experience in the European capitalist world and its extensions into the Americas.

We can do far, far better than this.

Indeed, the vast majority of those active in movements for change do. I suspect that on the fringes where people do not it is to do with a profound demoralisation and pessimism, which leads to losing sight of the great and universal battle for liberation and – usually unintentionally – becoming victim to ways of thinking that originate from the enemies of all of us.

Lastly, please let no one invoke the suffering at the hands of the colonial and imperialist encounter of Palestine, the Middle East or Muslim world as alibi for this shoddy thinking and mistaken politics.

For it is not being generated there. Like the Holocaust itself, this malady is an affair of European culture (and its extensions), of European discontents, by Europeans not sufficiently confronting the history of their continent.

It is a continent that must deal with the fact that it sent a racially selected portion of its citizens to death camps.

It must take responsibility for that.

Kevin Ovenden

Kevin Ovenden is a progressive journalist who has followed politics and social movements for 25 years. He is a leading activist in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, led five successful aid convoys to break the siege on Gaza, and was aboard the Mavi Marmara aid ship when Israeli commandoes boarded it killing 10 people in May 2010. He is author of Syriza: Inside the Labyrinth.