The great irony is that people discover race hate the way lovers discover love. It always seems utterly new and fresh to the hater, who like the lover feels that he has invented the emotion. And like love, race hate always expresses itself in the same cliches uttered as if the hater had discovered the principles of the universe. “They take our jobs.” “They’re everywhere.” “They lust after our women.” “They’re just too damn different.”
Racism is as human as love. In defining ourselves, the tribe we belong to, its mores, we are tempted to believe in the inferiority of the culture and mores of other groups. Prejudice is the hairy backside of what we all need: a sense of identity. Sometimes, the more grand the cultural identity, the greater is the temptation to racism. The officers of the Einsatzgruppen, the SS killing squads, all loved their Mozart and their Goethe.
Often, particularly in America, race hate or group hate seems rootless, as in the now famous case of the two young men who attacked a Vietnamese stroller in Laguna Beach because they thought he was gay. It did not seem that the young men had any measurable reason, any damage they could point to or quantify, to explain why they wanted to beat the hell out of either Asians or gays. Did America’s war experiences provide them with a primitive spur? The AIDS epidemic? A long bow to draw to believe that their own immune systems would somehow be strengthened by assaulting a perhaps-gay Vietnamese beach-walker.
We often righteously sneer at the racial and religious violence in Northern Ireland and in the Balkans, but hate in both these cases is based on versions of history and measurable blood spilled in the past. There is more than legend to what the Serbs and Croatians did to each other since the Middle Ages, and to what Bosnian Muslims may once have done under Turkish rule. Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland can similarly point to historic massacres, even though they may be written too simple-mindedly into their respective maps of the world and their folk songs. In all cases, the hate is merely augmented rather than caused by religious difference. But at least the Northern Irish Catholics can point to very real injustices and miseries they have suffered. Protestants can point to their own heap of bodies, the real fear of IRA gunmen and of being absorbed into a Republic of Eire in which their civil rights may be curtailed for the sake of Catholic doctrine.
Race hate in America is not often based on any real disadvantage suffered by the hater. It is based on stereotypes or rumor. But that’s all the serpent in the gut needs to start secreting its poison.
Over every question of race or group hate lies the shadow of the Holocaust, and for the moment the Holocaust questions are associated with Steven Spielberg’s film of my book. As a Gentile, an Australian of Irish Catholic background, I have no hesitation in saying that the Holocaust should be talked about again and again and should not be forgotten. The reason is that the Holocaust is the most extreme version of rootless race hate in European history. Classic European anti-Semitism was based more on the idea that the Jews had killed Christ and were engaged in an anti-European philosophic and financial conspiracy than on any measurable harm done to Europe. No one could point to Jewish massacres of Christians, though in Poland and Germany vague but intense hate was able to be engineered into blaming Jews for the economic problems of both countries. But who could say, my mother was raped by a Jew, my father hanged by one?
The SS mastered the ultimate challenge of genocide: If you get the hated group where you want them--behind wire--how do you ensure that your now- perfected kingdom isn’t sullied by too many corpses lying around and giving mute evidence of what happened to them? It’s a question of processing the hated group. The Nazis devised the most bureaucratic, most extreme, most technological means of doing that. No question that the Cambodian tyrant Pol Pot would have loved to have been able to organize such methods to punish those of his own people who lacked “political correctness.” No question that the tyrant Mengistu of Ethiopia would have loved to have been able to apply a final solution to the Eritreans of the Horn of Africa. But the Nazis really did it, and they were Europeans.
As a European who grew up very far from the scene, I don’t feel uselessly guilty about that, but I feel amazed and appalled. On a recent Sunday in Chicago, I met an elderly couple, the Schlesingers. A tall, sober-looking man and a small-boned, extremely handsome woman, they had been prisoners in Oskar Schindler’s work camps. It struck me again, the ridiculous idea to which all the resources of the Reich were devoted--the idea that European civilization and the Schlesingers could not be allowed to coexist. The Schlesingers, urbane and pleasant as they are, could not be permitted to go on breathing. Only Schindler’s intervention and their own intelligence ensured that they did continue to breathe.
Maybe one shouldn’t be surprised, since the racist always talks in terms of mass extermination. The last station on the hate line in his head is always something like Auschwitz, which stands as the most graphic instance of the kind of place to which hatred takes people.
And now the further great irony is that Jews like Steven Spielberg are actually blamed for remembering, for reviving the memory that is not only Jewish but human. The Jews, we are told by the haters, remember their disasters in a particularly and hatefully Jewish way. And what about the fact that the Israeli right wing uses the Holocaust as a sanction for the persecution of Palestinians? Instead of addressing that real political problem, let’s work on forgetting the Holocaust as fast as we can. Christians are allowed to remember the crucifixion of their Messiah, which occurred some time in the first century A.D.; Jews should be disqualified from remembering their dead of 1939-1945 because they are too good at it, too damn . . . Jewish!
But the Holocaust remains for me not a Jewish problem but a European one. The Germans themselves are grappling with a conflict about this among their historians--how to fit this unique event into German history, into the German and European imagination. And that is not the Jews’ fault. It is the fault of Europe, which has pursued anti-Semitism consistently since the Middle Ages and has still not yet repented of it. It is the grand Europe that all us people from the new world love to visit and rightly admire that brought race hate to its ultimate conclusion. That is why it is important for Gentiles to retain the memory of the Holocaust, and to receive the warnings inherent in it.