Post-modernism has features that make it useful for Holocaust deniers. The growing popularity of its approaches, amongst some historians and political scientists, as a substitute for empirical and nuanced research is increasingly creating the conditions in which Holocaust denial, ideological, and grievance-based historiography can flourish and distort the historical record.
A History of Post-Modernist Thought
Post-modernism emerged during the 1960s as a response to the predominance of liberal humanism. Taking the view that liberal humanist values privileged white, male, middle-class experience, its proponents attacked science as a constructed, bourgeois ideology. Instead, post-modernists implied that facts should be interpreted on the basis of one’s feelings rather than empirical evidence.
One of post-modernisms pioneering acolytes, Jean-Francois Lyotard, advocated the rejection of science in favor of personal truths, maintaining that scientific facts were governed by and perpetuated structures of power. Michel Foucault wrote that individuals were constructed through discourses which were products of the relationship of power, social class, and profession. Jacques Derrida argued that speech was given meaning not by the intentions of the writer but by those interpreting it. He rejected liberalism’s guiding value of overcoming difference, universal human rights, and individual empowerment in favor of collective rights and identities.
Post-Modern Holocaust Denial and Historiography on Yugoslavia
While moral relativism is a key factor linking post-modernism and Holocaust denial, post-modernism’s preoccupation with power relations and interpretations of text are important factors that help explain the current popularity of post-modernism in the humanities, including in historiography. This relationship between post-modernism and Holocaust denial is particularly obvious in recent historiographical writing about the former Yugoslavia.
Two texts illustrate this argument: first, an article by two political scientists about white privilege and the role of socialist Yugoslavia in the establishment of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), which appeared in a respected political science journal; and second, a self-published monograph by a group of prominent Croatian Holocaust revisionists and deniers about the death camp of Jasenovac.
The politics of these two groups of authors are, obviously, diametrically opposed. The intellectual value of the two enterprises and the academic credentials of the authors are also scarcely more comparable; the authors of the second text, in fact, do not possess any credentials at all. Similarly, while the first text’s interpretative approaches are highly problematic, it is nonetheless not as dishonest as the second text. Despite these differences, however, it is worth comparing the two documents because of the approaches taken to the use of data and attitudes toward writing history. This comparison raises serious concerns about how post-modernist methodologies have created more receptive conditions for denialist approaches to the Holocaust.
Jelena Subotić and Srđan Vučetić’s article about the establishment of NAM uses the 1955 Afro-Asian conference in Bandung as a starting point to examine Yugoslavia’s role in its creation. They argue that, despite being viewed as a pivotal moment in the rise of Third World ideology and the anti-colonial movement, Yugoslav leaders failed to appreciate NAM’s racism or their own “racialized privilege” in it. They did, however, appreciate that solidarity with decolonized states would bring “major status awards” to them, the party and their state.
In presenting this historiography, the authors argue that “self-consciously anti-imperialist and anti-colonial positions can be thickly enveloped in white ignorance.” As such, while Yugoslavia sided with states like India and Egypt in challenging the political and economic world order, the country nevertheless “culturally participated in, and contributed to, the ideologies and practices of global white supremacy.” The authors conclude that a “self-consciously anti-imperialist and progressive position that does not explicitly address the structures of white supremacy will reproduce familiar patterns of global white ignorance.”
The second text, “Jasenovački logori” (Jasenovac Camps), an edited volume of contributions, claims to explore the history of the Jasenovac concentration camp – the largest and most murderous non-German death camp, established and administered by the fascist Ustasha-led Independent State of Croatia. During the four years of Jasenovac’s operation, tens of thousands of Serbs, Jews and Roma were liquidated alongside Croatian and Muslim anti-fascists. Rejecting these facts, the authors of the book claim there were two camps at Jasenovac: a wartime “labor” camp run by the Ustashas in which the only victims were “political enemies,” and a post-war concentration camp administered by the victorious Communist-led Yugoslav Partisans which aimed only to exterminate Croats.
In an interview about her contributions to the book with daily tabloid Slobodna Dalmacija, one of the authors, Blanka Matković, who is one of Croatia’s leading Holocaust minimizers, argued in true post-modernist fashion, that accusations of Holocaust revisionism demonstrate that she is doing her job as an historian. In her comments, Matković quoted the historian James M. McPherson who wrote that “revisionism is the lifeblood of historical science. History is a continual dialogue between the past and the present and interpretations of the past are subject to change in compliance with new evidence.” In another outlet, Matković complained that Croatian state institutions such as the Ministry of Culture, the management of the Jasenovac Memorial Museum, and even the Office of the Croatian President, had failed to respond to the report she and revisionist colleagues had sent them regarding their new “research” findings about Jasenovac.
The idea of a conspiracy amongst privileged elites, in this case to prevent the truth about the Jasenovac camp from emerging, is common to many Holocaust deniers. In his essay in “Jasenovački logori,” Igor Vukić, president of the revisionist Society for the Triple Jasenovac, complained that “in the decades in which one could not research and speak normally about Jasenovac a propaganda myth about this camp was created against which it was hard to fight.” He added that in Yugoslavia the story about the Jasenovac camp “served the Serbian side as a propellant for the preparations for war in 1991.”
Another contributor to the volume, Vladimir Horvat, recycled the very same pernicious narratives about the inferiority, backwardness, violence, and disloyal conduct of Serbs in Croatia towards the Croatian government from the nineteenth century onwards, which the Ustasha ideologues in the 1940s themselves used to legitimize their persecution of the Serbian population. He also approvingly cited Stjepan Razum, the archivist of the Catholic Church in Croatia and a prominent Holocaust denier, who wrote: “It is high time that the truth about the Partisan camp which had a far greater number of victims than the Ustasha one was revealed and brought out into the open.”
The attitudes toward historiography displayed in the first and second texts share a number of commonalities. First, there is a preoccupation with identity accompanied by an anti-elite discourse, in which the authors, alternatively, critique “whiteness” or the “myth” of Jasenovac propagated by “Greater Serbian” elites as a means of weakening the national identity of the Croats and their aspirations for independence. This is combined with a relativist belief that the historical record is constructed not through objective truth or empirical evidence, but through structures of power and privilege.
Both texts suggest that it is a legitimate enterprise for scholars to highlight neglected and hidden aspects of well-established historical events to provide an alternative, “revised” version of the past. The results of this philosophy are clearer in the case of Jasenovački logori. In the introduction, the authors insist they are only trying to contribute to the “historical debate” – as if the details of what happened in the concentration camps were a matter of serious dispute.
Both publications are also driven by an ideological viewpoint, suggesting that the evidence presented has been driven by the argument rather than the other way around.
In Jasenovački logori, the selective use of facts and evidence creates a highly-distorted version of the past. The small amount of evidence that complicates the official history of Jasenovac is taken out of context, simplified, and given far more meaning than it actually deserves, while the weight of contradictory evidence is simply ignored. This makes it easier to present Jasenovac as a benign labor camp rather than a death camp. In their text, Subotić and Vučetić employ some of the same approaches in attempting to demonstrate that the anti-colonialist discourses and policies of socialist Yugoslavia were strongly influenced by white privilege and racism. Their evidence is mostly based on statements of government officials, political leaders, travel writers, and journalists.
This leads to another similarity between the texts: the post-modernist preoccupation with deconstructing past actions and attitudes and demonstrating how they have been misrepresented and even falsified. History has often been written from various ideological viewpoints. As Yugoslav dissident Milovan Djilas is said to have quipped: “The hardest thing about being a Communist is trying to predict the past.” But that does not mean it should be. At its most fundamental, as Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood has pointed out, history is not about grand plans and strategies but about the lives of ordinary people in extraordinary times, the ways in which they negotiate society and social relations, their fears and hopes, their triumphs and traumas.
These are not easily adaptable to prevailing political ideologies, any more than they were in 1941. Seen from this perspective, post-modernism and Holocaust revisionism both seek to rewrite history, replacing it with a version of the past that is simplistic, neat, and distorted so that facts, events, and people can fit into a pre-conceived schema.
To create confusion in the minds of readers, Holocaust deniers focus on minor discrepancies in the historical record, whether it is of eyewitness testimony by survivors or the technological operation of gas chambers. In the case of Croatian revisionism, this has meant focusing on claims by a handful of survivors, about the presence of orchestras, sporting events, and social care facilities in the camps, while ignoring the dehumanizing context in which these aspects of camp life operated and the propaganda they represented. This also excludes the far greater volume of evidence in many of the same testimonies emphasizing the brutality, cruelty, and mass killing in Jasenovac.
While academic Holocaust revisionists in Croatia frequently cite foreign scholars, they rarely place Jasenovac in a comparative framework by mentioning similar Nazi camps of the same period, such as Auschwitz. This is because Holocaust denial is a national state-building enterprise. In appealing to an ultra-nationalistic readership in Croatia, there is a need to present Jasenovac as detached from the Holocaust and other Nazi camps. It is also no accident that Holocaust revisionists in Croatia never address the letters, diaries, or everyday experiences of victims of the Ustasha regime. Nor is it coincidental that they obsess about Jasenovac, to the exclusion of almost all other aspects of terror in wartime Croatia, despite the fact that most of the victims of the Ustashas were either murdered in other camps, in massacres, forced deportations, or through systematic economic destruction.
A similar, post-modernist approach is apparent in the article about Yugoslavia’s NAM policy, which de-contextualizes Yugoslav attitudes, separating them from the era in which they were formed. During the period in which NAM was created Yugoslav politicians and even more so the Yugoslav public had little interest in racial categorization. This was also true of most of the founding members of NAM who saw their struggle as one of anti-colonialism and the building of a socialist society, rather than the issue of racism per se. Certainly, Yugoslav writers of the period did express sentiments which reflected the prejudices of the time and sometimes displayed a condescending and even racially-stereotyped attitude to countries in Africa and Asia. Still, Yugoslav leaders, as European socialist states more generally, saw themselves as having a progressive attitude towards newly-liberated states in Africa and Asia, stressing solidarity and a common experience of colonialism by outside empires. Irrespective of how clumsy some of this framing might now appear to a contemporary readership and no matter the political calculations which underpinned the creation of NAM on the Yugoslav side, it is surely simplistic and reductive to reduce the process to “white privilege” or “whiteness.” Did the other participants in the conference at Bandung and in NAM more generally not come with their own prejudices and preconceptions about white Europeans, Yugoslavs and each other? Like much post-modernist interpretation of the past, for the benefit of a particular, contemporary readership, historical actors are judged (and condemned) on the basis of concepts, like identity politics, which were either not understood or did not exist in the 1950s. Ironically, this, in and of itself, relies on a highly-stereotyped framing in which African and Asian participants are rendered passive, powerless, and undifferentiated in the face of white privilege.
The quality which most strongly connects post-modernism and Holocaust revisionism is the absence of empathy. No longer depicted as actual human beings with individual agency, individuals are refashioned as symbols of a particular ideologized version of the past.
More than anything, the historian is called to understand the individuals they write about. Clearly, Holocaust revisionists can never have empathy for Holocaust victims since they believe the existence of the Shoah is, at best, unproven and, at worst, a fabrication. In Croatia, as well as revisionist states such as Poland and Ukraine, this has evolved into open hostility toward Holocaust victims. Under Croatian revisionism, routine denigration of Jewish and Roma victims of Ustasha genocide has been accompanied by outright demonization of the Ustasha regime’s Serb victims who have been reframed as the perpetrators of the violence and the primary aggressors.
Denying the Holocaust and Porajmos, the Romani genocide, in their entirety would gain the revisionists not only international condemnation, but also domestic criticism across the political spectrum and lose them support even amongst their own followers. By contrast, minimizing the number of Serb victims in the context of a contemporary marginalization of the country’s indigenous Serb minority, Holocaust revisionists are able to maximize their support base. Even though Croatia’s Serb population currently comprises barely 4% of the country, the supposed “threat” it poses to the Croatian nation remains one of the most potent rallying cries for the far-right. This underlines the extent to which revisionist historiography is informed not so much by empirical information as by the values of target readers.
The same applies in key respects to the article on Yugoslav “whiteness” which, while posing some interesting questions, fails to look at history from the inside out and targets a readership with certain values and opinions. While motivated by a very different ideological framework to Holocaust revisionism, the kind of post-modern historical approach favored by the authors is similarly unable to express empathy for its subject. Post-modernism believes that individual attitudes are constructed through power relations, that history privileges white society, and that actions should be interpreted on the basis of how they are received by specific audiences rather than how they were intended or understood at the time. As a result, the NAM article ascribes bad faith to the Yugoslav protagonists and explains their actions as the consequence of immutable collective characteristics rather than individual choices. In the end, the fascinating story of NAM, the complex ways in which Europeans and non-Europeans interacted with each other at a time of significant global change and the human experiences of individuals struggling to find their place in a transformed world are obscured and distorted beneath the simplified superstructure of identity politics. For both Holocaust revisionists and post-modernists, the ordinary humans involved in these dramas are less individuals than they are motors for particular deterministic ideological agendas.
History as a Discipline
Post-modern identity politics presents itself as a progressive ideology encouraging diversity and equality, but its preoccupation with deconstructing human experience on the basis of immutable characteristics and collective categorizations at the cost of individual qualities or universal solidarity means that it encourages division and social differentiation and is arguably fundamentally anti-progressive. The irony arises in the fact that important aspects of the language and practices of identity politics resemble some of the practices and language of many of the fascist and occupied states of wartime Europe, which post-modern Holocaust revisionists like to pretend did not really exist and which the post-modern, identity-politics left claims to be in opposition to. Indeed, it is no surprise to find that Martin Heidegger, a favorite philosopher of the Nazis, was an important influence on both post-modernism, as well as the proponents of identity politics.
None of this means, of course, that history as a discipline should not ask questions, not push boundaries, and not be interdisciplinary or innovative. It should and it must. However, the most effective means of challenging the historical distortions of both Holocaust revisionists on the far right and the section of the academic left addled by post-modernism and identity politics is through a nuanced, empirical, and, above all, empathetic history that expresses understanding for the experiences of ordinary people in extraordinary times. This is everything post-modernist theory claims to provide – but rarely does – but without its dangerous and damaging consequences. But what to call it? Perhaps “liberal humanism” would suffice.