SIR: David Lan (LRB, 2 April) disingenuously quotes Claude Lanzmann, director of the monumental film Shoah and Jim Allen, author of Perdition, as if their approach to the reconstruction of the Holocaust is somehow congruent. To be sure, both Lanzmann and Allen refer to the Holocaust today as a ‘myth’, but the meanings which they attach to this much abused word could hardly differ more. As Lan wrenches both quotations out of context, it seems only fair to examine both statements in more detail. Allen argues that his play ‘is the most lethal attack on Zionism ever written, because it touches at the heart of the most abiding myth of modern history, the Holocaust. Because it says quite plainly that privileged Jewish leaders collaborated in the extermination of their own kind in order to help bring about a Zionist state, Israel, a state which is itself racist.’ For Allen, the Holocaust is an ideological prop for the defence of the state of Israel. By crudely exposing the Holocaust as a ‘myth’ – that is, by demonstrating that Jews colluded in their own destruction – he is able to bring about a ‘lethal attack on Zionism’.
Lanzmann in the Jewish Quarterly, on the other hand, argues that if books can be written today which purport to show that the Holocaust did not occur – or, for that matter, that Jews are no longer victims of Nazism – then the Holocaust today, in Lanzmann’s phrase, ‘has all the characteristics of a mythical account’. Lan, however, conveniently avoids Lanzmann’s explanation of this statement. For Lanzmann the Holocaust has been trivialised ‘because all reality of the Holocaust is dissolving at one and the same time into both the dim distance and the stereotyped profundity of myth, without it ever having been properly transmitted.’ Perdition is a perfect example of the distorted ‘transmission’ of the Holocaust. Lanzmann’s Shoah is precisely constructed to counter such ‘myths’. Scholars as varied as Geoffrey Hartman, Saul Friedlander and Alvin Rosenfeld have written of the trivialisation of the Holocaust in contemporary Western society. The very fact that Lan can address the relative merits of Perdition and Shoah in the same breath is, I fear, ample evidence for this thesis.
SIR: I am an admiring reader of your magazine – except in its attitude towards Jewish nationalism (i.e. Zionism, in case you don’t recognise the description). Each time I receive my copy I ask myself: ‘what nasty things do they have to say about Zionism this time around?’ I am rarely disappointed.
Your approach to Zionism is so uniformly hostile as to cause me to believe that this must be an editorial decision. Why do I say this? Well, look at your last edition as an example – the article by David Lan. Here is a man who was anti-Zionist even while growing up and who, on his own admission, knows little about Zionist politics between 1939-1945. Yet he is given the opportunity to write a major article on this complicated and tortuous subject by a major literary magazine. One can only be drawn to the conclusion that he was recruited for this task because of these qualifications, not despite them. As for the probably forthcoming defence that Lan is Jewish, it is a widely-used ploy to employ Jews for anti-Zionist polemic. Anti-Zionism in the Soviet Union today is a case in point. The fact that Zionism, Jewish nationalism, is an integral part of Judaism is certainly not understood by such critics, and nowhere accepted. In fact, it is rigidly rejected. (‘To be against Zionism is not to be anti-semitic’ etc, etc.) The terrible history and the agonising decisions concerning negotiations with the Nazi regime by Zionist and non-Zionist Jews between 1939 and 1945 are nowhere reflected in Lan’s review. The fact that such activities could be morally lacerating to Jewish and Zionist leaders is not even hinted at – extensively documented though it is. It appears to be true that Zionism and Israel cannot get a fair hearing or judicious assessment in your pages. I wish it were otherwise.
David Lan writes: If Bryan Cheyette can deal with both Perdition and Shoah in one letter I don’t see why I can’t do the same in one article. Readers who refer to Allen’s and Lanzmann’s respective interviews will find that they both regard the ‘myth of the Holocaust’ as an obstacle to the transmission of the truth because, in Lanzmann’s phrase, ‘it is the property of myth … to be infinitely available to appropriation, to offer no resistance to any attempt at distortion … to be more obstinate than the facts.’ The truths they perceive, of course, differ, but no wrenching of contexts has occurred. As to Nelson’s suggestion that I am the witting tool of (yet another) anti-Zionist conspiracy, may I assure him that the London Review commissioned the article with no foreknowledge of my reaction to the works I reviewed, or of my attitude to nationalism, Jewish or otherwise.
MacNeice and Ireland
SIR: It is reassuring to know that Denis Donoghue, reviewing Louis MacNeice’s Selected Literary Criticism (LRB, 23 April), shares enough of the ‘currently renewed interest’ in that poet to admit that it is time his reputation was allowed to escape from Auden’s shadow. It is more puzzling, however, to read Donoghue’s protests against MacNeice’s status as a ‘precursor’ of contemporary Northern Irish poets: the root of his objection (and certainly its implication) would seem to be that MacNeice had little claim to be called ‘Irish’ in the first place. This issue, as Donoghue admits, is an old one, and was active while MacNeice was alive: since his death, though, one would have thought that it had been effectively decided by the poet’s pervasive and vital presence in the best work of poets such as Mahon, Longley, Paulin and Muldoon. Donoghue’s reiteration of the old slurs on MacNeice (‘his work touches Irish history and sentiment only occasionally and opportunistically’, ‘he wasn’t sufficiently interested in what was going on’) reads like a last-ditch attempt to purge Irish writing of a foreign virus. Are we to assume that the Northern poets have been poisoned, made less ‘Irish’, by their contact with MacNeice?
It is wrong to assume that MacNeice dealt with Irish material ‘opportunistically’, as though such material was good copy and nothing more. Isn’t most poetry, in any case, to some degree opportunistic with regard to its subject? And might not Yeats be considered the supreme Irish opportunist in this respect? MacNeice always thought of himself as an Irishman, and considered that he had a right to deal with Ireland personally and honestly in his writing: the most cursory reading of ‘The Closing Album’ (1939) or ‘A Hand of Snapshots’ (1957) reveals an involvement far in excess of the opportunistic. Is an Irishman only an Irishman when he is analysing the Literary Revival, endorsing wartime neutrality or singing the praises of the Gaelic League? Is, for example, the bitter poem ‘Neutrality’ a piece of Anglicised opportunism on MacNeice’s part?
The assertion that MacNeice had little interest in Irish affairs is simply incorrect. One example in particular seems pertinent: in 1960 it was MacNeice who, in a review written at his own request for the Observer, brought to the attention of a British audience the issues raised by Sam Thompson’s Belfast play Over the Bridge. MacNeice emphasised the reality of ‘religious bigotry, primarily Protestant bigotry – but this is only because the Protestants in Ulster are in the majority’. The play was to have far-reaching effects on the Unionist status quo, which had attempted to prevent its being staged: MacNeice’s review is hardly the work of a man with little interest in his own country.
As for the contemporary poets of the North, Donoghue cannot possibly mean, in the face of so much evident indebtedness, that MacNeice is not their precursor: what he seems to mean really is that MacNeice is the wrong sort of precursor for them to have. It would be interesting to hear in more detail the reasons for this. Too Northern? Too much influenced by the English? Too Protestant? MacNeice learnt a great deal from being at the centre of the poetic culture of Thirties England; arguably, recent Northern Irish poets have profited from those lessons. At any rate MacNeice’s poetry, deliberately impure and uncomfortable as it may seem to some kinds of Irish taste, is now a crucial imaginative resource for Irish writers. Professor Donoghue’s objections have come too late to make much difference in that respect.
Christ Church, Oxford
Starving the Ukraine
SIR: Robert Conquest portrays recent writers on the Stalin period as a ‘gaggle of “revisionists” ’ and makes the most silly and manifestly false claims about their work (Letters, 7 May). Neither I nor any other scholar has ever written that Cold War-era works or the writings of émigrés are invalid as a genre. Neither I nor any other scholar has ever denied that large-scale terror took place in the Stalinist Thirties. Neither I nor any other scholar has written that Stalin was anything other than evil or that he bears any resemblance to Thomas Jefferson.
The scholars whom Conquest excoriates are hardly the crackpots he suggests. Their writings have been published by Oxford and Cambridge University Presses and have appeared in all the leading scholarly journals in the field. They incorporate archival and other sources (which Conquest alternately derides and ignores) from the period and originated independently in France, Britain, America, Germany and Japan. Conquest gives the impression that those who disagree with him are perverse and few in number. But the readers whom Conquest in his letter presumes to instruct should also know that none of the leading scholars on Stalinist collectivisation agree with Conquest’s claim of a deliberate ‘terror-famine’. If there are any gaggles involved here, they centre on the Hoover Institution – the conservative think-tank which has sponsored practically all of the ‘terror-famine’ research in the US. Perversity is in the eye of the beholder.
Conquest is equally misleading in his selective discussion of excess mortality in the Thirties. Although he derides Soviet sources as untrustworthy, he cites a 17-year-old Soviet article as authoritative. He predictably ignores recent empirical work by such trained demographers as Anderson and Silver (Slavic Review, Fall 1985) and S.G. Wheatcroft (Soviet Studies, April 1981 and April 1983) who have explicitly attacked his own sources, methods, assumptions and conclusions. And these experts are not even members of a gaggle.
Conquest’s work belongs to the genre of the great 19th-century idealist historians who used personal accounts and literary sources to write about heroes and anti-heroes, good and bad. These are tales of evil and omnipotent princes, innocent populations, and happy kingdoms ravaged by inhuman conquerors. This accessible and pleasant format makes for good reading, but it does not facilitate careful understanding. Using stories as if they were documents, it paints the big picture without worrying about how well the pieces fit. (Typically, Conquest cites a novel as his primary source on ‘the geographical limits and the mens rea’ of his ‘terror-famine’.) We do not read here of social classes, conditions or agendas. There is no troublesome detail on the effects of economic transformation, bureaucratic infrastructure or the conflicts of political sociology. Historical studies in the last fifty years or so have taken a different path. Influenced by research in the sciences, the trend has been a series of close, detailed studies of particular topics. Among modern researchers in all disciplines one finds the empiricist’s reluctance to reach grand conclusions until the necessary preparatory studies are done. Conquest has elsewhere derided this production of specialised studies as useless and unimportant. One can sympathise with a reader’s frustration at the inability of some authors (including myself) to make quick and sweeping assertions and to provide politically useful answers. But since I believe that precise information and careful scientific understanding are more valuable than simple answers, I am glad that most historians – and cancer researchers for that matter – follow this method and not Conquest’s.
Finally, I am saddened and disappointed that Conquest has chosen to reduce a productive debate to the level of personal attack. He now gratuitously complains that he reviewed my book ‘not quite as badly as it deserved’ and writes that I am not a qualified scholar. It is of course easier to cry ‘perversity’ than it is to explain and interpret new evidence. For many reasons, I regret that, in Conquest’s eyes, my social-science training and approach disqualify me from the field as he understands it. But, after all, not everyone can be a poet.
J. Arch Getty
University of California, Riverside