Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a man of simple means with strong religious beliefs. He repeated shocked the world last year by making blatantly anti-Jewish and anti-Israel remarks. First he called for Israel to be "wiped off the map" and then he questioned whether the Holocaust was simply a "myth" that the West "invented" so that it could establish the Jewish state "in the heart of the Islamic world."
Tehran now wants to host a conference ostensibly on the "scientific aspects" of the Holocaust. Ahmadinejad has called for an international debate on the matter that openly flirts with blatant anti-Semitism. Combined with Iran's controversial nuclear ambitions, the virulent rhetoric coming from the country's leader has many people concerned. SPIEGEL ONLINE spoke with renowned Holocaust historian Götz Aly about the implications of the Iranian government's course.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: The Iranian government is planning to hold a conference to discuss the Holocaust. Would you say there are deficits in how we have tried to come to terms with the destruction of the Jewish people during the Nazi era?
Götz Aly: Academics from all over the world have researched the Holocaust extremely thoroughly. The murder of the European Jews during the Second World War has been looked into with more closely than any other aspect of the 20th century. Naturally it goes without saying that we havent yet finished dealing with this topic, and that indeed its not even possible to. There will always be gaps and, faced with something as traumatic as this, each generation will inevitably have new questions to ask.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: The organizers of the conference want to invite, not just representatives of the conventional view of the Holocaust, but also those who doubt or deny that it happened, such as the revisionists Horst Mahler, Robert Faurisson from France and Israel Shamir, who is an Israeli of Russian origin.
Aly: The planned conference seems to me to demonstrate considerable political stubbornness. It doesnt have anything to do with academic historical research. A man like Mahler doesnt understand the first thing about the topic. Its just not good enough to be a professional know-it-all, and spread resentment. We will certainly not learn anything new about the Holocaust at this conference.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: It's supposed to examine the number of Jews murdered in Auschwitz.
Aly: This is something we need to be quite clear about: for a long time this number was exaggerated. Until 1989 there was an official sign in the former camp stating that four million people were killed in Auschwitz alone. Shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, as a result of work which I, and others, carried out, this figure was amended. Approximately a million people were murdered in Auschwitz. It was important to make this correction, but it doesnt change anything about the nature of the death camps.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Are there other examples of the facts being wrong?
Aly: The murder of the Sinti and Roma comes to mind. It has got to the point where even the German Resistance Memorial Center, under the academic auspices of Peter Steinbach, claims that 500,000 people from these groups were killed by the Nazis. That is a massive exaggeration. Another example is that it took almost 50 years in Germany, for it to be generally accepted that the German army committed terrible crimes during the war in eastern and southern Europe. It took decades for West and East Germany to reduce the number of people killed during the British bombing of Dresden from over 300,000 to a more realistic 30,000 to 40,000. And still, up until 10 years ago, the Sudeten German Association claimed that more than 400,000 Germans were killed when the Sudeten Germans were expelled from Bohemia and Moravia. On the Czech side, officials twisted the facts just as much, by speaking of a few thousand suicides. In the meantime the German-Czech Historians Commission has determined that between 15,000 and 40,000 people died during these expulsions.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: The Iranian leadership is hardly interested in such serious debates
Aly: Judging from what I know about the organizers, I have doubts about what they say the aim of the conference is. It seems they are more interested in supporting a political obsession than the academic search for truth.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Critics from Iran, for example from the Union of Muslim Journalists, have accused western countries of limiting freedom of opinion by having laws against denying the Holocaust. With this conference they want to offer historians a free and democratic platform.
Aly: As an historian I regard laws which forbid someone from denying anything as complete nonsense. In the same way that I believe that the law in Turkey which says the Armenian genocide never happened, is absurd. Laws against denying the Holocaust dont do anything anyway. You are always going to have a few crazy people who ignore the facts.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: So you agree with the Iranian critics?
Aly: Not at all. The laws they are talking about are futile. They dont threaten freedom of opinion. The danger of the Iranian conference is that it gives a few lunatics the opportunity to come into contact with a state which has a great deal of power to act on its ideological, and here in particular its anti-Semitic, obsessions. To this extent, we are talking about a completely different level, compared to when some crazed guy from the German nationalist NPD party claims that the Holocaust is a myth.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: An ideology of persecution is already part of Irans political program. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has repeatedly called for Israel to be removed from the Middle East. How should we deal with this policy?
Aly: As an historian, I am not really qualified to answer that. There are the usual political and military means. When you look at what is being concocted right now in Iran -- the nuclear policy can be seen as a complimentary part of this extremely aggressive stance towards Israel -- then the international community clearly has a duty to do something.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Iran accuses the Israelis of exploiting the Holocaust for their own means. The Institute for the Research and Study of Zionism in the holy city of Qom is instigating work on the implications of the Holocaust for the creation and legitimization of the Zionist regime. Is the virulent anti-Semitism in Iran not in reality anti-Zionism?
Aly: I am not so sure about that. For a long time the Arabic world stood out because it didnt take on European racial hatred. When you look at it historically, the Zionist idea can be classed as a reaction against European nationalism at the end of the 19th century. And of course the Nazi policy of extermination and the death of six million European Jews have provided another very concrete motivation for creating the state of Israel. I think its a legitimate desire for the surviving Jews, and in fact for all Jews, to avoid ever again slipping into the role of defenseless and helpless victims, by having their own militarized state. At any rate its a wish which seems plausible to any sensible and fair-minded person.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Ahmadinejad undermines his own credibility when he claims that the Holocaust is fiction. Is this not astonishing given that the Shoah is often glorified as a positive event in the Arab world?
Aly: Its impossible to combat obsessive historical revisionism using arguments and even the most basic logic. It is quite simply absurd to, on the one hand thank Hitlers Germany for the Holocaust -- which unfortunately does happen -- and then in the next breath say that the murder of six million Jews never took place. Its hard to understand how a state, which accepts aspects of modern life, is able to make obvious lunacy official national policy.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Would you suggest we write off the proposed Holocaust conference as nothing more than silliness?
Aly: Absolutely not. As far as Iran goes we are in the process of witnessing the political process of a states ideology being formed out of the prejudices which are widespread in every society. The result is resentment combined with the power of a state.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: How do you explain the heartlessness and brutality needed to aspire to the destruction of a country?
Aly: That is something which in Germany we know a fair bit about. Creating a universal enemy can serve as a politically uniting force for a country. This is particularly the case for states which are weak, badly led, highly corrupt and dont properly exploit their own economic opportunities. The concept of the enemy allows mass incitement to hatred to provide a diversion from the forces of modern life -- which is constantly demanding more specialization within society as well as greater flexibility.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: So Israel lends itself then to this purpose in the Middle East and beyond?
Aly: The concept of Israel as an enemy allows numerous Arab-Muslim governments in the Middle East and south-western Asia to deflect attention at home from their own incompetence.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: If you were invited would you take part in the conference in Iran?
Aly: No. We should consider organizing a conference, made up of Arabic and Israeli intellectuals and Holocaust researchers from all over the world, as a reaction against the event in Iran.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Who should set it up?
Aly: The European Union could do it. As well as discussing the Holocaust, other aspects of history, which have led to hate, death and the denial of millions of peoples right to exist, could also be dealt with. What is happening right now in Iran is not all that alien to us, considering our European history. We only have to go back 60, 70 or 90 years, and we are confronted with exactly what today we see as ludicrous and insane.
The interview was conducted by Alexander Schwabe