Sweden, the Holocaust, and the persistence of national stereotypes
The trouble with most people, a wit is supposed to have commented, isn't the things that they don't know, but that so much of what they do know isn't true. I thought of this quotation while reading a story in today's on-line edition of the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz
The study, which incidentally was done in Sweden, is only the latest of a series of revelations that cast doubt on much of the conventional wisdom regarding the Holocaust era, most of them in a negative direction. I am personally most familar with Italy, which has an image as having been largely hospitable to Jews in the Fascist era--an image that, sadly, is not always consonant with the truth. Thus, while a relatively small portion of Italian Jews died in the Holocaust ("only" 20 percent,) this had a lot to do with the Germans' late start (fall 1943) and the timely arrival of the Allies and was only partially due to assistance from the Italian population as is commonly believed. Moreover the Italian Race Laws, which were enacted in 1938 and excluded Jews from Italian schools, universities, and many kinds of employment--as well as preventing "mixed" marriages and other offenses to racial hierarchy--were enforced with far more severity than is usually admitted, as Michele Sarfatti and others have pointed out in some detail (I also have an upcoming book on the subject). The whitewashing of this era reached a sort of peak, or perhaps nadir, in the movie "Life Is Beautiful" which portrayed a Jewish mother and child as somehow surviving Auschwitz in a work brigade. In fact the Jews of Rome arrived at Auschwitz on a Saturday (Shabbat) afternoon and nearly all, certainly the women and children, were dead a few hours later.
The Italian case is only one example of how postwar politics affect the perception of prewar and wartime realities. For example, the Netherlands have a reputation for great tolerance, but had an even more dubious record than Italy: there were a large number of Dutch Nazis and the deportations were accomplished with a very small number of German troops. (Anne Frank was betrayed by Dutch people, not Germans, as is commonly believed.) By contrast France, which is universally reviled for antisemitism, had a rather mixed if hardly inspiring record, the outcome depending on time and place and whether French or "foreign" Jews were involved. Misperceptions also persist with respect to religion: while the Catholic Church is rightly condemned for not doing more to prevent the Holocaust, the record of the German Protestant churches was in fact far worse, as numerous studies have demonstrated.
The point is not that everyone is an antisemite, but that one has to be very careful about letting today's politics dictate one's understanding of past events, or letting essentialist stereotypes take the place of critical analysis. In my research on Italy, I have found that people's behavior toward the Jews depended more on their institutional interests (the Interior as opposed to the Finance Ministry, the judiciary as opposed to the bureaucracy, and so on) than on their ethnic or class status and perhaps even their level of personal antisemitism. I suspect that this was equally true of (say) South Africa under apartheid, the American South under the Jim Crow laws, etc. This is not to say that racism is not evil or that their are no moral choices to be made under a racist regime. But the choices were complex and difficult, and easy characterizations about "good" or "bad" nationalities merely recreate the evil we wish to prevent.