'THE HOLOCAUST INDUSTRY'
New York City
Christopher Hitchens is correct to point out that Norman Finkelstein's book The Holocaust Industry has enjoyed a great deal of success in Europe, particularly in Germany, while it has been given short shrift in the United States ["Minority Report," Sept. 18/25]. What he fails to note, however, is that as a work of scholarship, Finkelstein's book is all but worthless. Finkelstein sees Holocaust reparations as part of an ideological apparatus by which avaricious Jews oppress American blacks, Palestinians and others. This lunatic thesis does indeed appear to have struck a chord in certain right-wing quarters in Germany and Switzerland and also in certain left-wing quarters in the United States and England. It is also why his book has been harshly dismissed by reviewers in this country and why, in my article in the September issue of Commentary, "Holocaust Reparations--A Growing Scandal," I was right to lump him with the Holocaust deniers and others on the far fringes of intellectual life.
New York City
Christopher Hitchens is mistaken in his criticism of recent litigation aimed at forcing Swiss banks and German corporations to return property stolen from victims of Nazi persecution. I fear that his view of the Holocaust litigation has been distorted by the unfortunate antics of a single lawyer, Edward Fagan, whose blatant self-promotion and single-minded pursuit of fees obscure a remarkable judicial achievement. Since I am serving as court-appointed lead counsel in the Swiss banks case, and as one of the principal lawyers in the cases against German industry, let me try to set the record straight.
First, the Holocaust cases cannot fairly be described, in Hitchens's words, as efforts to use "dubious methods" to "reap vast sums from an already penitent state." In each of the cases, corporate defendants knowingly exploited Holocaust victims in order to reap unjust profits. For example, drawn by a 1934 statute promising Swiss bank secrecy, thousands of frightened depositors poured money into Swiss banks from all over Europe to shield their property from the Nazis. When World War II ended with vast numbers of the depositors dead at the hands of the Nazis, most Swiss banks, in what must be the greatest double-cross in banking history, declined to provide information to surviving family members about the possible existence of Holocaust-era accounts, claiming that the 1934 secrecy law forbade discussing the accounts without the permission of the depositor. The Swiss banks simply kept the Holocaust deposits for sixty years, while they systematically destroyed the deposit records. After several years of fiercely contested litigation, Crédit Suisse and UBS, the two largest surviving Swiss banks, finally agreed to a settlement of $1.25 billion, an amount that, in my opinion, barely scratches the surface of the stolen funds. But, with the passage of time and the destruction of the records relating to more than 2 million wartime accounts, it was the best we could do. Given his usual sensitivity to corporate double-dealing, I hope Hitchens reconsiders the Swiss bank cases. Would he really prefer that the banks get away scot-free?
Similarly, the cases against German industrial giants like Ford, Volkswagen, Siemens and Degussa sought to require German corporations that earned huge profits by employing slave labor during the war to disgorge those unjust profits to the forced workers. The corporate defendants in the German industry cases freely admit that they employed huge numbers of slave laborers under horrific conditions. But until the filing of the litigation, the companies refused to compensate slave laborers, arguing that it was the German government's duty to pay compensation. The government, however, argued that since the companies had reaped vast profits from the use of slaves, it was German industry's duty to pay. While the two sides played "Alphonse, Gaston" for sixty years, nothing was done for the forced workers. As a direct result of the negotiations aimed at settling the litigation, German industry and government have finally agreed to establish a German Foundation, with assets of $5.2 billion, to compensate the slave laborers. Again, would Hitchens rather see the German companies get away with profiting from slave labor?
Hitchens's second major error is to assume that the recent Holocaust litigation was exclusively, or even primarily, designed to benefit Jews. Recognizing that the Holocaust is not exclusively a Jewish tragedy, the lawyers (most of whom are Jewish) sought to assure that the litigation benefited all victims. The leading cases against Ford, Siemens, VW and Degussa that led to the formation of the German Foundation were brought on behalf of non-Jewish Polish and Russian forced laborers. In fact, Jews will receive only 23 percent of the payments from the foundation, with more than three-quarters of the funds going to non-Jewish Holocaust victims. Similarly, the Swiss bank litigation is designed to benefit not only Jews but other victims or targets of Nazi persecution, including Jehovah's Witnesses, Sinti-Roma (Gypsies), gays and the disabled. The fact that Hitchens, ordinarily a careful writer, seems to believe that the litigation is designed to benefit Jews and only Jews speaks volumes about the need for clear discussion.
Finally, it's long past time to put the canard to rest that these cases seek to benefit from the agony of Holocaust victims without providing any real benefits to them. Every penny in the $1.25 billion Swiss bank case will go to Holocaust victims. The bulk of the money will go to the heirs of the original depositors, unless the destruction of records makes it impossible to locate them. The names of 26,000 account holders deemed probably linked to the Holocaust will be published this year. Significant distributions will also be made to surviving slave laborers and to the heirs of refugees barred from entering Switzerland because they were Jews. I only wish a similar sanction could be imposed on the United States for its identical refusal to accept desperate refugees from Nazi persecution. Substantial funds, in the form of food and medicine, will be distributed to the poorest survivors, especially the so-called double victims, who suffered under both Hitler and Stalin and who have been left out of reparations programs. In short, contrary to Hitchens's implication, there simply are no "Holocaust memorials" or payments to institutions. It all goes to people, with the exception of a modest grant to researchers to compile a complete, publicly available list of victims for posterity. Similarly, $4 billion will be distributed from the foundation to surviving slave and forced laborers. The remaining $1.2 billion will go to victims whose property was stolen or whose insurance policies were ignored. A Future Fund of $350 million will be set aside to support the principle of toleration.
It is neither fair nor accurate to characterize the lawyers as greedy. Lawyers worked extremely hard for years to develop novel legal theories and to uncover the facts sixty years after the events. Despite their enormous effort, more than half the lawyers in the Swiss bank cases have waived all fees. Those lawyers who are seeking fees, with the conspicuous and unfortunate exception of Edward Fagan, have filed modest requests. When the dust clears, I predict that the fees to all lawyers in the Swiss case will total less than 1 percent of the settlement figure and that Fagan will get just what he deserves--a small fraction of his absurd $4 million request. Similarly, the parties in the litigation leading to the formation of the German Foundation have agreed that the attorneys' fees in the more than fifty cases will total 1 to 1.25 percent of the settlement figure. That is, I believe, the lowest fee structure in history for comparable levels of success.
So, corporate malefactors have been forced to disgorge almost $6.5 billion to a wide range of Holocaust victims--Jew and non-Jew alike. Lawyers are charging about 1 percent, a mere fraction of their normal fee. Victims will get everything else under a scrupulously fair set of allocations and distributions. I'm happy to leave Hitchens to his concerns about the Holocaust. Reasonable people can differ passionately over how best to come to terms with Nazi barbarity. I ask only that he not allow his political beliefs to cloud his perception of efforts to provide a modicum of delayed justice to proven Holocaust victims who were the targets of corporate exploitation by real Holocaust profiteers.
Finally, the less said about Norman Finkelstein, the better. There has for years been an unfortunate strain of radical left-wing thought that has equated Israel with colonialism and has viewed the Israeli state as a pretext for the Western theft of Palestinian land. Since the memory of the Holocaust provides moral justification for the establishment of a Jewish homeland, even at the expense of the Palestinians, people like Finkelstein find the Holocaust an obstacle to their political views. Consequently, they seek to understate its horror, especially as applied to Jews. Unfortunately, their efforts to minimize the Holocaust are occasionally mirrored by an extremely small number of Jewish fanatics who view the Holocaust as an exclusively Jewish event and who seek to use the memory of the tragedy for short-term political and financial goals. When peace is achieved between a sovereign Palestinian state and a sovereign Israel, the political motives for minimizing the Holocaust will disappear. We can then get on with the necessity of seeking to understand a universal human tragedy of unimaginable dimensions that fell with particular severity on Jews.
GOD BLESS JOHN...
God bless John Leonard ["How a Caged Bird Learns to Sing," June 26]. God bless his tenacity in the service of talent and integrity and simple human intelligence. God bless his unsparing appreciation and defense of what is truthful and healing in art and science and that strange beast we humans call culture. God bless his outrage and his indignation and his unwavering horseshit-detector. Thank God for his painful awareness of just what's at stake in the midst of this swirl of pop and dot-com celebrity drool. Honor to his name for having the matchless courage to stand up for what anyone with an electrical charge on their brain knows is of immense importance to us all. Would that all men and women who aspire to the writing craft had such sand. Honor to the name of John Leonard. Honor and blessings on his name.
...AND GOD BLESS SEPARATION
Readers interested in learning more about church-state separation issues [Katha Pollitt, "Subject to Debate," Sept. 18/25] can contact the Freedom From Religion Foundation at PO Box 750, Madison, WI 53701; (608) 256-8900; www.ffrf.org.