Wolfgang Knorr – Are we allowed to compare the climate catastrophe to the Holocaust?

Standing up against the authoritarian backlash

Wolfgang Knorr is a climate scientist, consultant for the European Space Agency and guest researcher at the Department of Geography and Ecosystem Science, Lund University


Four years ago Roger Hallam, proponent of nonviolent civil disobedience against climate apathy by the elites, co-founder of Extinction Rebellion and initiator of Insulate Britain and lately Just Stop Oil, referred to the Holocaust as “just another fuckery in human history”. Why he was wrong is best explained here, and he has later apologised for his remarks. But now, the spectre of climate activists reportedly supporting antisemitism is back. This time, it was Greta Thunberg who drew the fire. In a post in solidarity with the besieged Palestinian civilians in Gaza she, so the reporting, was referring to at least one Palestinian organisation that had glorified the Hamas attacks. Her standing up for Palentinians has sparked protests by Israeli environmentalists, accusing her of one-sided views, and the Israeli government has announced that they will remove Greta from Israeli school books. The background to this: around 1400 dead as the result of the Hamas attacks on civilians in Israel, followed by  almost 6000 deaths until now as a result of the Israeli bombardment of civilians in over-crowded Gaza. The brutal killings have opened up old wounds on the side, and not only, of the Israelis, documented by frequent references to “the darkest day in Jewish history since the end of the Holocaust”, or “the most Jews slaughtered in a single day since the Holocaust.”

Now this is a difficult topic, and I want to make it absolutely clear that I empathise with both sides in this conflict. There is wounding, there is outrage, and there is anger, and some of that anger creates again violence in an endless circle. And there are extra-ordinary gestures of humanity by Israeli victims and their relatives, too.

What I am more interested in is the reaction outside of those two countries or groups. The German state television ZDF, for example, titled on its web site: “Greta Thunberg causes outrage with her appeal for solidarity with Palestinians. Critics accuse her of trivialising the situation – and see her movement going down ‘antisemitic aberrations’’”. In other words, an outlet funded by the German public ties the climate movement founded by Greta Thunberg to antisemitism. The article that follows exclusively criticises Thunberg, and fails to carry any voices in her support. The Jewish young person very obviously in support of the Palestinian cause shown on the offending image posted by Greta and included in the article does not seem to warrant any comment.

This is important for various reasons. First, Germany is the country in which, by a long margin, the media most often vilify climate activists as “terrorists”. Second, Germany is the country that perpetrated the Holocaust, so it was our people (me being German myself) who inflicted the initial wound, and that wound still seems to contribute to the cycle of violence. But instead of contributing to the healing, German politicians and media seem to have collectively agreed to falsely equate criticism of Israel with antisemitism, in flagrant violation of their historical responsibility. In the process they fuel more racism and hatred in their own country, both against Palestinians whose basic rights to free speech are being systematically denied by authorities, and against Jews living and working in Germany, who experience a rise of the real neo-nazi antisemitism in response. On social media, this perverse form of “philosemitism” has reached such absurdity that a German columnist attacked the Jewish daughter of a Holocaust survivor, academic and social scientist working on climate justice, as an “insane antisemitic liar”. In this current climate of extreme authoritarian conformism and thought control, the terms “terrorist” and “antisemite” have become almost interchangeable.

What filters through now is that, while much of the reaction against Roger Hallam’s Holocaust comparison was genuine and carried by real empathy for the victims, some of it was not more than faux solidarity driven by self-righteousness, and that self-righteousness is now re-surfacing again, ready to attack the climate movement.

What we face is another round in the long fight against climate action carried out by the elites, and therefore there is actually no choice other than to bring the issue to the fore, and openly discuss how deep seated wounds affect the way we respond to the climate crisis, which includes openly discussing what lessons we must learn from the Holocaust. It is true, we should never compare and weigh the suffering of some against those of others, because it devalues the victims and rationalises their immediate experience. But in this case, I believe it can, if done right, be a valuable exercise to help us get out of a state of denying the enormity of the threat. Just as a totally honest discussion would enormously benefit those German media folk and politicians who seem to be in complete denial of their own historical responsibility. It is this form of deep rooted denial that now puts all of humanity in peril.

In the end, the most valuable message to be carried by such a comparison will not be whether the vast and unspeakable amounts of dead that a full-scale climate related societal breakdown could cause would be victims being killed according to some plan, or how many victims there could be, but what is happening right now in the face of such an existential threat, with most of the potential victims in countries that have barely contributed to the crisis.

As the eminent climate scientist Hans Joachim Schellnhuber put it, we need the voices of the protesters, of the non-experts, because they are “less hesitant to cry wolf”. But when those most valuable voices are now being suppressed in a cycle of increasing authoritarianism, we know from history that this can turn out to mark the beginning of the descent into barbarity.

Footnote: as you may have noticed, the title of this article by itself expresses the current climate of self-censorship, because it asks for permission to speak, or even to think. The irony is not an oversight.

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