Intelligent People Need Some Pessimism About Iran and Bomb

Two unexpected inquiries prompted this column. The first was from a Dutch journalist researching the fate of the courageous reporters

Two unexpected inquiries prompted this column. The first was from a Dutch journalist researching the fate of the courageous reporters and editors of the anti-Hitler newspaper, the Munich Post. I’d devoted a chapter to them and their desperate struggle to alert the world to Hitler’s true intentions in the years before he came to power in my book, Explaining Hitler. They were the first to expose the fact that the Nazi Party had a plan for a “Final Solution” (a plan that used that very phrase—in German Endlösung—in a document that the Munich Post obtained and published on Dec. 9, 1931. Needless to say, the world was indifferent to the report, and their efforts were, for the most part, forgotten after the Final Solution was effected. Even in postwar Germany, where they should have been heroes, they were in fact an inconvenient reminder that the German people could have known Hitler’s genocidal intentions even before he became Führer—and until my book was published there, they had been largely lost to memory. The Dutch journalist was having trouble—as I did—determining what became of them after Hitler came to power.

The Dutch journalist’s inquiry seemed relevant in light of the ongoing genocide in Darfur. Back in 1931, only a few knew and the process hadn’t begun. In Darfur, the killing has been documented extensively by journalists and yet is still proceeding apace despite ineffectual efforts by the international community. Which—along with Cambodia and Rwanda—suggests that not only have no lessons been learned from the Final Solution, but the world is now willing to tolerate mass murder with what seems like a kind of numbed equanimity.

The second inquiry was a call I received from a producer working on a documentary for the BBC (and the Sundance Channel here). He wanted to talk to me about one of the most controversial columns I’ve done for The Observer, the one that explored the possibility of a “second Holocaust,” that first appeared in April 15, 2002.

In that column—which was written amidst the worst moments of the Second Intifada and the world’s indifference in the guise of moral equivalence—I’d made clear that the real threat of a “second Holocaust” was not from suicide bombers in Israel, but rather from a nuclear weapon. I had in mind the remarks made in 2001 by the Iranian mullah Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was looking on the bright side of a nuclear exchange between Iran and Israel when Iran got the bomb.

Mr. Rafsanjani didn’t seem troubled about an Israeli nuclear retaliation to a prospective Iranian nuclear attack, he said. Iran might lose several million people, leaving more than a billion Muslims alive, while the five million Jews of Israel would be in all likelihood completely exterminated in a second Holocaust. Fair trade, he seemed to think. The prospect of a second Holocaust coming to be in this fashion didn’t seem utterly unlikely, I suggested four years ago.

The very mention of the possibility nonetheless provoked attacks on my column. Pessimism! Panic! (Responses to my Observer piece can be found in the anthology Those Who Forget the Past: The Question of Anti-Semitism, Random House, 2004, edited by yours truly, with a brilliant afterword by Cynthia Ozick, also published in The Observer, May 10, 2004.)

So how does my “second Holocaust” warning look now, four years after it was first published? Three differences: The current Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, doesn’t believe there was a first Holocaust—but despite his Holocaust denial, he seems eager to bring one about, regardless of how it’s numbered.

Back in 2001, Hashemi Rafsanjani was not president of the Iranian state. Now it is the president of Iran speaking, calling for Israel’s extermination. Now, as The New Yorker’s Jeffrey Goldberg reports in an important op-ed in The Times (March 14) “the Iranian regime … parades Shahab-3 missiles [capable of reaching Israel] through Tehran draped in banners that [echoing Ahmadinejad] declare, ‘We will wipe Israel from the map.’” (It should also be pointed out—though few media have—that Israel was not the only country President Ahmadinejad looked to “wipe … from the map.” He was pleased to tell his countrymen that “a world without America” is also “attainable,” presumably by the same means.)

The second difference, four years later, is that Iran is much closer to having the nuclear weapon that, as Mr. Rafsanjani put it in 2001, “would not leave anything in Israel.” Does anyone doubt that the pathetically ineffectual response of the international community, the U.N. and the International Atomic Energy Agency virtually guarantees that Iran will have atomic weapons within a decade, if they don’t have them within a year?

The third difference: The world has once again demonstrated its failure to react to the prospect of actual genocide, not merely genocidal threats. In what may not be a coincidence, Mr. Goldberg’s op-ed appeared on the same page that day with another of Nicholas Kristof’s admirably urgent but despairing columns on the genocide in Darfur, which he described as expanding into neighboring Chad—a column that drew parallels to Hitler’s and Rwanda’s and the world’s tolerance of them. (Mr. Kristof suggested that those concerned go to

Oh, yes—one more difference from the circumstances that obtained four years ago when I wrote my “second Holocaust” column: Iran now has a virtual subsidiary in power adjacent to Israel in the form of the terrorist entity Hamas, whose charter calls for the extermination of the Jews of Israel.

Some remain untroubled. There was the over-optimistic argument by M.I.T. professor Barry R. Posen in an earlier Times op-ed that the world can live with a nuclear-armed Iran, and there are those like Mr. Posen who still believe that Israel’s nuclear capability will be a “deterrent” to nuclear attack.

It’s an argument refuted by Daniel Goldhagen in an important new essay in The New Republic, in which he states that Mr. Posen “ignored [the] most obvious and devastating” counterargument to “deterrence,” which is that “[w]ith messianic leaders awaiting a promised martyrs’ place in paradise for slaughtering Islam’s enemies, deterrence and the cold war doctrine of mutually assured destruction become meaningless.” Such “rational” calculations don’t apply to those who would welcome the martyrdom that might accompany any destruction of Israel.

The further refutation of deterrence as a guarantee against a second Holocaust is that all the Iranians need to do is supply one of the bombs they will surely possess in the near future to a terrorist group not linked to any particular state. A group based in Europe, for instance.

Mr. Goldhagen, the author of Hitler’s Willing Executioners, has become one of the most important and eloquent voices indicting the world’s indifference to Iran’s explicit call for a second Holocaust for the Jews. I recommend the essays on the subject he’s written, which have appeared in the Los Angeles Times and The New York Sun.

It’s ironic that his important recent essay, “The New Threat,” in which he deals with the Iranian-bomb issue, appears in The New Republic, since, as I recall, it was some fellow in The New Republic who attacked my essay on the threat of a “second Holocaust” and scoffed at the idea that there was cause for alarm, misrepresenting the chief concern of my piece (the genocidal threat of nukes) as a response merely to the lesser threat of suicide bombers, and downplaying the Iranian threat because of Israel’s “spectacular” nuclear deterrent. In fact, he added, Jews today are the “luckiest Jews who ever lived,” apparently mistaking his own privileged situation and those of American Jews for those imperiled in the Jewish state, the ones whose situation—living in the shadow of Iranian nuclear genocidal ambitions—I was writing about.

And yet here is Mr. Goldhagen in The New Republic, quoting the same genocidal words of Hashemi Rafsanjani that I had quoted in my introduction to Those Who Forget the Past, and taking them very seriously.

It’s interesting to look back at some of the other reactions to my “second Holocaust” piece and the various other forms of denial (“second Holocaust denial”?) it inspired. There was what you might call the geographic denial: the professor who appeared with me on The Charlie Rose Show and sought to deny any cause for alarm by saying that there was no chance for a second Holocaust for Jews in Europe, thus misrepresenting the location of the danger. And there was the metro columnist here who, in a muddled way, seemed to imply that I was speaking of a second Holocaust in America (a ridiculous distortion). Few wanted to address the real source of the threat, Iran, a threat which I think even they would now agree has grown even greater—although they have, so far as I can tell, remained silent in the face of it. I wonder why.

Recently, the Wyman Institute (, a valuable organization that seeks to educate the public in the spirit of David S. Wyman (the author of The Abandonment of the Jews, the book that detailed the silence and indifference of the world to the news available of Hitler’s ongoing Holocaust), asked the Newspaper Association of America to address the failure of the journalistic profession, and of newspaper associations in general, to offer sanctuary to Jewish journalists who were refugees from Nazi Germany—and to give Professor Laurel Leff, author of Buried by the Times, time to speak on the subject to its convention.

As one of the signatories of the letter, I was gratified by the very favorable response of the N.A.A. to the petition, which was signed by some 80 journalists and journalism school officials (including Nicholas Lemann of Columbia’s journalism school). It’s a sign, perhaps, that something can be learned from history.

I should point out I’m not arguing for any particular solution, military or not. I’m not sure there is a solution. People don’t like to hear that. It’s an American heresy to believe there’s not a solution for every problem. But as a historical pessimist (influenced, I’m sure, by the experience of writing Explaining Hitler), I tend to believe (as I wrote in the run-up to the decision to invade Iraq) that whatever the course of action chosen, “things are likely to get worse.” But pessimism is not the same as fatalism (as that New Republic fellow once cogently argued); pessimism is a form of realism. Still, I’d certainly like my pessimism to be proven wrong. Intelligent People Need  Some Pessimism  About Iran and Bomb