Extinction Rebellion leader’s Holocaust comments are wrong — and bad for Climate Action
“The fact of the matter is, millions of people have been killed in vicious circumstances on a regular basis throughout history…They went to the Congo in the late 19th century and decimated it… “[the Holocaust was] almost a normal event…just another fuckery in human history.”
These were the words of the Extinction Rebellion leader Roger Hallam in an interview to the German publication Die Zeit this week. Why is it that in saying these things Hallam has been disowned by the German branch of his own organisation and seen the German publisher of his book withdraw support?
The Holocaust was unique. To place it in a historical context where it must compete in a league table of ‘number of deaths’ is to misunderstand its importance. Yes, it is vital to understand that there was a long road that led to the Holocaust. But it is not comparable to the history of the slaughter of occupation or the atrocities of colonialism that are written on the pages of even the first history books. It is not even comparable to nuclear weapons which, if used again, could destroy every individual on the planet. Why is the Holocaust different?
The missing link is Hate. Hate fuelled the Holocaust. Hate brought the inventions of the nation-state and the industrial revolution together to design precisely the mechanised process where the Jewish people as a group were to be exterminated. This process was so Hateful that it took priority even if it meant diverting time and resources away from wars on two fronts against the allied military forces of the world, destroyed German society, economy and even the nation itself. The Holocaust was a prioritised and mechanised Hate.
Hallam cites the atrocities of Belgium in the Congo. Why did that happen? Belgium’s desperation to be a world empire and secure Africa’s natural resources, primarily. At the Berlin Conference in 1885, where the Congo was confirmed as in possession of Belgium, the racism on show did not argue for mechanised death factories with the single goal of the annihilation of a single people. The atmosphere at the Berlin Conference was actually quite paternal, not hateful. They thought Europe would be a Christian and civilising force on Africa, and Belgium’s priority was to beef up national pride and its economy. Racism, torture and death were the tools to extract these goals.
Hallam would have done better to cite the Atlantic Slave Trade which brought great wealth to Europe and what became the United States of America. Slavery was inhumane and driven by a racist hierarchy view of the world, where the lowest humans became marketable commodities. But Hitler’s Third Reich did not see the Jewish people as commodities, believing instead they merited only death. This is the bursting Hate that not only yearned for the annihilation of the Jewish people but asked ‘How can we prioritise to make the annihilation more efficient?’ This idea is articulated by Hannah Arendt in her report of the trial of Holocaust architect Adolf Eichmann. She called it the ‘banality of evil.’
Furthermore, Hallam goes on to criticise Germany for ‘paralysis’ in the face of learning lessons from its historical memory. Anyone who believes Germany is not a model for how to face your history should visit the ‘Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe’ and its underground ‘Place of Information’ which dominates the centre of the capital. Compared to Belgium, Portugal, Britain, Spain, France and the United States, Germany is a model for how to face your past honestly and learn from it.
Even if Hallam was right and the Holocaust was merely another horrible event of history then he serves only to undermine further his argument for climate action. To assume this lazy contortion of the mind requires a view that homogenises history and normalises its events as endlessly similar and therefore inevitable — even repeating. Climate change would, therefore, require nothing drastic or radical because it is viewed as inevitable and simply the next thing down the line of History, a force against which our action is futile.
Extinction Rebellion has done well to accelerate responses to the Climate Emergency. It is indeed grave for the world and could prove to be the most destructive process known in human history. But it is not a creation of Hate. It is driven by economics, politics, vested interests, lobbying, selfishness and the failure of science communication. To compare it to the Holocaust reinforces negative stereotypes of environmentalists as conspiracy theorists operating in the fringes of society who are ultimately unserious or unfit for decision-making. Worst, it reflects the movement’s primary weakness — the inherent tension between its call to action and the normal lives that make up mainstream society, where no positive vision exists for what the future will look like.