Opinion | From a Respected Holocaust Historian to a Genocide Denier
Once respected for his research on Auschwitz, Israeli historian Gideon Greif now promotes falsehoods, propaganda and pseudo-scholarship in the service of ultranationalist Serb genocide deniers. It is a deeply troubling story
It takes an acute disconnect from reality to compare genocide with the cancellation of an award. To assert such a grotesque and wholly unconscionable equivalence would suggest a delusional mindset, one that perversely places a perceived slight to one’s outsized, but evidently hyper-fragile, ego in the same category and on the same level as mass murder.
Such a scenario seems unlikely, even far-fetched. And yet this is precisely the bizarre case study presented by Gideon Greif, the Israeli academic who, once upon a time, did significant researchinto a particular aspect of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Nazi death camp.
After the German government let it be known that it was reconsidering a decision to honor him with its highest civil award, Greif told Haaretz that, "I think that Holocaust remembrance is under attack – not just me personally – so I can’t imagine that the German government will even consider not giving me the medal, which I deserve, because this will be interpreted as a denial of the Holocaust."
Greif’s aggrieved utterance was not a one-off. When the German Foreign Ministry finally pulled the plug on awarding him the Order of Merit, he doubled down with an even more over the top analogy that bordered on the profane. "It’s a black stain on Germany," he expostulated. "They are murdering the Holocaust victims for a second time."
Greif went on to blame "Islamic Brotherhood [sic] organizations" for conducting an antisemitic smear campaign against him, resulting in the cancellation.
It apparently never occurred to him that the real reason why no one in their right mind – outside ultranationalist Bosnian Serb and Serb circles – wants to be publicly associated with him, let alone bestow a medal of any kind on him, is that he has voluntarily and eagerly come to epitomize the denial of the genocide that took place in and around the eastern Bosnian town of Srebrenica in July 1995.
A brief review of the relevant underlying facts may be in order.
It is July 11, 1995. In less than two weeks, paramilitary troops of the Bosnian Serb proto-state known as Republika Srpska will murder between 7,000 and 8,000 Bosniak men and boys, some as young as 12, who had sought shelter in the Srebrenica enclave, which the United Nations Security Council had designated as "a safe area which should be free from any armed attack or other hostile act."
From that same "safe area," Bosnian Serb forces also forcibly and viciously expelled around 25,000 Bosniak women, children, and elderly men.
In a succession of judgments, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia determined that this massacre constituted genocide pursuant to the U.N. Genocide Convention. In 2007, the International Court of Justice held that "the acts committed at Srebrenica…were committed with the specific intent to destroy in part the group of the Muslims of Bosnia-Herzegovina as such; and accordingly that these were acts of genocide."
Categorically rejecting these findings, far-right Bosnian Serb ethnonationalists such as Milorad Dodik, the Bosnian Serb member of the tripartite Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina and a former president and prime minister of Republika Srpska, have spent the past 26-and-a-half years repudiating any suggestion that what took place at Srebrenica constituted a genocide. They were joined in this unholy campaign of historical falsification by acolytes in Serbia and elsewhere, including the 2019 Austrian Nobel Literature Prize laureate Peter Handke.
Enter Gideon Greif.
In 2019, the Republika Srpska authorities tapped him to head a purportedly "independent" commission of inquiry tasked with investigating "the sufferings of all peoples in the Srebrenica region between 1992 and 1995."
Greif’s selection as chairman of this commission, while cynical in the extreme, did not come as a surprise. To the dismay of responsible historians, Greif has repeatedly overstated the number of Serb victims at the World War II Croatian death camp complex of Jasenovac, often referred to as the "Auschwitz of the Balkans," where, according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, between 77,000 and 99,000 Serbs, Jews, Roma, and others were murdered.
In 2019 alone, Greif astonishingly multiplied that estimate ten-fold, setting the number of that camp’s victims at "at least 800,000," and "at least 700,000." That same year, he was appointed a full professor at the University of Belgrade.
Greif’s background as an Israeli, Jewish Holocaust historian was presumably intended to provide cover for his commission’s anticipated – if not guaranteed from the outset – exoneration of Bosnian Serbs of the charge of genocide.
He fulfilled this expectation on steroids. In July 2021, under the guise of pseudo-scholarship and without any discernible pretense of objectivity, Greif and his commission issued a more than 1,000-page report that single-mindedly denies that a genocide was perpetrated at Srebrenica.
The Greif Report is a cringe-inducing abomination that not only blatantly ignores the various exhaustive, persuasive, and consistent ICTY trial and appellate judgments, but brazenly engages in the age-old rationalization of blaming the victims for the racial, ethnic, or religiously motivated decimation committed against them.
After submitting the report to Republika Srpska’s president and prime minister, Greif left no doubt as to why he had been given his starring role on the commission in the first place. "I am Jewish," he explained in an interview on Republika Srpska television, discussing Srebrenica. "I know what genocide means…Nobody can tell me what genocide is, and this event was no genocide. And we proved it."
During that television appearance, Greif also proclaimed that the number of those murdered at Srebrenica "does not exceed 3,714 victims." This figure (which he is now trying somewhat desperately to walk back) just happens to track – by sheer coincidence, I suppose – the equally false and equally unsubstantiated narrative put forward by Dodik for more than a decade: That only 3,500 Bosniaks were killed at Srebrenica.
Small wonder, then, that there was an outcry of protest this past November when it became known that Greif was about to be feted with an award. "That should never have happened," said Michael Brand, a member of the German Bundestag. "After all, Gideon Greif doesn’t spread his lies about the genocide in Bosnia in secret, quite the opposite, and that’s part of the strategy of denial and relativization."
Someone had clearly failed to do the necessary due diligence and had not taken the time to look into Greif’s activities beyond his Auschwitz-related work from two decades ago. A simple Google search could have saved the German Foreign Ministry considerable public embarrassment.
And that’s when the woeful Greif seriously jumped the shark, as it were, by wrapping himself in a pathetic self-pitying mantle of martyrdom. While he studiously denies the Srebrenica genocide, he considers not getting a medal as tantamount to genocide. Go figure.
You know that something has gone seriously awry when an erstwhile "useful idiot" not only ceases to be useful but, on the contrary, has turned into increasingly malodorous political ballast. I rather suspect that by now, Milorad Dodik and his Republika Srpska colleagues in Banja Luka must be experiencing a severe case of buyer’s remorse. If I were in their shoes, I’d ask for my money back.
(c) 2022, Haaretz