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PERSPECTIVE ON RACE HATRED : For Gentiles, Too, the Holocaust Is Never to Be Forgotten : This singular crime is not a Jewish problem but a European problem, the apex of centuries of cross-cultural hatreds.

January 31, 1994|THOMAS KENEALLY | Thomas Keneally, author of the book "Schindler's List," is a Distinguished Professor in UC Irvine's department of English and comparative literature.

The great irony is that people discover race hate the way lovers discover love. It always seems utterly new and fresh to the hater, who like the lover feels that he has invented the emotion. And like love, race hate always expresses itself in the same cliches uttered as if the hater had discovered the principles of the universe. "They take our jobs." "They're everywhere." "They lust after our women." "They're just too damn different."

Racism is as human as love. In defining ourselves, the tribe we belong to, its mores, we are tempted to believe in the inferiority of the culture and mores of other groups. Prejudice is the hairy backside of what we all need: a sense of identity. Sometimes, the more grand the cultural identity, the greater is the temptation to racism. The officers of the Einsatzgruppen, the SS killing squads, all loved their Mozart and their Goethe.

Often, particularly in America, race hate or group hate seems rootless, as in the now famous case of the two young men who attacked a Vietnamese stroller in Laguna Beach because they thought he was gay. It did not seem that the young men had any measurable reason, any damage they could point to or quantify, to explain why they wanted to beat the hell out of either Asians or gays. Did America's war experiences provide them with a primitive spur? The AIDS epidemic? A long bow to draw to believe that their own immune systems would somehow be strengthened by assaulting a perhaps-gay Vietnamese beach-walker.

We often righteously sneer at the racial and religious violence in Northern Ireland and in the Balkans, but hate in both these cases is based on versions of history and measurable blood spilled in the past. There is more than legend to what the Serbs and Croatians did to each other since the Middle Ages, and to what Bosnian Muslims may once have done under Turkish rule. Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland can similarly point to historic massacres, even though they may be written too simple-mindedly into their respective maps of the world and their folk songs. In all cases, the hate is merely augmented rather than caused by religious difference. But at least the Northern Irish Catholics can point to very real injustices and miseries they have suffered. Protestants can point to their own heap of bodies, the real fear of IRA gunmen and of being absorbed into a Republic of Eire in which their civil rights may be curtailed for the sake of Catholic doctrine.

Race hate in America is not often based on any real disadvantage suffered by the hater. It is based on stereotypes or rumor. But that's all the serpent in the gut needs to start secreting its poison.

Over every question of race or group hate lies the shadow of the Holocaust, and for the moment the Holocaust questions are associated with Steven Spielberg's film of my book. As a Gentile, an Australian of Irish Catholic background, I have no hesitation in saying that the Holocaust should be talked about again and again and should not be forgotten. The reason is that the Holocaust is the most extreme version of rootless race hate in European history. Classic European anti-Semitism was based more on the idea that the Jews had killed Christ and were engaged in an anti-European philosophic and financial conspiracy than on any measurable harm done to Europe. No one could point to Jewish massacres of Christians, though in Poland and Germany vague but intense hate was able to be engineered into blaming Jews for the economic problems of both countries. But who could say, my mother was raped by a Jew, my father hanged by one?

The SS mastered the ultimate challenge of genocide: If you get the hated group where you want them--behind wire--how do you ensure that your now- perfected kingdom isn't sullied by too many corpses lying around and giving mute evidence of what happened to them? It's a question of processing the hated group. The Nazis devised the most bureaucratic, most extreme, most technological means of doing that. No question that the Cambodian tyrant Pol Pot would have loved to have been able to organize such methods to punish those of his own people who lacked "political correctness." No question that the tyrant Mengistu of Ethiopia would have loved to have been able to apply a final solution to the Eritreans of the Horn of Africa. But the Nazis really did it, and they were Europeans.

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