One of the most grotesque distortions of Holocaust history is when those involved in the international arms trade use it to legitimize war and mass violence.
Perhaps the most egregious example was the visit of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte to Yad Vashem in September 2018. In 2016, Duterte declared his intention to conduct a mass murder campaign against alleged drug dealers and addicts in his country by comparing himself favorably to Hitler. By 2018, the Philippine state had murdered more than 10,000 people. Duterte was visiting Israel to buy weapons. Like all heads of states on formal visits to Israel, Duterte had to pass through Yad Vashem, Israel’s official memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. The absurdity of a Hitler-admiring mass murderer at Yad Vashem, during an arms shopping trip in Israel, was thus on full view for anyone to see.
The newest example of exploiting the Holocaust to benefit the Israeli arms trade is a book published last year with the financial support of Elbit Systems, the largest arms company in Israel. Decorated with the Elbit Systems logo and published in English and Bulgarian, The Bulgarian Army and the Rescue of Bulgaria’s Jews, 1941–1944 is by Dr. Dimitar Nedialkov, a professor at the Bulgarian Military Academy and a retired lieutenant colonel in Bulgaria’s air force. The book adds a new element to the Bulgarian state’s narrative of the rescue of Jews during World War II. This narrative emerged immediately after World War II, with the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, the Bulgarian King Boris III, and a number of politicians as the main heroes. Nedialkov now argues that it was actually the army that played the central role in this rescue plan—by forcing Jews into labor battalions, as an excuse for the state not to deport them to Nazi death camps.
Recent research on the war and the Holocaust in Bulgaria has fundamentally challenged the state’s rescue narrative: It shows that the Bulgarian state during World War II very much aimed for the forced removal of Jews from Bulgaria; that Bulgarian state authorities enthusiastically and brutally planned and carried out the arrest, plunder, and mass deportations of around 12,000 Jews from Bulgarian-occupied western Thrace and eastern Macedonia to Nazi death camps in March 1943 where the vast majority of them were murdered; and that the practice of forcing Jewish men to join labor battalions in the army actually began before the Nazi “final solution” and was part of a plan to leave Jews economically ruined, socially marginalized, and with no future in the country. It was therefore hardly surprising that around 40,000 of the 48,000 Jews who survived in Bulgaria during the war had left the country by the early 1950s—mostly to British Mandate Palestine (which became Israel after May 1948). In short, both the Bulgarian state narrative of rescue of Jews during World War II and Nedialkov’s book are forms of Holocaust distortion.
Recent research has also shown that the Bulgarian state persecuted and deported Jews as part of a broader design to create an ethno-national “Greater Bulgaria” that also targeted Greeks, Muslims, and Roma for exclusion and mass violence. The Bulgarian state treatment of ethnic and religious minorities was, in fact, violent to such an extent that in 1944 Raphael Lemkin—who coined the term “genocide” and was a major force behind the UN Genocide Convention—described in his extremely influential book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe the Bulgarian state’s assault against Greeks as “a real genocide policy” (p. 188).
Bulgaria’s state narrative of rescue of Jews during World War II is therefore Holocaust distortion within a broader historical distortion. Nedialkov’s new book adds fresh insult to that injury: The book presents no evidence for the argument that the Bulgarian army aimed to rescue Jews, and it completely erases the involvement of the Bulgarian army in atrocities such as the massacre of around 5,000 Greeks in and around the town of Drama in Bulgarian-occupied western Thrace in September 1941.
In a recent article in Haaretz Dr. Moshe Mossek, former chief archivist of Israel, and Dr. Shlomo Shealtiel, a scholar of Bulgarian Jews, exposed the book’s distortion in relation to Jews and wondered how “a respected Israeli company like Elbit Systems came to fund the book’s publication.” Jacky Vidal, chairperson of the Bulgarian Jewry Heritage House in Jaffa, Israel said “It is unperceivable and hurting that […] Elbit Systems helped publish a book that promotes this hallucinatory narrative.” The company, in response, published a brief statement only in Hebrew in the print edition of Haaretz that merely offered an apology “if someone was offended.”
Why indeed did Elbit Systems support this work of Holocaust distortion? And why did the company barely respond when exposed?
As during World War II, Bulgaria today is one of the most Romaphobic and Islamophobic countries in Europe, a state where Deputy Prime Minister Krasimir Karakachanov in 2019 could talk openly about “a complete program for the solution of the Gypsy problem” and where “Bulgarian authorities are beating, robbing, stripping, and using police dogs to attack Afghan and other asylum seekers and migrants, then pushing them back to Turkey without any formal interview or asylum procedure,” according to a recent Human Rights Watch report.
This is where Elbit Systems enters the story. In the past 20 years, the company has built a considerable market for its surveillance devices and weapons for use on and around border walls and fences, and more broadly against refugees. Elbit has, for instance, installed armed semiautonomous robots on the separation wall in Israel/Palestine, which an advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice has found to be illegal. It has also, to take another example, built dozens of surveillance towers in Arizona, along the US-Mexico border, which constitute severe violations of the rights of the Tohono O’odham Nation in the area and enhance US state violence at the border.
The Bulgarian government had scrapped a deal for military helicopters with Elbit Systems back in 2007. Now, it seems that Elbit Systems aims to reclaim its place in the Bulgarian arms market and may have supported Nedialkov’s revisionist and nationalistic book to gain a foothold in Bulgarian military procurement, with the increasingly militarized border fence with Turkey as a possible incentive.
Mossek and Shealtiel wrote that Elbit Systems is a “respected” company, but it is clear that it is respected primarily in the eyes of authorities engaged in state violence—state authorities, such as in Bulgaria, that are also engaged in using the Holocaust as a tool to distort and blur state violence, now also with the support and funding of Elbit Systems.
It is a horrible irony that Holocaust distortion is used today by an Israeli arms company to support its work with a violent state. It calls attention to a deep crisis in the project of global Holocaust memory and education, and it highlights the acute failure to realize the vow “Never Again.” But it also opens a window for us to identify and understand important historical and contemporary links between Holocaust distortion, racism, and xenophobia—and these may help us in the struggle against the mass violence that Elbit Systems enables and supports.