The American novelist and essayist Louis Begley was in Frankfurt’s Old Opera House earlier this month to promote the German edition of his new book Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters. The English edition is first scheduled for release in late August. Oddly enough, however, a German translation has already been published. The German edition bears a different title: The Dreyfus Affair: Devil’s Island, Guantánamo, a Historical Nightmare [Der Fall Dreyfus: Teufelsinsel, Guantánamo, Alptraum der Geschichte].
The German title is not only grammatically puzzling. Why the emphasis on Dreyfus’s place of imprisonment — an incidental feature of the Dreyfus Affair? And what is the “historical nightmare”? And what does Guantánamo have to do with it? An article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) on Begley’s Frankfurt appearance makes somewhat clearer the significance of these associations. Referring to the book, FAZ author Edo Reents writes:
Relentlessly and with a pressing intensity, Begley lists the anti-Semitic incidents that took place in France during and after the Dreyfus Affair. He then moves from this to the American Islamophobia of the Bush government, which, inasmuch as it illegally imprisoned and tortured people, essentially behaved no differently than the National Socialists.
The passage is remarkable in that it weaves together two of the favorite idées fixes that have occupied Germany’s chattering classes in recent years; the famous “Bush=Hitler” meme and the notion that “Islamophobia” is, in effect, the new form of anti-Semitism. (On the latter meme, see my earlier PJM report here.) In so doing, it is not really Guantánamo as Devil’s Island that the passage invokes, but rather Guantánamo as Auschwitz.
The outrageousness of such a comparison ought to be obvious — especially in Germany. Even if some of its former or current occupants should turn out to be innocent of their presumed connections to al-Qaeda or the Taliban, no one was ever imprisoned at Guantánamo simply by virtue of being a Muslim. So how is Guantánamo supposed in any way to be evidence of an “American Islamophobia” analogous to the German anti-Semitism that led to Auschwitz?
And then, of course, there is the yawning difference of scale — a difference of so many orders of magnitude as to be tantamount in itself to a difference of kind. Altogether, somewhere around 750 detainees are believed to have been held at Guantánamo since the first transfer of prisoners took place in 2002. Most of these have since been released and, of course, none of them was killed. What has this to do with the millions of Jews who were systematically slaughtered in the Nazi death camps or by the mobile SS Einsatzgruppen?