Yes, I know it was unwise for Ken Livingstone to make those comments about Hitler in the clumsy way he did. But that should not give anyone – adversaries and especially supporters – licence to mangle his words. It’s bad enough that he expressed himself so inarticulately without everyone parroting those who seek to misrepresent his argument.
This is the quote that got him into hot water:
When Hitler won his election in 1932 his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.
True, the date should have been 1933; there was no Israel then, it was Palestine; and the phrase “went mad” implies that Hitler’s earlier expulsion policy might be seen as sane.
So we really don’t need to further indulge Livingstone’s critics by conceding faults in his statement for which there is no evidence.
He did not say “Hitler was a Zionist”. That would be a really dumb, though not necessarily anti-semitic, thing to espouse. Livingstone may be many things but he is not stupid.
He also did not say “Hitler supported Zionism”. That would not be quite as silly a thing to say, but it would clearly be incorrect. The evidence – not least Mein Kampf – indicates that Hitler had no sympathies, even early ones, with Zionism, though some other Nazi leaders did.
Rather, Livingstone said Hitler “was supporting Zionism”. While the same could be meant by that and the statement “Hitler supported Zionism”, they could mean different things.
If I criticised you by saying “In lending Jim £50 yesterday, you were supporting his drug habit”, it would not follow that I thought you wanted Jim to be a drug addict. I would simply be making an observation about the consequences – intended or not – of your actions. “Supporting” in this context means “helping“, “facilitating”, “assisting”, “enabling”.
It seems pretty clear that in using the expression “Hitler was supporting Zionism”, Livingstone intended it to be understood that way. By approving the Transfer Agreement of 1933, Hitler and the Nazis helped the Zionists, but it does not follow that Hitler therefore supported – in the sense of agreed with, liked, shared the ideology of – the Zionists.
Livingstone was speaking off the cuff, not carefully crafting a speech where he could weigh every word for possible misunderstanding.
Some will say this is semantics. Others will say the point is unimportant. But it is not. This kind of groupthink – where even progressives are swayed or bullied into intellectual conformity and timidity by those who get to dominate the public discourse – is a serious danger to the health of our democracy.
Let’s start challenging those who seek to misrepresent Livingstone’s comments. He is in enough difficulties as it is. We shouldn’t add to them.