Mahmoud Ahmadinejad got one thing right in his rant at Columbia University. History, he said, can't close the books on the Holocaust because the subject must be approached from different perspectives. That also got him to concede, sort of, what everybody else knows -- that the Holocaust actually happened.
Ahmadinejad in America coincides with the opening of a remarkable new online exhibition at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (ushmm.org), which features photographs of Nazi SS officers laughing, flirting and reclining at Auschwitz. These photographs offer a different perspective, true enough, because there aren't many photographs of SS officers at play. Here we see Camp Commandant Hans Hocker, who created the album, smile handsomely into the camera. We see pretty Eva, Angela and Irmgard, "communications specialists" at the camps, enjoying bowls of fresh blueberries. We watch an officer serenading them with an accordion solo.
These photographs document not the banality of evil, but the frivolity of evil. The photographs challenge anew our understanding about how such things can happen among so-called civilized men and women. The devil wears many disguises, and one of them is the appearance of normality, perhaps the most dangerous phenomenon of all, because it's a disguise unto itself.
Museum historian Judith Cohen notes that the photograph of the blueberry feast occurred on a day that 150 new prisoners arrived at the camp, and 33 were selected for work. The rest were sent to gas chambers. The vile odor of burning flesh seems not to have affected the appetites of Eva, Angela and Irmgard. The photographs were chosen because they reveal evil in its deceptive ordinariness: "In their self-image, they were good men, good comrades, even civilized."
That can be said as well of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. His clowning, his weaving, his bobbing, his smiling on the podium at Columbia University lent an air of normality to his lies and deceitfulness. He looked silly at times, but he didn't frighten anyone with his stage presence. Imagine how the footage with his applause lines will play in the Middle East where they will, no doubt, censor Lee Bollinger's introduction of criticism. The Iranian media reported none of the questions, only that the students gave him a prolonged standing ovation. (An ovation nobody else there saw.)