Wiener Library Blog
Invoking the Holocaust: Rodrigo Duterte, President of the Philippines
Posted by Raphael Finardi, Tuesday 28th February, 2017
I am a first year undergraduate studying Philosophy, Politics and Economics at UCL. I decided to volunteer at The Wiener Library because I love writing and this platform is a wonderful opportunity for me to explore my interest in journalism. The Holocaust has in many ways related to my studies, most notably in the way that it shaped post-war international law and politics. I already had the occasion to write an essay in my final year about the policy adopted by Switzerland regarding refugees during the Second World War. Joining The Wiener Library thus became an obvious decision for me, and I am happy to be able to contribute to the historical work performed by this Library.
The topic of my first blog post is particularly important to me because there is an ongoing tendency in Europe, and increasingly further afield, for politicians to use the events of the Holocaust and sometimes reinterpret them for political or ideological purposes. I find this to be truly worrying, and this is why I could not ignore Duterte’s declarations.
When history is exploited for political purposes
Rodrigo Duterte, the President of the Philippines since June 2016, declared in September the following: ”Hitler massacred three million Jews ... there’s three million drug addicts. There are. I’d be happy to slaughter them” (Sims, 2016). His intransigence and the drastic measures he promised (and indeed has taken since his election) regarding the issue of drugs in his country were already well-known; they were the principal reasons of his popularity and one of the main factors behind his electoral success. This statement, however, reached a new disturbing level of indecency. Needless to say that it has given rise to outraged comments around the world, with significant condemnation coming from Jewish organizations. For instance, World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder denounced the statement which “demonstrates an appalling disrespect for human life that is truly heart-breaking for the democratically elected leader of a great country” (BBC, 2016).
Nobody will doubt the soundness of these reactions, but why do comments like these shock so many people? First of all, the casualization of the largest genocide in history is terrifying on its own right. There is a minimum respect we should all show as human beings, no matter what kind of political, societal or religious opinion we may possess. No political quarrel will ever justify invoking the slaughter of millions of innocent people.
Moreover, Duterte is not someone whose actions have no consequence; he is the President of an important country and holds decisive power over millions of citizens. When he compares his actions to Hitler, there is an ominous undertone that his rhetoric could conceivably become reality. To understand why, it is necessary to analyse and compare the political functioning of both the Philippines and 1930’s Germany. According to the Constitution of the Philippines, the presidential function grants Duterte the status of Head of State and Government, as well as the status of Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces (source: Official Gazette). By contrast, it is interesting to remember that Hitler was not directly elected by the people in 1933; he was appointed as Chancellor by the elected President Hindenburg. In the Constitution of the Weimar Republic, the function of Chancellor gave the incumbent a very limited power, since he was constrained by a parliamentary majority within the Reichstag and had to cooperate with the President - who himself was the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces - before taking any decision. Duterte needs no such approval. Moreover, he has the tremendous power of suspending Habeas Corpus, which explains why the murders of thousands of both drug dealers and users by the police force have been made possible in recent months. Even if the historical context of 1930’s Germany is completely distinct from contemporary Philippines, we can, from a purely institutional perspective, assert that Duterte holds as much power, if not more, than Hitler did in 1933. I would suggest that this is a frightening enough prospect so as to justify this media outcry.
Nothing more than a clumsy comparison?
Although there are evident issues in allowing one man to occupy the seat of Presidency of the Philippines and the power that it entails, I am still wary of exaggerating Duterte’s intentions based on what could be a thoughtless declaration. Speaking personally, I seriously doubt that Duterte’s intentions can be linked to a latent antisemitism or a real fascination with Hitler.
Firstly, Duterte’s statement could be the consequence of a lack of knowledge on his part. Considering the geographical placement of the Philippines and the little emphasis the national curriculum seems to place on history in general, it is not unreasonable to suspect that Filipinos could be taught with less sensitivity the events of the Second World War which happened on European soil when compared to those that happened closer afield in Asia. The national curriculum in the Philippines prioritises maths and science subjects over humanities with just one high school level class entitled “Understanding Culture and Society” being mandatory. From this, it does not seem unfair to infer that general historical understanding, let alone in-depth knowledge about the Holocaust, is not considered a priority by the government of the Philippines. During the Second World War the Philippines was invaded by Japan and it is notable that Duterte chose not to compare himself to Hideki Tojo, Prime Minister of Japan, during this period. Conceivably, he was aware that this comparison would have been viewed negatively by his own constituents as memories of the relatively recent occupation would make the comment more ‘personal’. This hypothesis of ignorance is not that far-fetched; Duterte (whether deliberately or mistakenly is unknown) estimated the number of Jews killed as three million (when the actual number is estimated around six million). While this by no means excuses his comments, it does increase the likelihood that ignorance, rather than a fervent admiration of Hitler, explains his controversial statement.
There is also potential that Duterte was aiming to shock with his rhetoric and stir up a nationalist and populist fervour within the Philippines that would protect him from internal opponents. I also suspect that he may have underestimated how his comments would be viewed by the rest of the world. It should also be noted that controversial comments like these are not unusual for Duterte; his approach to the international stage has been rather provocative as he seemingly deliberately sabotages relations with the United States. By provoking western indignation and reprobation, he creates a counter effect of anger against the American hegemony, which strengthens his position within the Philippines as leader. This manipulative approach suits Duterte and represents another in a long chain of provocations, after having called the former US President Barack Obama, the European Union and United Nations "fools" and promised to “humiliate” them, or having called the Pope a “son of a whore” (BBC, 2016).
Salutary and necessary (over)reactions
Nonetheless, letting comments praising Hitler go as simple verbal blunders would be irresponsible; it would mean that we choose to ignore the rising antisemitism and far-right populism that is spreading throughout the world. In this context, unanimous media condemnation is necessary: it acts as a moral safeguard that preserves the important values embodied in the European Convention on Human Rights. It may seem naive to hope to achieve something by tirelessly reaffirming them, but I would argue these values are worth being defended and reinforced. Condemnation sends an important signal that even a democratically elected President, for all the legitimacy he may possess, faces limits that he cannot overstep.
The reaction of the German government illustrates my point. Soon after Duterte’s declaration, the government summoned the ambassador of the Philippines, while the Foreign Ministry spokesman Martin Schaefer reaffirmed that “it is impossible to make any comparison to the unique atrocities of the Shoah and Holocaust” (NY Times, 2016). I do not find this surprising as Germany’s legislation severely punishes those who make the slightest inclination towards any glorification or justification of the Nazi Party’s actions. This exemplary and immediate reaction, accompanied by concrete action, is the proof that nations which adhere to the European Convention on Human Rights don’t merely perform a symbolic act but are entrusted with responsibilities they must uphold. It should also be noted that Duterte apologised for his words soon after Martin Schaefer’s criticism, stating that "I would like to make it now, here and now, that there was never an intention on my part to derogate the memory of the six million Jews murdered” (Reuters, 2016). Whether Duterte truly regretted his actions is unknown but his apology highlights the power of media and diplomacy-driven condemnation.
Prospects for the Philippines
The apologies formulated by Duterte have been welcomed by everyone, particularly by the Jewish community in the Philippines itself. Paul Rosenberg, the President of the Jewish Association of the Philippines, accepted his apologies; "I think it was quite clear that I think it was sincere" (Rappler, 2016). Although Duterte’s apology shows the importance of media-driven and diplomatic condemnation, it remains uncertain if this successful ‘tour de force’ achieved by Western reaction can be interpreted as a permanent change of attitude from Duterte or a symbolic short-term admission of error.
It should be noted that Duterte has failed to change a single feature of his domestic policy, which calls for a total annihilation of all form of drug-trafficking. Savage executions are still happening on a large scale with innocent citizens regularly acting as collateral victims. This unfortunately establishes a gloomy perspective on the future of the Philippines and its ability to adopt legislation that will protect its citizens from human rights abuses. We must hope that the nations who were quick to condemn Duterte’s comments will also speak out in the face of these abuses.
Executive Branch of Government. Official Gazette.
French Jewish leader slams pol’s comparison of burkini ban to Holocaust. JTA (26 August 2016)
Jewish leaders react to Rodrigo Duterte Holocaust remarks. BBC (30 September 2016).
Philippines' Duterte apologizes to Jewish community after Nazi remarks. Reuters (2 October 2016).
Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte in Quotes. BBC (30 September 2016).
Associated Press. Duterte, Philippines’ Leader, Apologizes to Jews for Holocaust Remark. The New York Times (2 October 2016).
Ranada, Pia. Jewish community applauds Duterte after apology. Rappler (4 October 2016).
Senior High School Core Curriculum Subjects. Department of Education, Republic of the Philippines.
Sims, Alexandra. Rodrigo Duterte compares himself to Hitler and pledges to 'slaughter three million drug addicts'. The Independent (30 September 2016).
Suggested Further Reading:
The Wiener Library holds many materials relating to how the Holocaust is remembered and taught differently around the world. Some of this is listed below:
- Using and Abusing the Holocaust by Laurence L. Langer
- Post-Holocaust: Interpretation, Misinterpretation, and the Claims of History by Berel Lang
- Third World Views of the Holocaust: Summary of the International Symposium by William Miles
- The Hitler Virus: the Insidious Legacy of Adolf Hitler by Peter Wyden
For more related sources, try a search for any of the following keywords in our Collections Catalogue: influence of the Holocaust; memory; after-effects; extreme right; antisemitism; genocide; remembrance; postwar; linguistics.
Photo by NIB-MALACANANG (Malacañang Photo Bureau) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
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