On November 10, the German president was supposed to honour Israeli historian Gideon Greif with the Order of Merit at a ceremony in Israel for his contributions to Holocaust research, which focuses on the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp.
But following a wave of criticism over a report which denies the genocide in Srebrenica, led by Greif and commissioned by Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Serb-run entity of Republika Srpska, Germany postponed the ceremony until further notice and said it is reconsidering whether to award the academic.
While Greif’s contribution to Holocaust research is not questioned, his controversial study released in July – the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Sufferings of All People in the Srebrenica region between 1992 and 1995 – is an Islamophobic “piece of propaganda”, critics say.
Among the problematic aspects, the report minimises the death toll.
It claims that no more than 3,000 “military prisoners including several hundred male civilians” were executed in Srebrenica, rejecting rulings by international courts. It also accused the tribunal of having an anti-Serb bias.
The now closed International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and International Court of Justice (ICJ) long concluded that the systematic massacre of some 8,000 Bosniak men and boys by Serb forces in July 1995 constituted a genocide – the worst atrocity in Europe since World War II.
Greif’s work on the subject has been denounced by many, including Menachem Rosensaft, general counsel of the World Jewish Congress, who said he was “appalled by the report’s shameless manipulation of the truth”.
Emir Suljagic, director of the Srebrenica Memorial Center, told Al Jazeera the report “in its entirety is a collection of falsehoods and Serb extremists’ talking points that we’ve been hearing over the years.
“It is simply sad how Greif allowed himself to be manipulated and lose all credibility by an apartheid regime that pursues genocide denial as a policy.”
At the time of publication, German government officials had not responded to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.
Speaking to Haaretz recently, Greif claimed that cancelling the award would mean a German attack on Holocaust memory, and that Bosnian objections were fuelled by anti-Semitism.
“I think that Holocaust remembrance is under attack – not just me personally – so I can’t imagine that the German government will even consider not giving me the medal, which I deserve, because this will be interpreted as a denial of the Holocaust,” Greif said.
“Where did all this come from? … As far as I know, it comes from Muslim circles. Bosnia is a Muslim country and so we can say, if we analyse it, that it’s a Muslim attack on a Jewish scholar – you can find there even anti-Semitic characteristics.”
‘Piece of propaganda’
Political and academic circles in Serbia and Republika Srpska reject verdicts by international courts and regularly deny the genocide in Srebrenica.
The sentiment comes from the top – Milorad Dodik, Bosnia’s Serb member of the presidency, also denies the atrocity.
Genocide denial is part of a growing culture of impunity, triumphalism and division in the region, according to the Srebrenica Memorial Center, an alarming trend for Bosnian survivors of war and genocide.
According to American genocide scholar Gregory H Stanton, genocide denial is among the surest indicators of further genocidal massacres.
Journalist Aleksandar Brezar, who covers the Western Balkans told Al Jazeera, said that Greif’s report is “essentially a platform for furthering stereotypes against Bosniaks”.
“[It’s] openly Islamophobic in its claims that the genocide in Srebrenica was the result of Bosniaks somehow provoking it.”
Dodik also appointed Israeli professor Raphael Israeli to head a parallel commission on events in Bosnia’s capital Sarajevo during the war. That report, titled On Sufferings of Serbs in Sarajevo between 1991 and 1995, issued in October 2020, was also widely criticised for distorting established facts.
“Just like with his colleague Raphael Israeli who headed the parallel commission on the events that took place in Sarajevo during the Bosnian war, as a Jewish Holocaust scholar, Greif is a perfect foil because he enables the likes of Milorad Dodik – who funded the two reports – to say: ‘Who else can better judge whether something is genocide or not than a member of the community that has suffered from it in its worst form?’” Brezar said.
Marko Attila Hoare, Balkan historian and associate professor at the Sarajevo School of Science and Technology, told Al Jazeera that Greif’s ideas represent “a betrayal of academic principles by an academic for political and mercenary reasons”.
“It is a piece of propaganda that serves the political goals of the extreme nationalist regime of Milorad Dodik, which heads the Republika Srpska entity that was founded on genocide and that has an obvious interest in denying this genocide,” Hoare said.
Inciting division and conflict
Genocide denial is also used as a tactic to further incite divisions and conflict in Bosnia and in the region.
The controversy over Greif’s pending award comes as Bosnia faces its worst political and security crisis in 26 years, sparked by Dodik’s moves towards breaking up the country with the secession of Republika Srpska.
The crisis began in July when the outgoing high representative banned the denial of established war crimes including genocide denial. Serb representatives responded by boycotting central institutions.
In October, Dodik announced Republika Srpska will pull out from key state institutions and form an army of its own.
A month later Bosnia’s High Representative Christian Schmidt warned in a report to the United Nations Security Council that if the international community does not intervene quickly, “the prospects of further division and conflict are very real”.
On Monday, the Croat nationalist HDZ party, led by its president Dragan Covic showed their support for Dodik by voting in parliament alongside Bosnian Serb representatives to repeal the genocide denial ban.
However, with Bosniak representatives voting against it, their bid failed as there was not a majority.
As Germany reviews its decision on whether to award Greif, Suljagic said he does not know what there is left to consider.
“Mr Greif has been paid by a genocide denying autocrat to peddle falsehoods and airbrush Bosniaks out of their own history, only because they are also Muslims,” Suljagic said. “And that is how he should be remembered for the rest of his life and in history.”