Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Holocaust Denial

I'm a bit surprised and sad this post is even necessary, but a visitor pushed Holocaust denial in a thread at BH, and though we addressed it there, it seemed wise to address it in its own post as well. What exactly does one say to a Holocaust denier, assuming he or she is even remotely sincere and not merely a provocateur? I was thinking it might be akin to talking to someone who holds a geocentric view of our solar system, but even that falls woefully short, because it doesn't encompass the bigotry, the rejection of overwhelming documentary evidence, and the potential real world impact. Holocaust denial may be the ultimate combination of intellectual dishonesty, willful ignorance and irrational rage.

As Columbia University President Lee Bollinger put it to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (emphasis added):

In a December 2005 state television broadcast, you described the Holocaust as a “fabricated” “legend.” One year later, you held a two-day conference of Holocaust deniers.

For the illiterate and ignorant, this is dangerous propaganda. When you come to a place like this, this makes you, quite simply, ridiculous. You are either brazenly provocative or astonishingly uneducated.

For people who care about accurate history, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. presents a mountain of material and is one of the best ways to learn about the subject. If you can't go to the museum itself, there's plenty of resources they have online. In our case, that includes "Combating Holocaust Denial: Evidence of The Holocaust Presented at Nuremberg." Some of the related films are online as well.

There's more graphic documentary footage elsewhere, and YouTube users HolocaustShoah and Lokulotes have compiled a fair amount of relevant films.

What exactly is the pitch here, by deniers? Guess the United States and other Allied governments, and their militaries, who filmed the ovens and skeletal survivors at liberated concentration camps, were all in on the conspiracy, huh? Those emaciated men fasted up to the point of starvation and organ failure just to make the Nazis look bad. They also thought pretending to be dead and being flung into a mass graves on camera would be the perfect payback.

What exactly is the political upside of Holocaust denial? It's not as if it has any credibility. Based on what I've read to date, it seems these people believe that Israel claims greater moral authority due to the Holocaust, and thus denying key elements of one of the worst atrocities in human history will undercut that supposed authority. But why do they even view this as necessary? No nation is completely virtuous, most aren't even close, and all deserve healthy criticism. Criticizing policies of Israel hardly makes one anti-Semitic by itself, of course. It is sad that charges of anti-Semitism can be tossed around quite recklessly, mainly but not exclusively by right-wingers. However, as Glenn Greenwald recently pointed out, a "New poll reveals how unrepresentative neocon Jewish groups are," and there are definitely venues where adult discussion can be had. Personally, I dislike reflexive, false charges of anti-Semitism because I feel it cheapens the term and diminishes a very real problem to a rhetorical bullying move. All of that said, I really don't see how one can be a Holocaust denier and not be anti-Semitic. Perhaps it's theoretically possible, but in practice, it sure doesn't seem to be the case. The Holocaust did target homosexuals, Slavs, the Roma (or gypsies), and all totalitarian regimes persecute political activists and intellectuals. But of course Jews were the main target, by far the largest group affected, and as plenty of the Nazis' own films and documents attest, their persecution of Jews was not exactly a big secret. I suspect for many a Holocaust denier, if he or she articulated their true feelings, it would be, "How dare you try to make me feel guilty for hating Jews!"

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum also hosts a series or related articles and links on the subject of Holocaust denial. As "Combating Holocaust Denial: Holocaust Deniers and Public Misinformation" notes:

Holocaust deniers naively assert that if they can discredit one fact about the Holocaust, the whole history of the event can be discredited as well. They ignore most of the evidence of the historical event and focus on three specific arguments that they say negate the reality of the Holocaust in its entirety.

Of course, the truth will continue to be lost on the "brazenly provocative," "astonishingly uneducated" and ferociously bigoted.

(Cross-posted at The Blue Herald)


FranIAm said...

While I have been to this blog from time to time, I must say - this must change. As a result, I have blog rolled you for more frequent visits.

This is a very thought provoking post and so well done.

Although I am in the process of moving, I have been living in Rockland County NY which has a significant Jewish population and within that, a very significant ultra-Orthodox population.

It is always intriguing to me that within the subset, due to the ultra-Orthodox mindset on Zionism, many do not subscribe to it.

There were residents of my county- ultra-Orthodox Jews, who attended the Holocaust conference in Tehran last year. It was very controversial indeed, but off they went.

Anyway, all of this to say (these two long comments may make me unwelcome here!) that it blows my mind that anyone would even try to deny this.

If that is the one way for anyone to deny Israel's existence, that is very lame indeed. However, that does seem to be the case.

Batocchio said...

Fran, thanks for an interesting perspective. It really is lame, unconscionable, makes you scratch your head, take your pick.

My previous posts on the Holocaust, for Remembrance Day, have been more film and book recs. I prefer writing that sort of post, frankly.

ned said...

You have to look at the political significance of the Holocaust today. Well-publicized deniers suit Israel very well. It uses them to defend their policies. So do American supporters of Israel. They even invent new terms.

There is the supposed "new anti-semitism", meaning critics of Israel. Deborah Lipstadt has called former President Jimmy Carter a "soft" holocaust denier because of his book defending Palestinians.

The U.S. was the good guys in WWII. Why is there even a Holocaust Museum in Washington? Americans were not responsible. There is no Slavery Museum in Washington, even though Americans were responsible for that. My father and uncles and their cousins fought to defeat Hitler and I am absolutely tired of the guilt trip that is being imposed on us.

Don't confuse the historical event with the propaganda use of it today. Most people, not saying you, who bring up the Holocaust and its deniers mean we have got to support Israel, come what may. That is the subtext which shouldn't be ignored.

Frankly, I am also tired of the hypocrisy surrounding Israel and the Holocaust. As far as I am concerned, everything that needed to be said about the Holocaust was said by Primo Levi. Basta.

Batocchio said...

Ned, you may want to check out the thread for this post at Blue Herald. We cover pretty much all of which you've said, and you can also read the comments of a Holocaust denier. Of course, I mentioned bogus charges of anti-Semitism in the post itself. Such charges are pretty despicable, but honestly, much less so than Holocaust denial. The "anyone who disagrees with me is anti-Semitic" crowd does get criticized, if less so in the U.S. than the U.K. For just one example, I would hope most people would criticize Israel's use of cluster bombs, most especially against Lebanese civilians, during the last days of the brief, recent war.

As we covered in the comments there, and I've covered in previous Holocaust posts, Jews were not the only victims of the Holocaust (homosexuals, Slavs, Roma/gypsies, intellectuals and political activists), but there's also no denying that Jews were the special target of Hitler's rhetoric and policies. The effects were devastating. Noting the suffering of any one group does not deny the suffering of others.

I'm not familiar with Lipstadt's comments on Carter, but if she said that, shame on her. The Holocaust is too important a subject to abuse in that fashion. Such comments make fighting actual anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial harder.

But bogus charges of anti-Semitism are a further reason to fight Holocaust denial, because in both cases intellectual honesty is at stake. Sadly, every horrible event, with 9/11 being the latest major example, is eventually politically exploited by someone or other. I'll certainly continue to criticize such exploitation. But I have serious concerns about the mindset of anyone who denies the Holocaust.

While Primo Levi was a great writer, and I've covered his works in previous posts on the Holocaust, there's a wealth of material out there (some of which I've also linked before). There are millions of personal stories about WWII, and about the Holocaust in particular. Even without getting into marked individual differences, a Hungarian Jew's experience was often different from a Polish one's, and both were different from that of a German homosexual or an outspoken minister. But their fates were often the same. To me, the Holocaust has always been about the importance of human rights and opposing totalitarianism and dehumanization. I'll add opposing a mob mentality or witchhunt anywhere, as well as general oppressive bullying, legislatively, socially, intellectually, emotionally and rhetorically.

So why shouldn't D.C. have a Holocaust museum? It's a great one. Those events are intertwined with the life stories of many Americans. Meanwhile, the Smithsonian doesn't have a specific museum on slavery, but certainly has exhibits on the subject. A good permanent exhibit would be a fine feature, though. Along with our treatment of Native Americans (and the Museum of the American Indian is also fantastic, by the way), slavery is surely one of our greatest disgraces as a nation. Memory can be an act of conscience. I had a teacher in Russia who told us horrific tales of what happened to theater artists under Stalin (not to mention scientists, writers and other artists). Even in Russia, I'm not sure how many theater students are familiar with theatrical innovator Meyerhold and what Stalin did to him. But I'll never forget him because my teacher Anatoly Smeliansky made a point of remembering, of studying, and bearing witness. Holocaust survivors, civil rights activists, Indians subjected to the public school re-education programs of a past era and many others do the same.

All that said, I've never fully got the whole "white (male) guilt" thing, or any of its variations. I understand it, I've run into plenty of people who feel it, and I've run into quite a few who feel angry and backlash against it. Yes, there are people who try to exploit guilt for advantage (but some people try the same move with their significant others without any historical or cultural baggage attached). There are people, sometimes in politically correct excess, who mistakenly think that everyone else must feel exactly as they do in order to take action. Personally, I don't like manipulative approaches to anything. I also feel no personal responsibility for slavery whatsoever, nor the Holocaust, and none of my ancestors bear responsibility. However, I do feel an obligation to study such history and to remember it. Regarding the Holocaust, since I was a teenager I've always felt compelled to study it, because I was appalled, because the ethical issues are stark and sometimes complex, because it speaks to the core of human evil, and the dynamics of oppression. It's the same reason I've read up a bit on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa (and the reason I enjoy the Socratic dialogues, for that matter). That's my responsibility — not to erase history, but to try to know a decent amount, to remember it, to understand how it affects the current world, and to work with others to make things better now.

ned said...

True, I am new here, having come from a site which gave a list of interesting blogs, John Swift's I think. I hope I was clear that I wasn't directing any criticism at you.

My criticism of the USNMM is that it is biased and has a second political agenda. I don't mean biased in presenting the Holocaust, but biased in terms of avoiding other presenting other events. I think it would be better to transform it into a Slavery Museum which could have a wing on holocausts.

I found two paragraphs about King Leopold and the Congo Free State(1885-1908), which was the first genocide of the 20th Century. One interesting fact mentioned was that it was an American, George Washington Williams, in 1890 who first used the term "crimes against humanity" in accusing King Leopold.

Estimates of deaths range widely from 3 to 5 million to 20 million. Apparently that is not important at the USNMM.

As to contemporary politics there is also bias.

At the USNMM, do a search on "palestinian refugees". You get references to Jewish refugees going to Palestine. It supports the immigration to Palestine after WWII and supports the creation of Israel. Or type in any other phrase to find information on the fate of the Palestinians and you find virtually nothing.

There is an interesting lecture by Gerhard Weinberg.


In it you find out that in 1940 Roosevelt in discussions with zionists supported moving Arabs out of Palestine and compensating them? Compensating? How?

Also in 1944, "Palestine should be for the Jews and no Arabs should be in it."

Apparently ethnic-cleansing in Palestine was not such a narrowly held viewpoint. You will find pages and pages about Jewish displaced persons after WWII, but again nothing about current Palestinian displaced persons.

Batocchio said...

The last time I was at the Holocaust Museum was this past summer. I got the catalog book, but haven't looked through all of it yet.

It's a very good museum for the Holocaust, and there's no way it's going to change to something else! It's also a research center. There's nothing stopping anyone else from making their own exhibit or museum, though.

The Holocaust museum's permanent exhibit doesn't cover Israel/Palestine very well, particulary the human rights concerns about the Palestinians. It's true that it's not the museum's focus, and there's not that much on Israel at all - just one room near the end. I imagine they want to avoid controversy, but I felt a bit disappointed by that when I last saw it. I'm sure not everyone involved with the museum is of one mind on the issue, but a "for further reading" or something would be nice. They did have a pretty detailed exhibit on Darfur/Sudan, though.