[Note: In the late 1990s, a number of seniors at my school received, through the mail, “information” from a group denying the reality of the Holocaust. One of their English teachers asked me to talk to her classes about the issue, and this is an updated version of what I said.]
Ms.______ has told me that you were shocked that some people deny the reality of the Holocaust, and she has asked me to speak to you about it. I am glad to do so, for while at one level this is simply a more sophisticated version of the antisemitism that has scarred the Christian worldview almost since the Crucifixion, which disturbs me as a Christian, at a deeper level it is an attack on the nature of historical truth, which goes to the heart of my calling as a historian. Briefly put, these people deny the reality of one of the defining events of the 20th century: the deliberate attempt by Nazi Germany to exterminate the Jews of Europe, an effort that was heavily documented by the Germans themselves (though most of the documentation was not made public until after World War II). The reality of the Holocaust was attested to by Nazi leaders in the dock at the Nuremberg war crimes trials; by former guards at the death camps; by the Sonderkommandos who supervised the executions; by Jews who survived; by the postwar government of Germany; by thousands of documents concerning the camps; by Allied troops who liberated the inmates of the death camps at war’s end (including a former faculty colleague of mine at this school); and by both still and moving pictures. In the face of this overwhelming evidence, how can rational people say that the Holocaust did not happen? The simple answer is that rational people cannot say it, which means that, in examining the motives of those who deny the Holocaust, we are dealing with the irrational.
I have encountered these folks, up close and personal. As a professional historian, I belong to several historical organizations. From time to time, these organizations sell their membership lists to other, supposedly legitimate, groups as a way to make a little money. So it was that a number of years ago I received a copy of what looked like a new professional publication entitled The Journal of Historical Review. As I leafed through the magazine, however, I soon realized that it was no ordinary historical journal: every article seemed bent on proving that the Holocaust had not happened. (I should perhaps mention that this publication so outraged the members of the historical organization to which I belonged that it promptly revised its procedures for selling its membership list to ensure that such a thing would not happen again.) The group behind this alleged journal was the “Institute for Historical Review,” founded in California in 1978, and a major force among those attempting to prove that the Holocaust is a myth. (If you are interested in seeing what this sleazy “institute,” which apparently still exists, is up to today, see http://www.ihr.org/.)
The logical questions to ask are, why do these people deny the Holocaust, and how do they do it? The why is easy to state but hard to grasp; the how is more complex. First, the why: these folks live in a world of paranoid conspiracy fantasies. They believe that an international “Jewish plot,” aided by African Americans and members of other supposedly “inferior races,” is engaged in a campaign to seize control of the world from supposedly “superior, Aryan” races. If this sounds a lot like lines from one of Adolf Hitler’s speeches, that should come as no surprise. These people practically worship Hitler and his ideology of Fascism, but, to make Fascism seem respectable, they must wash away the stain of the Holocaust. Included in this collection of Hitler adorers are groups like the Ku Klux Klan, skinheads, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and militias, folks with whom, I suspect, must of us in this room have no desire to be associated.
You may wonder how such obviously outrageous claims could gain a “respectful hearing” in a postwar world that had literally grown up reading books about and watching documentary and theatrical films on, the Holocaust. A quick answer would be that we are more comfortable with relativism than was the generation that fought World War II. For example, in the teaching of English at the college level, deconstructionism, the idea that no text has an absolute meaning, only the meaning each individual reader brings to it, had been gaining ground in recent years. Likewise, in the study of History, the postwar generation had pretty much destroyed the idea that historians can be “completely objective,” which some have interpreted to mean that there is no historical truth, only divergent versions of the truth, which historians call “conflicting interpretations.” Whether or not these views are true (and I don’t believe they are), the point remains that they have helped create an intellectual climate where there apparently is no solid truth, only competing truths, each equally valid. (Think of The Colbert Report’s Stephen Colbert’s concept of “truthiness.”) Thus, through some crazy intellectual calculus, a paranoid fantasy based upon lies, half-truths, and antisemitism can come to be seen as of equal merit, as the “other side of the question,” to the reality of the Holocaust. (Think, Fox News’ misleading slogan, “We report; you decide.”)
How do those who deny this reality go about proving their case? Theirs is a wide-ranging assault lacking both consistency and logic. From “the Germans didn’t do it”; to “the Germans did it, but it was only a couple of hundred thousand Jews, not six million, and, besides, what could you expect from wartime conditions?”; to “the Soviets did it”; to “the Allies were themselves guilty of atrocities against German civilians.” From (believe it or not!) “why haven’t any of the victims of the Holocaust testified?”; to “if there are so many pictures, why do we always see the same ones?” From “Zyklon-B gas wasn’t capable of doing what it’s supposed to have done”; to “gas chambers–what gas chambers?” None of these arguments hold up under scrutiny, but still they go on. Even The Diary of Anne Frank is not safe from their assaults: a few years ago, Holocaust deniers claimed that The Diary was a post-World War II forgery produced to stir up sympathy for the Jews!
The Institute for Historical Review (IHR), the organization I mentioned earlier in connection with that purported “historical magazine,” went so far as to offer a $50,000 reward in 1980 to any “Holocaust survivor” who could prove that the Holocaust actually happened. One survivor, Mel Mermelstein, took up the challenge, sending his own personal evidence as well as the names of other witnesses who could back up what he’d said. When the IHR was slow to respond, Mermelstein took the organization to court, charging breach of contract. The IHR was ordered by the court to pay Mermelstein the $50,000 reward, as well as $40,000 for “pain and suffering,” and the judge ruled that the reality of the Holocaust was “not reasonably subject to dispute. And it is capable of immediate and accurate determination by resort to sources of reasonably indisputable accuracy. It is simply a fact.”
What does one do in the face of such nonsense? I would say, ignore it, but that is becoming harder to do in our media-crazy age. With so many talk shows on television and radio, and the almost daily proliferation of websites on the Internet, hardly a month goes by without the appearance on one of these sources of a spokesman for those who deny the Holocaust. In recent years, these groups also have made appearances on college campuses, either in person or in the form of advertisements in college newspapers to trumpet their views.
If you cannot ignore the blather of these fanatics, what can you do? The obvious answer is, inform yourself about the facts of the Holocaust. There are many books out there, as well as documentary and theatrical films, that, unlike the work of Holocaust deniers, are firmly grounded in the surviving evidence. For example, a solid book on the topic is The Holocaust, by Martin Gilbert. Professor Deborah Lipstadt of Emory University has published a work entitled Denying the Holocaust, upon which I’ve drawn in preparing this talk. And, when one of those whom Lipstadt had labeled a “Holocaust denier,” writer David Irving, sued her in British courts, she fought–and won–the ensuing trial, and wrote a book about that as well. The best documentary I’ve seen is the episode on the Holocaust, “Genocide: 1941-1945,” in the fine 1973 British series, The World at War. As far as theatrical films are concerned, you couldn’t do much better than Steven Spielberg’s grim, black-and-white epic, “Schindler’s List,” based upon a book by historian Thomas Kenneally.
More than a half century has passed since the end of World War II, which means that many–if not most–of the surviving witnesses to the Holocaust have died. Given this, the creation of the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington and of similar museums elsewhere was crucial in keeping alive the memory–and the testimony–of what was once done by a supposedly “civilized” nation in the name of “racial purity.” These were not new ideas in the 1930s and 1940s, nor have they disappeared today, as news reports from the Balkans to Africa inform us with depressing regularity of efforts by governments or other forces to destroy large groups of people for religious or ideological reasons. It is well to remember the words of philosopher George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Gilbert, Martin. The Holocaust: A History of the Jews of Europe During the Second World War . New York: Holt Publishers, 1987.
Lipstadt, Deborah E. Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory. New York: Plume, 1993.
Lipstadt, Deborah E. History on Trial: My Day in Court with David Irving. New York: ECCO, 2005.
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For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject: