I explained last month what I mean by ‘Holocaust denial’ – namely, rejection of the fact that, as a matter of deliberate policy, the Nazis killed some six million Jews, mostly during Word War II, employing gas chambers and other means to do so.
I shall not attempt a systematic refutation of the deniers’ arguments, since numerous writers have already done this. It is, however, useful to point out the nature of denial argumentation — which runs as follows:
‘Jews died in the concentration camps as the result of wartime exigencies — Allied bombings, disease, food shortages, overcrowding, and overworked prison labour. As for the gas chambers and crematoria, they were for delousing the clothing of inmates and disposing of the bodies of those who died naturally under the difficult wartime conditions.
‘Many Jews did perish in the camps, but their mortality rate was no different to that of other peoples incarcerated there. The crematoria could not have accommodated the number of alleged Jewish corpses.
‘After the war most Jews went to Israel or the United States, and that explains why there were so few left in Europe.’
The deniers peck away at inconsistencies in eyewitness accounts to discredit them, and exploit errors made by researchers and historians to suggest that all their conclusions are wrong.
They twist the debates among scholars over specific aspects of the Holocaust, to call into question the entire veracity of the Holocaust. In every case, they use facts selectively and ignore any information that might be contradictory.
Another approach is that of ‘moral equivalency’. Some deniers maintain that what the Nazis did to Jews was no different from what other nations did to their enemies. The United States dropped atomic bombs on two Japanese cities and placed Japanese-Americans in concentration camps. The British systematically destroyed German cities by aerial bombing. Stalin and the Chinese Communists killed far more people than the Germans did.
Deniers also refuse to accept eyewitness accounts and label these as falsehoods. If the account came from a Nazi figure, they say the testimony was extracted by torture or that the person made it up to escape punishment.
Written Nazi documents are dismissed as being too vague or outright forgeries. Some even suggest that Jews and others were placed in concentration camps to protect them from public anger or to rehabilitate them.
However, serious historians know that thousands of pieces of evidence gathered from the thousands of events that occurred in thousands of places throughout continental Europe during the period 1933 to 1945 provide us with a complete and irrefutable picture of what happened.1 We do not need any particular ‘smoking gun’ (e.g. a written order from Hitler) to prove that the Holocaust happened.
Holocaust ‘revisionism’ or ‘denial’ is completely off-limits for Christian scholars. Indeed, it is dangerous in even the most general sense. Let me give some reasons for my assertion.
Firstly, Holocaust denial confuses people as to what really happened and spreads doubt in the public mind. In 1992 the American Jewish Committee commissioned a survey by the Roper Organisation. Of those polled, 22% said ‘yes’ to the question: ‘Does it seems possible to you that the Nazi extermination of the Jews never happened?’ and 12% said they ‘didn’t know’.
The worst figures were found in the 18 to 29 age group (24% said ‘yes’ and 17% didn’t know) and among those who were not high school graduates (20% said ‘yes’ and 27% didn’t know).
Also, 23% of those who identified themselves as ‘conservatives’ accepted the possibility that the extermination of the Jews may not have occurred. To be sure, some serious methodological questions have been raised about this poll, and the conclusions may be more pessimistic than the evidence justifies.2 Nevertheless, the level of public ignorance makes it easy for those who hate Jews, racial minorities, and democracy in general, to further their cause.
But they have been careful to avoid any appearance of extremism. They profess commitment to reason, accuracy, rules of evidence, and the honest search for historical truth — yet these are the very values they ignore!
Tragedy of civilisation
Secondly, Holocaust denial is a threat to all who believe that knowledge and memory are keystones of our civilisation. The Holocaust is not merely a tragedy of the Jews but a tragedy of humanity in which the victims were Jews.
It was perpetrated by an advanced technological society and by people who were products of one of the best educational systems in the world. Thus to deny its reality is not a threat just to Jewish history but a threat to all who believe in the power of reason.
Holocaust denial repudiates reasoned discussion in much the same way as the Holocaust itself repudiated civilised values. It is the ultimate glorification of irrationalism.
Up for grabs
Thirdly, Holocaust denial reflects the direction that the scholarly world has taken in the last quarter century. The deniers are plying their trade at a time when much of history seems to be up for grabs, and attacks on the Western rational tradition have become commonplace.
In our ‘post-modern’ world, there are no objective truths — no one version of events is necessarily right while another is wrong. One conceptual system is as good as another. We are not allowed to dismiss even the most far-fetched notions on the grounds that they are absurd.
Modern ‘deconstructionist’ thought argues that experience is relative and nothing is fixed. In this atmosphere of intellectual permissiveness it is difficult for us to assert that anything is false or off-limits.
If they are right, how can one say that Holocaust denial has no scholarly, intellectual, or rational validity? After all, no fact, no event, no aspect of history has any fixed meaning or content. Any truth can be retold. Any fact can be recast. There is no ultimate historical reality. Knowledge dissolves into nothingness.
Fourthly, Holocaust denial rehabilitates anti-Semitism in the modern world. Consider what Walter Reich (a former director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum) wrote in the
New York Times(11 July 1993):
‘By convincing the world that the great crime for which anti-Semitism was blamed simply never happened — indeed, that it was nothing more than a frame-up invented by Jews, and propagated by them through their control of the media — [the deniers make anti-Semitic arguments seem respectable]’.
Thus these arguments become acceptable in civilised discourse and even justify governments in pursuing anti-Semitic policies. In short, Holocaust denial makes the world safe for anti-Semitism. As historian Yehuda Bauer has said in my hearing, it creates the preconditions that would deny the Jewish people the right to live in the post-Holocaust world.
Or, as French literary historian Pierre Vidal-Naquet puts it, ‘It is an attempt at extermination on paper that pursues in another register the actual work of extermination. One revives the dead in order the better to strike the living’ (
Assassins of Memory, p.24).
Human sin is the root
Finally, Holocaust denial is a deterrent to exploring the deep effects that sin has on human society. Historians, theologians, philosophers, sociologists, and psychologists have sought to explain the Holocaust by asking the most fundamental question of all about the human condition: ‘Why did this happen?’
As we explore the matter ourselves, Christian scholars are prepared to include human sin as a root cause. However, the deniers respond, ‘It didn’t happen’ — so we don’t need to ask this ultimate question about human failure! Yet this is the very place where we should
1. Shermer and Grobman,
Denying History, p.256.
2. Novick, Holocaust inAmerican Life, pp. 271-72.
The author is Professor of History Emeritus, Indiana State University, and Scholar in Residence and Visiting Professor at Gordon College, Wenham, Massachusetts, USA.
This and the previous article are edited extracts from an article which first appeared in the on-line
Global Journal of Classical Theology4/2 (2004). © 2004 International Council of Christians and Jews.