The Holocaust – the attempt by the German Nazis to wipe out the entire Jewish population of Europe – is the greatest tragedy the Jewish people have ever faced. It is also a Christian problem because most of the perpetrators of the Holocaust were baptised church members. The bystanders who did nothing to halt it or even to assist their beleaguered Jewish neighbours also belonged to Protestant and Catholic churches.
Unfortunately, there are some who claim the Holocaust never happened. Their claim that the Jews imagined or invented their tragedy is the most virulent form of anti-Semitism imaginable.
Although Holocaust deniers may try to infiltrate our ranks, we as Evangelicals must sound forth a firm and deliberate ‘NO’ to all efforts of deniers to spread their pernicious ideas among us.
I begin by quoting three statements, the first from General Dwight D. Eisenhower who, in his memoir
Crusade in Europe(p.409), relates his visit to the Buchenwald concentration camp on 13 April 1945.
‘I visited every nook and cranny of the camp because I felt it my duty to be in a position from then on to testify at first hand about these things in case there ever grew up at home the belief or assumption that “the stories of Nazi brutality were just propaganda”.
‘Some members of the visiting party were unable to go through the ordeal. I not only did so but as soon as I returned to Patton’s headquarters that evening, I sent communications to both Washington and London, urging the two governments to send instantly to Germany a random group of newspaper editors and representative groups from the national legislatures.
‘I felt that the evidence should be immediately placed before the American and British publics in a fashion that would leave no room for cynical doubts.’
The second quotation comes from a feature article by John Sack entitled ‘Daniel in the deniers’ den’ (
Esquiremagazine, February 2001). He describes his experiences at an ‘international conference’ of the Institute for Historical Review.
There he dined with a man from Alabama, Dr Robert Countess, a Presbyterian minister and scholar of classical Greek and Hebrew who was a self-proclaimed Evangelical. He had taught briefly at Covenant College in Tennessee and was a member in good standing of the Evangelical Theological Society.
Countess was wearing a shirt that read, ‘No holes? No holocaust!’ This referred to a claim by French denier, Paul Faurisson, that he had examined the ruined roofs of the infamous gas chambers at Auschwitz concentration camp and found no holes through which the cyanide pellets could have been dropped to kill the people inside. He therefore concluded that the Holocaust was a myth.
Earlier, Countess had declared in a letter to the editor of the Seventh-day Adventist magazine
Liberty(March 1988) that ‘current scholarly research’ on the Nazi era revealed ‘the extreme exaggerations’ of Jewish deaths. The number of Jews ‘not accounted for during the war period was at most between 300,000 and 1.5 million’.
The third quotation is an article by Herman Otten in his magazine
Christian News(7 May 1990). The outspoken Lutheran fundamentalist proclaimed, ‘The time has come for Christians to stop believing and promoting one of the biggest lies and slanders of the Twentieth Century’ — the idea that the Germans exterminated six million Jews during World War II and planned to kill all Jews in Europe.
He said he was challenging ‘one of the most sacred doctrines in the world’ — the ‘Holocaust religion’. Promoting this ‘hoax’ as truth, he maintained, was lying and a violation of the commandment not to bear false witness.
These illustrations reveal starkly the problem we face. The American military leader wanted to ensure that the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps could never be dismissed as propaganda myths. But two evangelical writers — an educator and a journalist — downplay the whole affair.
The Holocaust can be defined as the historical occurrence in which the Nazis and their collaborators used various technologies (including gas chambers) to kill some six million Jews — in an intentional, systematic, and bureaucratically administered fashion.
This concise summary was provided by Michael Shermer and Alex Grobman in their book
Denying history: Who says the Holocaust never happened and why do they say it?1
To be sure, there are legitimate controversies surrounding the Holocaust. Historians have debated various details, and mortality figures have been fine-tuned, revised upward or downward, depending on the situation.
Some things have indeed been rejected as myths — for example, the rumour that soap was produced from Jewish corpses. And a few survivor accounts have been exposed as inaccurate or even spurious, such as the 1996 book
Fragmentsby Binjamin Wilkomirski, which purported to be the author’s childhood experiences at Auschwitz even though he had never been there.
Others have raised questions about the political and cultural exploitation of the Holocaust, including Peter Novick, in
The Holocaust in American life2; Hilene Flanzbaum, The Americanization of the Holocaust3; Tim Cole, Selling the Holocaust: From Auschwitz to Schindler, How history is bought, packaged, and sold4, and Norman G. Finkelstein, The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the exploitation of Jewish suffering5.
Issues identified here include: museums that edit out the sufferings of non-Jewish victims of Nazism such as the Gypsies and homosexuals; and the propagation of Holocaust education programmes that take the topic out of history, where it belongs, and transport it into realms of mysticism and identity definition.
Others distort the Holocaust by transforming it into an ‘American’ experience which glorifies the camp liberators — overlooking the US unwillingness to help Jews prior to and during the war. Some Holocaust speakers and writers profit through large lecture honoraria and book royalties.
In the same vein, Jewish scholar Marc H. Ellis, in his book
Beyond innocence and redemption: Confronting the Holocaust and Israeli power6, suggests that Israel has gone down the wrong track by utilising the Holocaust to justify state power without acknowledging the moral costs of so doing.
An important controversy is that of the ‘uniqueness’ of the Holocaust, a question examined by contributors to a symposium edited by Alan S. Rosenbaum,
Is the Holocaust unique? Perspectives on comparative genocide7.
Was this genocide of such unique quality that it could only be the experience of the Jewish people, something so awesome and terrible that non-Jews cannot identify with it? Can other genocides such as in Armenia, Cambodia, or Rwanda-Burundi be regarded as holocausts?
If so, does that relativise and trivialise the Jewish Holocaust? Is the term even further diffused by the anti-abortion movement in the US which speaks of the ‘holocaust’ visited on the unborn — and by African-Americans who label slavery ‘our holocaust’?
And if the Holocaust is made relative — just one of many such events — does it thereby lose its braking force on the age-old tradition of anti-Semitism that has so plagued the world?
A long-running dispute is that between the functionalists and intentionalists. The central issue here is this — did the Holocaust result from Hitler’s intention to kill all Jews and was this supported from the outset by a deep-seated anti-Semitism among the German people?
Or did it evolve over time, step-by-step, from the anti-Semitism of National Socialism through the enthusiasm of Hitler’s accomplices — especially Goering, Goebbels, Heydrich, Himmler, Bormann,
et al., who carried out what they believed were the Fuehrer’s wishes? Did the Nazi regime implement the policies of destruction in an unplanned but bureaucratic and at times haphazard fashion?
This controversy was given a new impetus by the unabashed intentionalist Daniel J. Goldhagen in
Hitler’s willing executioners: Ordinary Germans and the -Holocaust8.
In turn, his views were challenged in a symposium edited by Franklin H. Littell,
Hyping the Holocaust: Scholars answer Goldhagen9 and by Norman G. Finkelstein and Ruth Bettina Birn in A nation on trial: The Goldhagen thesis and historical truth10.
However, in all of these disputations, absolutely none of the protagonists deny that the Holocaust actually occurred. Historians poring through the mountains of documents from World War II may refine some details about the Holocaust — such as reducing the total number of victims of the gassings, while at the same time revising upward the number of deaths resulting from the SS mobile killing units that operated on the Eastern Front.
But no responsible historian of World War II maintains that the Holocaust is a myth or says it never happened.