Why Do Some People Deny the Holocaust?

I have always wondered why some people deny the Holocaust. The record is so self-evident that no one should have any series doubts. But Holocaust deniers are real. We were all reminded of this fact by the recent controversy that touched the Vatican when renegade British Bishop Richard Williamson was restored to the Roman Church by Pope Benedict XVI.

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Williamson, as you probably now know, dismissed the “so-called Holocaust” as “lies, lies, lies.” Iran’s dangerous president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejab, has called the Holocaust a “myth” while Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah says, “Jews invented the legend of the Holocaust.” Hutton Gibson, the father of actor Mel Gibson, is an ultra-conservative critic of the modern Catholic Church and argues that after World War II there were more Jews in Europe than before the War. And an engineering professor at prestigious Northwestern University, Arthur Butz, wrote a book titled: The Hoax of the Twentieth Century: The Case Against the Presumed Extermination of European Jews. What is it with people like these?

There are extremes on both the right and the left, as there always are, but most such individuals reject the historical consensus that Nazi Germany slaughtered 6 million Jews during the 1930s and 40s. Some suggest the figure is as low as 200,000. They argue that some Jews were singled out, but much in the way some homosexuals and some who deemed mentally disturbed were also singled out. They often admit that there were concentration camps but these were not death camps. They further claim that the majority of deaths were due to disease and not the ovens. Most of these deaths, some detractors insist, were caused by the way the Allies treated the Germans. Their term for themselves is not “Holocaust deniers” bur rather “Holocaust revisionists.”

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These revisionist historical accounts began shortly after the end of World War II. The source of much of this came from France, where writers blamed the communists for much of the suffering. An American leftist historian by the name of Harry Elmer Barnes argued that the Holocaust was used as propaganda to get the United States to enter World War II. Other wealthy anti-Semites followed this thinking. One pseudo-scholarly think tank, founded as late as 1978, offered $50,000 to anyone who could prove that Jews has been gassed at Auschwitz. A Holocaust survivor took the challenge and proved his case in a court of law forcing the man who offered the money to pay up. (He was also forced to pay another $40,000 for the personal suffering he caused!) The judge in this case ruled, “It is not reasonably subject to dispute. It is simply a fact” But this didn’t stop the deniers, who seem to have made a recovery in recent years.

How does this nonsense work? By planting small seeds of doubt. Writers Michael Shermer and Alex Grobman, in the book Denying History (2000), say, “There is an assumption by deniers that if they can just find one tiny crack in the Holocaust structure the entire edifice will come tumbling down.” This is how Fred Leuchter argues when he says that Zyklon-B is insufficiently powerful to have been effective in gassing camp victims. And author David Irving has sought to absolve Adolph Hitler by laying the blame entirely on Joseph Goebbels.

The primary reason for all of this is anti-Semitism. Walter Reich, former director of the U. S. Holocaust Museum (which I strongly urge everyone to visit if they go to Washington, D.C.), writes: “What better way, in short, to make the world safe for anti-Semitism than by denying the Holocaust.”

Thankfully this denial is not widespread in the United States, according to those who study this phenomenon. Less than 2% of Americans seriously doubt the Holocaust happened. (That is still amazing when you consider it at all but then there is a lot of anti-Semitism in various pockets of our culture, both among neo-Nazis and radical Muslims.) In the Middle East Holocaust denial is high. A 2007 survey made by the University of Haifa found that 28% of Israeli Arabs denied the Holocaust. (I am surprised the number is not higher actually.) But thankfully extremely courageous leaders like Ahmed Tibi, an Israeli Arab and the deputy speaker of the Knesset, says he considers Holocaust denial “immoral.” He suggests, however, that the denial remains believable because of the political way some use it within Israel.

How should we respond to deniers of the Holocaust? First, we should acknowledge that most of us likely personally know anyone in this category. Second, it seems to engage these people seriously is to lend credibility to their arguments. These people want us to debate history with them and by doing so we feed their arguments. While this argument has some merit Professor Deborah Lipstadt of Emory University is likely correct when she says, “The way of fighting Holocaust deniers is with history and with truth.”

Denying the Holocaust has been made a crime in Israel and twelve European countries. This approach is one Americans would never tolerate and thankfully should not. You do not fight errors by making errors. A law of this type only feeds conspiracy in my view. Criminalizing speech is not the way to freedom. It only lends a particular credence to the Holocaust deniers, a credence none of us should desire to give them even in the smallest possible way. Making martyrs of such foolish people will promote their hatred in certain circles.

The best way to remember the Holocaust is to visit places like the U. S. Holocaust Museum, to read good history and to meet and, or, listen to the stories of survivors. A few are still alive and good movies abound. In fact, good movies are a veritable Hollywood industry on this subject. Several more such movies in 2008 were superb challenges to the Holocaust deniers (e.g., Valkyrie, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, The Reader, etc.).

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