Erasing The Holocaust
The Holocaust was one of the darkest moments in history. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum estimates that between 15 and 20 million people were systematically murdered. Two thirds of the European Jewish population died. 1.5 million children were slaughtered. The Holocaust has cast a long shadow over the continent; its consequences still resonate and remains a controversial and sensitive issue.
There are ‘Holocaust Deniers’ who claim that the enormous death toll amongst the Jewish population was not the result of state sponsored, systematic killing. Claims that the Holocaust never took place are made despite the presence of what most people regard as overwhelming evidence. We have the personal evidence of those who were actually there. We have the physical evidence of the camps and gas chambers; yet there are those who will not believe that the Holocaust actually happened. The deniers believe that the Jews, the gypsies, the other ‘undesirables’ of the Nazi regime bear false witness. Some argue that the gas chambers did not exist, others believe that they were used for more ‘innocent’ purposes. They claim that the Holocaust is nothing more than a fabrication – a story woven by the victims and the Allies, designed to invoke sympathy. The denial is most often directed towards the experiences of the Jewish people. Holocaust denial often has anti-Semitism at its roots. To portray the Jews as victims would go against their anti-Semitic and prejudiced ideas of race and would impair their political agendas.
Holocaust denial has a long history. When the world heard about the liberation of the concentration camps in 1945, the horrors described were so terrible that many listeners to the radio broadcasts could not believe what they were being told. Listeners doubted that human beings could commit such atrocities. Over time some have given legitimacy to these doubts, which, in turn, have sowed the seeds of more major denial platforms.
Deborah Lipstadt has researched how Holocaust deniers have entered mainstream consciousness. She refuses to even give them the opportunity to debate the issue with her. She claims that, by arguing against a denier, especially in a popular media setting, she would be giving the denier a form of legitimacy. Or, at least, it would create the idea that there was an argument to be had at all. It is right to question and critique interpretations of the past. However, it is not right to question the very existence of events that are based on insurmountable evidence. We should question why and how events happen, but not whether such events actually occurred.
In present day Germany, all children are taught about the Holocaust and most will visit concentration camps, memorials and museums. In England and France, the Holocaust is a mandatory topic on the history curriculum. This is, however, not the case throughout the rest of the world. In the U.S. it is each individual State’s responsibility to decide whether the Holocaust should be taught. In April 1993, the Roper Organisation conducted a poll in order to assess the extent of American knowledge of the Holocaust. The poll was sponsored by the American Jewish Committee. The question, “Do you think it’s possible that the Holocaust did not happen?” gained some unexpected results. 22% of American adults and 20% of American high school students answered that it was indeed possible. It is best to be cautious when analysing the Roper poll; it is more likely that the high school students do not know what the Holocaust is. In a Gallup poll 38% of adults and 53% of high school students either didn’t know or incorrectly explained what the Holocaust was. In contrast, in Britain and France less than 7% of people surveyed said that the Holocaust may not have happened. It is unsurprising that the deniers have an opportunity to gain support when there is not a consistent approach to Holocaust education and other war crimes. Without such education, the deniers can whip up support for not just denying the Holocaust but other atrocities committed during periods of war.
The Holocaust is the prime example of a war crime. The Holocaust was a key instigator of the concept of a war crime. Before the horrors of the Holocaust were realised, ‘war crimes’ did not exist. Genocide and ‘crimes against humanity’ did not enter law and legal lexicon until after 1945. The prosecutors at the Nuremberg War Trials punished the Nazis under ‘retroactive law’: ex post facto law. The crimes that the Nazis were accused of were not actually crimes when they committed them.
The word ‘genocide’ or holocaust was first used to describe the Armenian Genocide of 1915, in which 1.5 million Armenian civilians were murdered – an event that Turkey still denies to this day. The Armenian Genocide has become part of the “general horrors” of the First World War. The voices calling to record and remember the atrocities have not been heard. The deniers of this holocaust have held sway. The Holocaust’s victims are in much greater numbers than that of the Armenian genocide, and its horrors are better documented. This gives it better protection from the deniers. However, the Armenian genocide should serve as a warning of what could happen if deniers gain a strong foothold in its historiography. To even conceive the notion that the Holocaust didn’t happen opens the doors to hateful rhetoric and ideas that encourages the deniers to pursue their arguments. As with the Armenian Genocide, could the Holocaust doomed to this retreat into history, to become just another footnote of another war?
Where did the denial theory arise from? In the aftermath of the Second World War people were trying to hold on to Fascism as a political ideal, but Fascism was linked to the Nazi regime and, as a consequence, to the Final Solution. One way to bring Fascism back to forefront of politics was, therefore, to deny the Holocaust itself. In 1947, Maurice Bardèche, a French neo-fascist, attacked allied propaganda and defended the Nazis, arguing that there was evidence that the records of the concentration camps had been falsified. He wrote that the deaths in the concentration camps were not active murder, but were deaths as a result of war conditions such as starvation and illness. Bardèche argued that the Nazi ‘Final Solution’ was the transportation of the Jewish population to the East, not their systematic extermination.
During the 1960s the modern denial movement gained impetus with men such as Harry Elmer Barnes who argued that the allegations of war crimes (including the Holocaust) made against Germany and Japan were unfounded. He complained of the “lack of any serious opposition or concerted challenge to the atrocity stories and other modes of defamation of German national character and conduct.” Barnes went on to argue that there was a “failure to point out that the atrocities of the Allies were more hateful, painful, mortal and numerous than the most extreme allegations made against the Germans”. Barnes claimed that the Allies made the Nazis a scapegoat to distract attention from their own atrocities committed during the war. In 1964, he cited the French Holocaust Denier Paul Rassiner, who believed that the word of the survivors could not be trusted, in an article called ‘Zionist Fraud’. Barnes accused the Israeli state of using the Holocaust myth in order to make a profit: “the Israeli politicians who derive billions of marks from non-existent, mythical and imaginary cadavers.” Barnes denied the Holocaust ever happened, claiming that its fabrication was of benefit to the allies, to the survivors themselves and to the Israeli state and that the propaganda surrounding its existence has never been sufficiently challenged by historians.
Rassiner, who himself had been interned in Buchenwald, argued that the survivors exaggerated what had happened to them at the hands of the Nazis. He wrote that it was not the SS who were responsible for the maltreatment of the prisoners, but that individual commandants and guards abused their power. He argued that the mass killing was the actions of individuals, not in the name of ‘a state order in the name of a political doctrine’. His books were principally written to vindicate the Nazis.
A protégée of Barnes, David Hoggan, denotes the Holocaust as an Anglo-Polish conspiracy and justifies Nazi anti-Semitic actions prior to 1939. Kristallnacht, according to Hoggan, was nothing more than an insurance profiteering scheme thought up by the Jews, and therefore deserved the 1 billion reichsmark fine enforced by the Nazis onto the German Jewish community. It was an extreme form of revisionism.
These modern day deniers have been decried by historians such as Lipstadt and Fresco, who describe their work as “a mixture of blatant falsehoods, half-truths, quotations out of context, and attacks on the ‘Zionist establishment’”. That they are revisionists trying to “establish a science whose only ethic is suspicion”.
In conclusion, Holocaust denial stems from Nazi-apologists and their form of historical revisionism. In shifting the blame for the atrocities of the Second World War from the Nazi regime, the Holocaust, as a war crime, needed to be accounted for. Most deniers accept that the concentration camps existed (the physical evidence is irrefutable) but the deniers allege that the purpose of those camps changed from extermination to standard POW camps. The camp deaths were exaggerated and happened as a normal consequence of war. Thus, there was no Holocaust and, consequently, no war crime for which the Nazis could be held accountable.
Greater historical research into the origins of denial is needed. Myths must be revealed and discounted. Facts must be absolutely proved and take their place. It is important that historians argue against and disprove deniers to prevent their view of history being heard. It is vital that we have a consistent approach to the teaching of the Holocaust in all our schools so that our children know the truth and will not repeat the mistakes of the past. Just the mere mention of the word ‘holocaust’ should chill humanity to the bone, lacing the solemnly promised words ‘never again’ with an even darker imagery.
Holocaust survivor Esther Brunstein said that “we have told the world. And we will go on telling the world, so that their future does not become their past.” She felt that all survivors had a duty to tell the world of the horrors that they had experienced; that it was their painful legacy to ensure that their story was heard and recognised. The responsibility for ensuring that these stories are heard will fall increasingly on historians and the public, as there are fewer survivors left alive. It is our duty to continue to recognise their legacy.
Written By Catherine Metcalfe
Elmer Barnes, Harry. Revisionism and Brainwashing: A Survey of the War-Guilt Question in Germany After Two World Wars, 1966
Evans, Richard J. The Third Reich in History and Memory, Little Brown, 2016
Fresco Nadine. The Denial of the Dead: On the Faurisson Affair, Dissent, Autumn 1981
Lipstadt, Deborah. Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory. Penguin Random House, 1995