Prominent Holocaust deniers like Ernst Zundel and David Irving have been quick to take to the net, taking advantage of its cheap and fast ability to publish worldwide. The net seems, unfortunately, precisely because it’s cheap and accessible, to be the perfect place for disseminating hate literature. I would suggest that serious academics have been slow off the mark to use internet publishing and blogs constructively, leaving a dangerous vacuum for the likes of Zundel to fill. Would you agree, and what was the thinking behind the setting up of your blog?
I agree wholeheartedly. The internet has given deniers a new lease on life. They use it energetically. Whereas in the 1990s, before the explosion of use of the internet, a number of countries, Germany prominently among them, were limiting the activities of deniers by stopping them from shipping denial materials through the mail. That, of course, is obsolete today. No one need rely on the mail.
I also agree that most scholars have been incredibly slow in utilizing the internet and blogs as a means of responding to deniers. In fact, after my trial, for a short while, the only place one could retrieve the transcripts of the trial was on deniers’ websites. That is why Emory University, where I teach, created www.hdot.org , a website devoted to the trial. On this site one can find not only transcripts, the judgment, and the expert reports but also increasing numbers of documents which were used in the trial. We have also put up the materials related to the various appeals Irving submitted to the court.
The site is being used in university and law school classes and by law enforcement officers in their attempt to educate themselves about deniers and their arguments.
[In preparing this interview and particularly my comments about the rumor of making Jews into soap, I used Google to see what it brought up. I entered soap + Jews + Holocaust + Nazis. The first 4-5 sites were deniers’ sites.]
The dilemma for historians with regard to Holocaust denial, as you pointed out in Denying the Holocaust, is whether to challenge the falsehoods face-on, or to try to starve them of the oxygen of publicity. Six years on from your successful defense against the libel case brought by David Irving, what do you think the best method to counter Holocaust denial is? Your vindication in the courts, for example, should have been a clear victory and yet it’s not uncommon to hear the misrepresentation that it was you who initiated the court proceedings rather than Irving (thus presenting him as a persecuted figure). In the face of such a protean ability to twist the facts around, is it naive to believe that historical facts are enough to counter Holocaust denial?
This is a tough question. In certain respects you are right. Historical facts are not enough alone to counter denial. They are, however, our most important weapon. They certainly are a far better weapon than laws which outlaw Holocaust denial. I am an opponent of such laws. I don’t agree with them in part because of my advocacy of free speech. I also think that they have the potential of making the denier appear to be, as you put it, the “persecuted figure” or martyr. Moreover, such laws suggest that we cannot rely on historical documentation to make the case.
Rather than law, there is another “weapon” in our arsenal. That is the quick and forceful condemnation by scholars, political and religious leaders, and other people of stature of denial and deniers. There must be condemnation of both “hard-core” and “soft-core” denial.
In a recent controversy in Italy, provoked by the publication of a paid for ‘information notice’, the Minister for the Interior spoke of shared values necessary for all participants in the recently established dialogue body between the Italian government and representatives of the Islamic community. Affirming recognition of the Holocaust as an essential value, he described the Holocaust as “incomparable to any other event in our time”. What do you think of the argument that the Holocaust was a unique event, and more importantly that it should remain incomparable to other events?
There are many aspects of the Holocaust which might be called unique or, to use a more efficacious term, unprecedented. Unlike other genocidal events, the Holocaust was not a civil war with two warring factions going after one another. It was not, as was the case in Cambodia, the imposition of terrible treatment – including torture and murder — by the regime of a country on its own citizens. The Khmer Rogue, unlike the Third Reich, did not try to enslave Cambodians who lived in countries outside the country’s borders.
The Armenian genocide comes the closest to the Holocaust. Adolf Hitler, on ordering his military commanders to attack Poland without provocation in 1939, dismissed objections by saying `[w]ho, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?’ and thus set the stage for the Holocaust. What it suggests that, had the world remembered the Armenian genocide, then the Holocaust might not have been possible. There are, of course, stark differences between the Armenian genocide and the Holocaust. An Armenian living in Paris or Brussels or possibly even in Istanbul was safe from the perpetrators’ murderous reach. A Jew in the 1940s who was on the European continent or even in North Africa was not safe from Germany’s intention to find them and deport them. Armenian children were often taken – kidnapped – and raised as Moslems. Jewish children were murdered.
In no other genocide do we see a government throwing all its resources into the annihilation of a people; not just those within its borders but in every area to which it had access.
Nor can the Holocaust be compared to America’s treatment of the Native Americans. America’s unspeakable treatment of the Native Americans – which remains a blot on my country’s history — was prompted, in great measure, by the fact that the Native Americans occupied land that the American government wanted for its people. There was perverse logic – however totally immoral and terribly cruel it might have been – to the perpetrators’ actions. It might be more exact to say, rather than logic, there was something for the perpetrators to gain by their annihilation of the Native Americans.
In contrast, though the Nazis gained immeasurable amounts of material goods, real estate, and art work from Jews, this was not the prime motivation of the massacres. All Jews – rich and poor, those with a great cache of wealth and those with none – were in danger. The Jews did not “occupy” land that the Germans wanted. They murdered Jews who were serving important tasks as slave laborers. There was no ostensible “logic” to the murder of the Jews.
The Third Reich did not assault only those of a military age. Instead, it went after men, women, and children of all ages. This government chased down everyone of those it deemed an enemy, even when it was to its own detriment to do so.
While there were unprecedented aspects to the Holocaust, I – together with most other historians — reject the notion that it was uniquely unique, i.e. that it was an event which cannot be compared to any other event. First of all, there is no historical event which is sui generis. Every event can be compared and contrasted with another event. If it does somehow stand alone, then there is little we can learn from it. Moreover, from the perspective of the educator if something is unique unto itself, it is very hard – if not impossible – to teach to students.
I would argue that we banish the term “unique” to the dust bin and adopt “unprecedented.” Unique means something which stands alone. Unprecedented means that when it happened there were no other examples of such a thing. But unprecedented does not preclude the fact that there might be other examples which follow in the wake of the Holocaust.
The field of “Holocaust studies” has traditionally existed in a tension between introversion, stressing the uniqueness of the Nazi genocide of Jews, and extroversion, applying the ethical stance and expertise of the field to other cases of genocide and “ethnic cleansing,” past and present. Introversion may have been a useful strategy for the early years of the field. Over the years, however, Holocaust studies have greatly advanced and developed a wide array of resources and it would be a pity not to put them to use also for the research, documentation and help in other relevant cases.
Like Women’s Studies or African-American Studies, Jewish Studies were developed as a satellite field that was supposed to fill in the gaps left in “general” disciplines when it came to minority matters. As a satellite field, Jewish studies were merely expected to flesh out a theoretical skeleton developed in the “general” disciplines with Jewish-related subject matter. But Holocaust studies is one of the rare instances, where Jewish studies actually has a theoretical and methodological edge over “general” disciplines, and it is here that we can for once offer to reciprocate the theory stream.
Leading Holocaust deniers like Ernst Zundel embrace with vigor campaigns for freedom of speech, suggesting that they’re victims of censorship. Does the fact that Holocaust denial is a crime in certain jurisdictions support their claims? The argument goes that no other historical fact is protected by law – if someone wishes to say that World War II didn’t happen, while obviously wrong they don’t face prosecution. Why is the Holocaust different?
As I said earlier, I don’t believe that Holocaust denial should be outlawed. However, if one looks closely at some of the statements made by deniers they, on occasion, go beyond simple historical deception and enter into the realm of hate speech and incitement. That kind of talk, incitement to violence in particular, should be outlawed.
By the way, it is not only Holocaust denial which is outlawed. France recently passed a law outlawing Armenian genocide denial.
Does the continued underground existence of Holocaust denial, despite the overwhelming historical evidence, suggest that there’s a problem with how we teach history, or is it simply unfortunate proof that anti-Semitism still has strong roots in our culture? To put it another way, are there any lessons for us to learn from the continued survival of Holocaust denial?
Hmm, I think it may be a reflection in small measure of how badly history is taught. However, in the main it is really proof of the fact that anti-Semitism [which I prefer to spell as one word, antisemitism] has very deep roots. At its heart, Holocaust denial is naught but a form of antisemitism. And antisemitism is a form of prejudice. Like any other form of prejudice it is an irrational sentiment. [Think about the etymology of the word prejudice, pre-judge, i.e. “don’t confuse me with the facts, I have already made up my mind about this person or this group.”] Therefore, to imagine that one can thwart it with rational arguments is wrong.
One should not discount the impact of Irving v. Penguin and Lipstadt, even deniers acknowledge that it was one of the worst mistakes they ever made. Virtually every argument that they had in their arsenal was shown to be a “tissue of lies.” Five different judges and three courts emphatically agreed.
Of course denial persists, but not in the same overt manner that it did before [with the primary exception of the Arab/Moslem world.]
I think that the primary lesson to be learned from the fact that it exists at all – after all, it really is absurd — is that the haters don’t go away and that those who are willing to challenge them must continue to do so.
It’s not an easy task but if you cannot abide prejudice and hatred, you have no choice.