Monday, December 11, 2006

Teheran and the politics of the Holocaust

Concentration camp crematorium

Iran is holding a conference this week on the Holocaust. According to this report, El Holocausto, según Teherán by Ana Carbajosa El País 09.12.2006, the conference is expected to include Western Holocaust deniers such as Robert Faurisson and Serge Thion of France, Flávio Gonçalves of Portugal, and Gerd Honsik of Austria. Horst Mahler, German leftwing extremist turned rightwing extremist, was invited but can't come because Germany pulled his passport when they learned he was invited to the conference.

El País notes that Holocaust denial is explicitly outlawed in Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, the Czech Republic, Lithuania, Polonia, Slovakia and Switzerland. The State Treaty of 1955 with the US, Britain, France and the Soviet Union that formally ended the postwar occupation specifies that Austria will outlaw Nazi propaganda and block any efforts to revive the Nazi Party. Although most of the countries just named don't have explicit treaty obligations to do so, a similar concept that the Nazi movement proved itself conclusively to be destructive underlies those laws.

Personally, I prefer the traditional American notion that things work best when people are free to say any dang fool thing they want to, as long as everyone else is free to say what a dang fool thing it is. But on my list of things I would like to see changed in the world, changing the anti-Nazi laws of those nine countries ranks far down on the list.

The Holocaust denial propaganda is nasty stuff, no matter how you slice it. We've maintained a link at The Blue Voice ever since we started in mid-2005 to The Nizkor Project, a good online resource providing reality-based information on Holocaust-denier claims. It is a good source to check if you're wondering about some claim that pops up in the press in connection with the Teheran conference.

But I would stress that taking Holocaust denial seriouslyas a political phenemenon does not mean taking their bogus claims seriously as history. And the point of Holocaust denial is not to convince people that the mass murder of Jews and others by the Nazis did not happen. It's meant to sneer at the victims and promote hatred and contempt against them.

I have some additional comments about this, and I've listed some online and printed resources on the Holocaust and Holocaust denial at the end of this post.

The problems of Holocaust-deniers' view of history

The core of Holocaust-denial is anti-Semitic bigotry. It's also almost always associated in some way with rehabilitating the image of the Third Reich. But there are other ways in which Holocaust denial affect people's thinking about history.

One is that it just promotes plain sloppy thinking. If you can believe that events as well-documented as the mass murder of Jews and other victims that we know as the Holocaust never happened, you can pretty much manage to believe any piece of propaganda. We see some of the same thing in the neo-Confederate arguments, especially the ones that try to show how Southern slaves actually favored the Confederacy.

We see right now with the Iraq War that the consequences of swallowing manufactured propaganda can be very serious. And if you can believe that the Holocaust didn't happen, it wouldn't be hard to convince yourself that Iraq had "weapons of mass destruction" in 2003 and was cooperating with Al Qaida. Sloppy thinking about government propaganda can lead to real harm.

Those who are not familiar with far-right styles of writing might be surprised to find that the "highbrow" Holocaust deniers and even a lot of the "middle-brow" types provide copious footnotes in their publications. This is a actually a typical characteristic of the far-right, this obsessive citing of sources. But endless footnotes can't make a lie into the truth.

Still, the exact ploys that fabricators use aren't always clear. For instance, if some Holocaust denier type were to say, "Even Simon Wiesenthal admitted that there were no death camps in Germany," (which actually is a favorite argument of theirs) most people would know there was something wrong with what they said, though maybe not exactly what. In this case, Wiesenthal did say that, and there's nothing exceptional about it. The four camps that were designated as "death camps", of which Auschwitz-Berkenau is the most infamous, were all outside the borders of Germany. There were plenty of concentration camps in Germany and plenty of untimely deaths occurred in them.

In some cases, Holocaust denial may come mixed with some solid historical research. Perhaps the most famous of the Holocaust deniers, David Irving, currently serving time in Austria for Holocaust denial speeches there, is possibly the most famous of the lot. And one of the most talented.

He first gained wide attention for his book The Destruction of Dresden (1963). That book had a pro-German tilt and grossly exaggerated the number of killed in the bombing of Dresden in 1945. But even though inflating the number of death in the Dresden bombing became a stock piece of Holocaust-denier talk (see the section on Dresden in the British court decision linked below), it wasn't until the publication of Hitler's War (1977) that Irving crossed over into Holocaust-denier territory. In that book, he argued that Hitler himself had no personal knowledge that the mass killing of Jews was occurring and did not order it done.

As Christopher Browning recounts in his book The Path to Genocide (1992), historians of the period didn't take that claim seriously. But it did spur them into a closer examination of the record to determine when the decision actually did take place. The answer is that the decision was made during the spring of 1941 as the Germans planned Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union. Mass roundups and killing of Jewish men began just after the invasion and by the fall Jewish women and children were also being systematically murdered.

The notorious Wannsee Conference of January, 1942, was not the point at which the decision for mass killing of Jews was taken. That conference focused on planning for the further implementation of decision that had already been made and after the process was already well underway.

So "debunking" of bogus claims can play a useful role. That doesn't mean Holocaust denial is a "legitimate" narrative of that part of history. Creationism isn't science, either, but scientists have found it necessary to systematically refute the claims.

Irving is not representative, though, of most Holocaust-denier hacks. Irving was dishonest in his claims. But he actually did some real research and was famous for unearthing obscure documents. Gordon Craig, one of the leading historians of Germany, wrote 10 years ago in The Devil in the Details New York Review of Books 09/19/06 issue (behind subscription):

The fact is that he knows more about National Socialism than most professional scholars in his field, and students of the years 1933-1945 owe more than they are always willing to admit to his energy as a researcher and to the scope and vigor of his publications. His first book, The Destruction of Dresden, was not always scrupulously balanced in its judgments, but there is no doubt that it encouraged historians to take a more critical look at Allied bombing in the last stages of World War II and supplied important data to support such investigation. Similarly, his book Hitler's War - despite its attempts to protect Hitler from any responsibility for the Holocaust and its implied argument that the Führer might well have won the war if his generals had only been intelligent enough to appreciate and exploit his military genius - remains the best study we have of the German side of the Second World War and, as such, indispensable for all students of that conflict. Similarly, his discovery, after a long search in the National Archives in Washington, of the diaries of Professor Theo Morell, who served as Hitler's private doctor from 1941 to 1945, provided useful information for the not inconsiderable number of people who have interested themselves in Hitler's physical ailments and their possible effect upon his policies; and he has been generous in making his private files, which include other unpublished findings, available to other scholars.

I would say that Craig was overly generous on The Destruction of Dresden; in fact, it was very influential of giving a very distorted picture of the Dresden bombing to American audiences. Kurt Vonnegut picked up his exaggerated figures on civilian casualties in his very popular novel Slaughterhouse 5.

But the point is that Holocaust-denier propaganda can sometimes be quite sophisticated. And picking it apart can be tricky.

Real controversies over the Holocaust

One effect of phony controversies over the Holocaust, of which Holocaust denial is the most notorious, is that they distract attention from real and substantive debates over aspects of the Holocaust. (Arno Meyer with Why Did the Heavens Not Darken? The "Final Solution" in History amd Daniel Goldhagen with his Hitler's Willing Executioners also generated controversies with analytical claims that also did not stand up well to scrutiny and are likely to have little effect on real historians' understanding of the Holocaust.)

One of the larger qustions that has been seriously debated is the "structural" explanation of the Holocaust versus the "intentional" explanation. The former, which is identified with historians like Gotz Aly, argues that the Final Solution grew out of a series of bureacratic adaptations rather than a long-range plan. The "intentionalist" school of historians like Ernst Jäckel argues that Hitler had intended to go for some such goal all along. I lean heavily toward the "intentionalist" viewpoint on this. But this controversy was based on substantial interpretations of the evidence, not on attempts to deny it or twist some crackpot spin out of it.

Another real controversy is over the extent to which the Western democracies were indifferent to the Holocaust in both its preliminary stages and at the height of the killing. I don't remember seeing any polls on this particular idea. But it certainly is widely accepted and, based on the public discussions at the time, influenced the policies of both the United States and Germany in the Balkans during the 1990s. Despite the humanitarian appeal of the argument and generally positive lesson that most people take from it, that aspect of the Holocaust is also disputed.

In this case, I lean very much toward a skeptical view. Some of the key claims used to make that argument are ambiguous, at best, like the often-heard idea that the Allies should have bombed the railroad tracks to Auschwitz or even the death camp itself. That and most of the other arguments always come up against the practical consideration that defeating the Wehrmacht as quickly as possibly was the only way to put a stop to the killing of the Jews. And the evidence looks very strong to me that Hitler was literally more interested in that goal than he was in victory for Germany in the war. In fact, he had substantial military resources diverted even very late in the war from fighting the Russians to keeping the killing of Jews going at a maximum pace. I just don't find that plausibility of the counter-factual rescue schemes very convincing.

But these are real controversies about reality-based history. Holocaust denial is a phony enterprise not at all aimed at understanding what really happened.

Israel and the Holocaust

Israel uses the Holocaust to promote support for its current foreign policies and generally enhance its own image.

The United States and Russia emphasize their roles in the Second World War to promote support for their current foreign policies and generally enhance their own images. Austria likes to promote the fact that Mozart, Beethoven and Freud were associated with Austria to promote its own image while preferring to let people forget some other famous but not-so-wonderful Austrians.

Its part of what countries do. It's not good or bad in itself, and in any case governments are going to keep on doing that for the forseeable future.

But that doesn't mean anyone outside those governments, including their own citizens, have to let the pleasant glow of associating in some way with a noble cause in the past cloud our judgment about policies being pursued in the present. As the Baker-Hamilton report just reminded us, the United States has a real and urgent interest in pursuing a peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians, even if the current government of Israel does not define its own interests in the same way. And that is the case regardless of anyone's attitude toward the Holocaust.

Historical analogies are probably more often misleading than helpful. We should try to learn from history, though how little we actually seem to do so can be discouraging. But that's one big reason why we need to learn history in a reality-based way, so that we can understand the uncertainties and the various possibilities and just a few simplistic lessons. In the US right now, the road to the Iraq War was paved with bad Second World War analogies, which President Bush continue to spew at his news confernce with Tony Blair last week. And both war critics and war fans seem to be prepared to pave the way out with bad Vietnam War analogies, though Iraq War realities are likely to overwhelm those sooner rather than later.

It's true that the experience of the Holocaust is now understood as part of Israel's national purpose and identity. It's also true that no current plausbile threat nor any on the horizon present any real possibility of someone actually carrying out a genocidal war against Israel. Despite their military defeat by Hizbullah in Lebanon this year, Israel maintains far and away the most powerful conventional military in the Middle East, along with 100-400 nuclear weapons. Whatever emotional appeal there might be in casting current Israeli policies as responding to an immediate threat of another Holocaust, the reality doesn't support that. And American policies in the Middle East have suffered badly from fantasy-based assumptions.

The religious importance of the Holocaust

The Holocaust has come to be seen by many Jews as a central religious problem and reference point. So much so that some rabbis worry that for some believers, the Holocaust is being understood as the central theological experience for Judaism, rather than the Exodus from Egypt.

The Swiss Christian theologian Karl Barth emphasized that the Holocaust also presents a serious thological problem for Christians, though of a different kind. He didn't suggest substituting the Holocaust for the Resurrection as the central event for Christian theology. But he did challenge Christians to understand the ways in which the Christian religious hostility toward Judaism, and the failure of Christians in Germany and elsewhere to act out of human solidarity with Jews who were targeted for persecution, pointed to failures in Christian practice as well as in traditional Christian theology.

I think Barth's point is important. That's one reason I'm so disturbed as the Christian Right ideology that supports the most militaristic and aggressive groups in Israel, to the point of Christian charities funding illegal settlements on occupied Palestinian territory, all under the aegis of a crackpot apocalyptic notion that assumes that God's plan for the End Times is that most Jews in the world will be slaughtered and the remaining few convert to Christianity, i.e., stop being Jews.

Any Christian theology that assumes that it's God intention to havethe Jews of the world slaughtered, except for the ones that convert to Christianity, is seriously screwed up. It makes for bad religion, specifically for bad Christianity. I wouldn't play the age-old trick of saying such a theory isn't "really" Christian. It is Christian, unfortunately, though a warped, destructive version of the faith.

And for those of us to whom Christianity is a religion of peace, it's also important not to use the outrage of the Iranian government staging a Holocaust-denial hate fest as a reason to cheer for war and killing that isn't necessary or justified.

Here are some additional resources among many on the Holocaust and Holocaust denial.

Online resources:

History on Trial blog by Deborah Lipstadt (only occasionally updated but providing a lot of information on Holocaust-denial agitation)

Web site on the failed lawsuit against Lipstadt by Holocaust denier David Irving (currently in prison in Austria): Holocaust Denial on Trial

The British judge, Justice Gray, went into considerable detail about some of the historical matters at issue and does an excellent job of showing the Holocaust-denial scam for what it is in his written judgment.  If you were going to read just one document or book on Holocaust denial, this would be an excellent choice.

United States Holocaust Museum

Stiftung Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europas (German)

Shoah Project of the Universität Duisburg Links zum Thema Holocaust (German and English).  See also main page of The Shoah Project (mostly German, some English)

Holocaust-Referenz: Argumente gegen Auschwitzleugner (German) - focuses in particular on responding to Holocaust-denier claims on the Auschwitz death camps.


Yehuda Bauer, Rethinking the Holocaust (Bauer was chief historian at the Yad Vashem memorialin Jerusalem and has written widely on the Holocaust)

David Bankier, The Germans and the Final Solution: Public Opinion Under Nazism

Christopher Browning, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland

Lucy Dawidowicz, The War Against the Jews: 1933-1945

Saul Friedlander, Nazi Germany and the Jews: Volume 1: The Years of Persecution 1933-1939

Raul Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews

Eberhard Jäckel, Hitlers Weltanschauung (German original; available in English translation)

Deborah Lipstadt, Denying the Holocaust

Michael Shermer and Alex Grobman, Denying History: Who Says the Holocaust Never Happened and Why Do They Say It?

Robert Wistrick, Hitler and the Holocaust (gives an overview of the subject, including the substantive historical issues and disputes)

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