As disputers of the Shoah attract new adherents, historians such as ‘Denial’ protagonist Deborah Lipstadt warn against implementing European-style laws

german-memorialAfter every genocide, there comes a stage of denial. Embedded within genocidal programs enacted by some of last century’s most notorious regimes, the phenomenon of denial is not unique to the Holocaust, according to Gregory H. Stanton, a former US State Department official and founder of Genocide Watch.

“The perpetrators of genocide dig up the mass graves, burn the bodies, try to cover up the evidence and intimidate the witnesses,” wrote Stanton. “They deny that they committed any crimes, and often blame what happened on the victims. They block investigations of the crimes, and continue to govern until driven from power by force, when they flee into exile,” he wrote.

This paradigm fits the actions of Nazi Germany, as well as regimes led by — for instance — Pol Pot, Idi Amin, and the Khmer Rouge, claimed Stanton, who outlined a ten-stage timeline of genocide that ends in denial. Far from being innocuous, denying that a genocide took place is “among the surest indicators of future genocidal massacres,” according to Stanton.

Research conducted by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) suggests that as many as one-fifth of Americans possess “some indifference toward the remembrance of the Holocaust and negative attitudes toward Jews in relation to the Holocaust.” In addition to claiming that “knowledge of the Holocaust in the US is quite low relative to European countries,” the museum regularly warns about the explosive growth of Shoah denial on the Internet.

corpses-burnedThe seeds of denial were sown by the Nazis early on, most notably with “Special Action 1005.” Starting in early 1942, prisoners dug up and incinerated the corpses of three-million Jews murdered by SS-Einsatzgruppen squads or in death camps. At Treblinka, Babi Yar, and elsewhere, techniques were developed to destroy as many corpses as quickly as possible.

During an October 1943 speech given to SS generals in Poland, SS chief Heinrich Himmler referred to “the extermination of the Jewish people” and the need for continued silence. Similar to the murderous purge of Hitler’s political enemies in 1934, the Nazis’ “Final Solution” to the Jewish question was to be an unwritten page of German history, intoned Himmler.

‘Freedom for offensive people to be offensive’

According to Holocaust deniers, the Nazis had no formal policy to eliminate Europe’s Jews, and the number of Jews who died during the war is an order of magnitude lower than six million. As a specific point of contention, deniers claim that gassing installations were not used to mass-murder Jews.
While some historians choose to ignore these claims, others refute the deniers’ assertions head-on. A third group fights fire with fire and focuses on delegitimizing the deniers and their methods, including by shedding light on their motivations.

In the new film “Denial,” the delegitimization approach is used by historian Deborah Lipstadt and her legal team in a British court. Following Lipstadt’s labeling of historian David Irving as a falsifier of history in her 1993 book, “Denying the Holocaust,” Irving brought a libel suit against Lipstadt and her publisher. As portrayed in the film, the defense team’s strategy was to expose Irving’s bigotry, bias, and falsifications of evidence.

“We need not waste time or effort answering the deniers’ contentions,” Lipstadt has said. “Their commitment is to an ideology and their ‘findings’ are shaped to support it.”

Denying the Holocaust is illegal in many European countries and Israel. In Hungary, for instance, a court blocked almost two-dozen Holocaust denial websites this month. More than 500,000 Hungarian Jews were murdered with collaboration from the government and many Hungarians, yet Holocaust denial is rampant in that country, home to 50,000 Jews today.

‘I am convinced that freedom of speech means nothing unless it includes the freedom for offensive people to be offensive’

In the US, more than a few academic institutions harbor Holocaust deniers who teach students their beliefs. Some of these faculty members are monitored by anti-hate groups seeking to combat Holocaust denial on campus. With barely half of the world’s population having heard of the Nazis’ genocide of European Jewry, these “academic” deniers have a built-in audience, including among international students.

Although Holocaust denial might be expanding in cyberspace and some far-left corners of academia, most historians and Jewish leaders are against the passage of European-style laws against genocide denial.

“I am convinced that freedom of speech means nothing unless it includes the freedom for offensive people to be offensive,” said Lipstadt during an Oxford Union Society debate in January.

“We who are offended by [Holocaust deniers], must accept that, as a cost of living in a free society,” said Lipstadt, who teaches at Emory University in Atlanta.

‘How much is false about the Holocaust?’

With no laws against Holocaust denial to impede them, Americans are free to say the Holocaust did not occur in any forum they choose.

A prominent early Holocaust denier was the founder of the America First Party, Gerald L.K. Smith. In his “Cross and Flag” magazine, the one-time presidential candidate claimed that six million Shoah victims actually immigrated to the US, and were not killed in Europe. He frequently railed against Jews and Israel, deploying anti-Semitic trope after trope.

“If the reader wants to know what the organized Jew in power would do to the United States if he came to absolute control, all he needs to do is to study the morality of the Zionist Jew in the Middle East in which these Christ-hating tyrants have violated all the rules of decency, all established civilized precedent, and all ethics having to do with the relationship of one man to another,” wrote Smith in 1959.

A seminal moment for Holocaust denial came in 1976, when a Northwestern University electrical engineering professor named Arthur R. Butz published a book calling the Shoah “the hoax of the century.” Cloaked in the illusion of academic rigor, the book encouraged deniers to publish materials and organize groups like the California-based Institute for Historical Review, a leading convener of deniers for decades.

Since 1987, the Committee for Open Debate on the Holocaust has paid for denial ads in campus newspapers, including at Harvard University. Placed by committee head Bradley R. Smith, these “How much is false about the Holocaust?” ads have been rejected by some newspapers, but the committee has had success placing them online.

The most recognizable American Holocaust denier might be white supremacist David Duke, who sold denial literature out of his legislative office in Louisiana. Duke’s anti-Semitism has long garnered headlines, including this summer, when the Ku Klux Klan icon endorsed Donald Trump’s candidacy for president.

Duke’s statements about Jews, blacks and other minorities are intended to dehumanize those groups. This “dehumanization” stage is required for genocide to take place, according to Stanton’s ten-stage timeline. However, claimed the Genocide Watch founder, in democratic societies where free speech is permitted — even dehumanizing hate speech — a march toward genocide is unlikely to occur.

“In combating dehumanization, incitement to genocide should not be confused with protected speech,” wrote Stanton. “Genocidal societies lack constitutional protection for countervailing speech, and should be treated differently than democracies.