Our event entitled Saving The Shoah featured presentations by Dame Lesley Max and Professor Dov Bing. The evening’s theme was The Holocaust in an Age of Denial and Distortion.
As final speaker I presented a brief lecture on Denial and Distortion, outlining a tentative taxonomy for the evolving challenges to Holocaust memory. The lecture is presented below (13 minutes, audio plus slides).
This evening I will present a brief survey of Holocaust Denial and Distortion. My intention is to present the main categories and in most cases to provide an example of each. This is a work in progress and one that I hope to expand and refine. It also serves the purpose of setting out some of what will be examined in future meetings in this series.
I have relied in the first instance on the work of Holocaust scholar Dr Manfred Gerstenfeld, but have made a number of modifications and used different categories and definitions. Many of the categories will of course overlap and there will be debate as to whether some of these phenomena are best described as Holocaust distortion or Holocaust abuse. In my view, Holocaust abuse usually involves some degree of distortion and so should be included here.
But before beginning a survey of categories I wish to make some preliminary observations and comments:
Universalism versus Jewish particularity and distinction
In a future meeting I plan to present a detailed argument for the uniqueness of antisemitism - and its target, the Jewish people. But in the meantime I will opt to quote others.
In a recent article in the Jerusalem Post entitled CONTEMPORARY ANTISEMITISM IS NOT RACISM OR XENOPHOBIA, a professor at The Technical University of Berlin, said “Comprehending this unique character of Jew-hatred as a cultural category sui generis rather than as one form of prejudice among others is a precondition to challenging it successfully.”
American Jewish commentator Dennis Prager writes:
“Among those most committed to these dejudaizing interpretations are secular and non-Jewish Jews committed to the notion that the Jews are a people like all other peoples. Accordingly, they want to believe that antisemitism is but another form of bigotry, and that in the secular world it will die out...
“...Modern scholars tend to promote secular and universalist explanations for nearly all human problems, including, of course, antisemitism. In contrast, the traditional Jewish understanding of antisemitism has been the opposite—religious and particularist. Among modern scholars there are a large number of Jews whose universalist worldviews make them particularly averse to the Jewish explanation of antisemitism. Indeed, they oppose any thesis, about anything, not only antisemitism, which depicts the Jews as distinctive, let alone unique.”
The Holocaust is the paramount event in the history of antisemitism, and it must be examined within that history.
The Shoah must be studied in its context. Too often the Holocaust is considered as a standalone event, almost as though the Jews of Europe were simply unlucky to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. But the events of 1940s did not happen apart from the events of the 1930s. And those events did not happen apart from the German philosophical and theological writings of the previous four centuries. Whether we choose to widen our view by centuries or by millennia we find a context that is both relevant and tragic. Aberrant Christian theology is correctly credited for nearly 2000 years of antisemitism but in fact Hitler’s attempt to rid the world of Jews finds an antecedent in Pharoah’s attempt to kill the Israelite baby boys.
Again, the Holocaust must considered within its context - whether the view is decades, centuries or millennia.
And not only does the Shoah have a past - it also has a future context. Many of the same ideas manifest today in the anti-Israelism so fashionable on the left - and hard right, and elsewhere.
And so to our very brief survey of ten categories, beginning with…
Denial: A denial of central facts pertaining to the Holocaust
David Irving’s denial of the facts of the Holocaust is probably the best known example and has been referenced in this evening’s material. The case is presented in the movie entitled Denial.
Minimisation: A diminution of the facts of the Holocaust
Surveys have revealed a significant percentage of the general population believe the Holocaust has been greatly exaggerated. But it is also within academia we find minimising distortion. In the academic publication Journal of Genocide Research we are told “’...that the Hungarian Jews shipped to Auschwitz were not singled out as Jews” and “... that the Wannsee Conference was not specifically directed at a ‘final solution’ of the Jews.”
Justification: Placing blame on Jews or Jewish behaviour for the Holocaust
Five or six years ago I had a conversation with a German acquaintance while watching my son play sport. When he learned about my Holocaust work he explained that as a German growing up in Munich he was repeatedly taught about the Holocaust but it was always from the perspective of the Americans or the British. He complained that there was no consideration of why these events really occurred.
As my well educated acquaintance began to reveal his views I asked him to repeat some of his statements so that I could be sure I had not misunderstood. And what is it that this German believes?
A powerful and wealthy group of Zionists effectively sacrificed millions of their own Jewish people in order to create a pretext for the establishment of a Jewish state on Palestinian land. He believed the Jews were not innocent victims but in fact were responsible for the economic woes of the earlier years. It was the Jews who caused the suffering of other Europeans, through their control of international finance.
Deflection: Avoiding complicity for the Holocaust by shifting blame
Manfred Gerstenfeld writes: “In Germany, Holocaust deflection has taken specific forms. These include the false claim that the Holocaust was implemented solely by special units, denying that the Wehrmacht (the regular army) was involved to a great extent in the mass murders.
The philosopher Martin Heidegger attributed the responsibility for the crimes of World War II to modernity in general.”
Equivalence: Likening the Holocaust to other atrocities or causes
Nobel Prize laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer, and animal rights groups have drawn a comparison between the treatment of animals and the Holocaust.
Deborah Lipstadt refers to false equivalence as a form of denial. She has said “When groups of people refuse to commemorate Holocaust Memorial Day unless equal time is given to anti-Muslim prejudice, this is soft-core denial."
Inversion: Reversing the roles of Holocaust victims and perpetrators
One sometimes hears the charge that the Israelis are the new Nazis. Thus the victims have become the perpetrators. An example from Twitter: (kimsingh) what is ironic and absolutely devastating...that after surviving the Holocaust...the Jewish people displaced the Palestinians from their own land...and for the past 60 years...Israel has unleashed a Holocaust of the Palestinian people...The Jewish people vowed “never again”....but they themselves did it again...this time they became the oppressors...
Appropriation: Hijacking or recasting Holocaust terms, memorials or events in order to promote other causes, or in order to avoid the charge of antisemitism
UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn provides an example. Corbyn participated in a 2019 Holocaust event and signed a book stating: “Let us never allow antisemitism or any other form of racism to disfigure our society.” And yet Corbyn has called members of Hamas, which preaches the genocide of the Jewish people, his “friends.”
Decontextualisation: Neglect or denial of the broader historical context of the Holocaust
This I dealt with in my opening. To consider the Shoah apart from its broader context is to distort the Shoah. It was not an historical anomaly. It was the worst fruit of a hatred that for millennia has simmered and frequently boiled over. Attempts to rid the world of the people of Israel stretch back to the time of Moses, and beyond. In the modern period, pre-Holocaust and post-Holocaust philosophy and theology are rich with antagonism toward Jewish particularity. These are examples of essential context for any broad analysis of the Shoah.
Universalisation: A downplaying or denial of the Jewish particularity of the Holocaust while emphasising aspects that may have commonality with other causes
A January 2017 White House speech for International Holocaust Remembrance Day did not mention Jews or antisemitism. The White House defended the speech saying that by not referring to Jews, it was acting in an “inclusive” manner. Thus the Holocaust is morphed into a universal symbol of evil and suffering and is inevitably de-Judaized and decontextualised in the process.
Thus ends my survey of categories of Denial and Distortion. It has been very brief and has sought only to tentatively layout the categories within which these phenomena can examined. In order to address a problem we must first identify it. In future meetings we hope to address some of these issues in detail, perhaps with panel discussions.
Let me make a final observation: Holocaust memory today suffers at the hands of both its foes and its friends. It is possible to distort the Holocaust with the best of intentions. This becomes particularly relevant where there is a strong desire to market the Holocaust and to seek points of connection in a culture in which the Shoah is unknown or has been forgotten.
There is an argument that soft distortion is more dangerous than the obvious hard core denial of the lunatic fringe. With soft distortion the change is creeping and incremental and it often takes place within the camp. Those of us, who, in one sense or another, see ourselves as custodians of Holocaust memory must be alert to all forms of denial and distortion.
Perry Trotter, Founder, Holocaust and Antisemitism Foundation, Aotearoa New Zealand