An Assault on Dignity, Truth, and Memory: The Danger of Holocaust Denial
It has often been said that the best way to keep a genocide like the Holocaust from happening again is never to forget its horrors and to perpetuate its memory through vigorous education programs in schools. But there are those who would like to see the Holocaust forgotten, and recently one of their most insidious methods, Holocaust denial, has reared its ugly head.
These enemies of truth cannot wipe away the scarring images branded onto the minds and hearts of the survivors of camps like Auschwitz and Birkenau, images that accompanied the numbers tattooed on the survivors’ arms. As the ranks of these witnesses thin with age, the efforts of this group of anti–Semites, neo-Nazis, and right-wing radicals to destroy the memory of the Holocaust have been redoubled.
Even when the horrors of mass murder were still fresh in the minds of survivor and liberating soldier alike, members of political fringe groups were dismissing the horrible truth of death camps and gas chambers, calling the atrocities Allied propaganda and Zionist legerdemain.
The first wave of Holocaust deniers who will no doubt arise as the eyewitness of the Holocaust become fewer and fewer is already trying to thrust itself into the public eye. In the early 1990s a small group of Holocaust deniers tried to put a full–page ad saying the Holocaust was a hoax in many college newspapers across the United States. Some prestigious universities printed the ad in their papers, either as an ad or an op–ed column. In publishing the piece, some papers cited the First Amendment, claiming that they were defending free speech. This shows just how dangerous it is for Holocaust deniers to paint themselves as being nothing more than iconoclasts who have a different "point of view." In trying to elevate their unreasonable propaganda to the level of reasonable opinion, today’s Holocaust deniers are trying to get themselves the protection of "free speech" that would not be extended to more nakedly racist and anti–Semitic groups like the Ku Klux Klan or skinhead groups.
Now that the generation of survivors like Simon Wiesenthal and Elie Wiesel is approaching old age it is becoming ever easier for people such as "self–described moderate fascist" David Irving (Lipstadt 161) and German nationalist Ernst Zundel (Schermer 64) to dismiss their testimony as the recollection of senile old men and, even more disgustingly, to portray their stories as lies. Along with attacking the entire galaxy of eyewitness accounts of the genocide as a conspiracy of "Zionist–Jewry" (Schermer 80), the most recent wave of Holocaust deniers have taken the disturbing step of selectively taking a few misinterpreted facts out of context in a vain attempt to support their "position". By practicing this pseudohistory, they hope to give their rhetoric the status of an opinion or position, albeit a controversial one, and try to wrap themselves in the flag of free speech allowing them to shout their ill–concealed hate from the rooftops. This is dangerous on three levels: it demeans the dignity of the survivors and victims of the Holocaust; it attacks the truth of what happened; and it endangers the sacred memory of the six million Jews who died at the hands of the Nazis.
Firstly, on the most personal level, Holocaust denial assaults the dignity of the survivors. It calls the survivors who tell their story liars and denies their suffering, pain, and anguish. For example, Judith Berg, a survivor of Auschwitz became very distraught and started screaming a denunciation of Holocaust denial when confronted by Holocaust denier David Cole on Phil Donahue’s talk show on Holocaust denial in 1994. Seeing Cole deny what she had seen with her very own eyes made her so angry that she lost her composure and dignity in public. (Schermer 109–114)
Secondly, the pseudohistory of Holocaust deniers who call themselves "revisionists" constitutes a direct attack on the unrefutable historical truth of the Holocaust as well as an assault on truth and reason in general. If lies can destroy one important historical event, the integrity of the rest of historical truth is compromised.
Lastly and most importantly, the attempts of Holocaust deniers to discredit the facts of genocide poses a real threat to the continued memory of the Holocaust. Some members of the general population would rather not admit that men could be so evil as to commit a crime so great as the Holocaust. Others would find it easier to sympathize with the repugnantly racist Nazi regime if they could pretend it didn’t have a policy of genocide. Some of these people, if they saw specious denial arguments appear in the mainstream media without any refutation, would be likely to reject the veracity of the Holocaust. If even a small percentage of the public doubted the Holocaust and if the efforts of organizations like the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Anti–Defamation League flagged for even a moment, the Holocaust’s standing in popular history could be under dire threat.
How can organizations like the Holocaust Remembrance Project, the Anti–Defamation League, Yad Vashem, and the Simon Wiesenthal Center protect the memory of the Holocaust from Holocaust deniers? "Revisionists" should not be invited to debate because the fact that the Holocaust happened is not up for discussion. It is a fact. Moreover, newspapers and magazines should not publish Holocaust deniers’ advertisements. Just because newspapers have the right to print "revisionist" lies does not mean that they should do so. As G.K. Chesterton said, ""To have a right to do a thing is not at all the same as to be right in doing it." (The American Chesterton Society) However, when deniers manage to get their claims into the public consciousness, Holocaust scholars have a duty to use reason to refute the deniers’ arguments. To argue with deniers gives them credibility, but to leave their public claims unchallenged would make it seem as if they could be right.
When Holocaust deniers garner public attention they pose a real threat to the memory of the Holocaust. They have been featured on talkshows. Recently Errol Morris released his dark documentary Dr. Death about Holocaust denier Fred Leuchter in 2000 (Schermer 257), again thrusting Holocaust denial into the public eye. Six million Jews and many other minorities including Gypsies and homosexuals will have died for nothing if their memory, which serves as a reminder of the horrors of genocide and the capacity of man for evil, is allowed to be attacked by prevaricators and by anti–Semites. It is in tribute to the memory of those who died in the Holocaust that we pass on both the history of mass murder and a message of hope in the preventability of future genocide l’dor v’dor, down through the generations, lest such an evil come about again. Holocaust denial must not be allowed to threaten this mission.
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