Many historians and intellectuals regard the Holocaust, the Nazi Germany-led genocide of European Jews, as the darkest chapter of the 20th century; a century that had more dark chapters than any other period of recorded history. Some historians have attributed the uniqueness of malevolency to the Holocaust, even though Stalin and Mao were arguably responsible for far more deaths than Hitler.
The Nazis planned to eradicate Jews from the body of Europe with the finality and thoroughness that, arguably, has no parallel in history. While many historians also have disputed the uniqueness of the Holocaust in the pantheon of genocides, there is no doubt of WWII’s place as the pivotal event of the 20th century, with Israel-Palestine becoming an intractable but most consequential global issue of the subsequent decades.
Certain factors ensured that the Holocaust continued to attract the most attention and the most controversies among other genocides. Contention about the Holocaust and other events of WWII began right after completion of the Nuremberg Trials in 1946, which is where evidence and records of the Holocaust were first presented before the world.
Although the Nuremberg Trials were the first international efforts to prosecute war crimes and crimes against humanity, their procedural flaws and perception among people of effectuating “victor’s justice” facilitated controversial assessments of the war and genocide not only by conspiracy theorists with political agendas, but many respected historians and other academics.
One famous example is acclaimed historian AJP Taylor’s 1961 book The Origins of Second World War in which he claimed that Germany did not start WWII by deliberate, aggressive design, and Hitler was not an atypically anti-Semitic leader; both claims were subsequently rejected by most historians. On the other side of the debate were a group of historians, many of them Jewish, who were determined to meticulously document and analyse the appalling inhumanity of the Holocaust, lest the world forget the lessons.
One of the most famous members of this group was Austrian-born American historian Raul Hilberg, whose 1961 book, The Destruction of European Jews, became the seminal study of the Holocaust. Hilberg established in his work that the “Nazi Final Solution” was not accidental or functional, it was very much intentional, although the final eradicative intention only emerged through evolution in stages. From the very beginning, study of the Holocaust has been intricately related with international politics.
Germany, which is so widely lauded nowadays for confronting its dark past, was quite reluctant in the immediate decades after WWII to open up the records and publicise the extent of evil in perpetrating the Holocaust. Israel, a new state claiming territorial legitimacy from long-standing history, was also not vigourous in publicising the Holocaust in the early decades; many Israelis regarded the passivity of European Jews in the face of a gradually escalating Nazi genocide an unworthy example for the combative new state.
Governments in the US and Britain were also reluctant to unsettle the new West Germany, which was the linchpin of NATO and EU alliances. The 1960s brought a huge shift in both government policies and public perception of the Holocaust. West Germany was a particular hotbed of the worldwide student protests taking place during the last years of the 60s, and a key demand of the German youth was that the government and the elder generation confront and take ownership of the dark history of the Third Reich.
Flushed with victories in the Six Day War in 1966 and in control of vastly expanded territories, Israel found that the Holocaust can become a uniquely valuable nationalist rallying point and legitimising issue in facing the world community. Meanwhile, a series of popular books, movies, televisions shows, particularly coming out of America, firmly brought back the Holocaust in the public imagination as a crucial event of modernity.
As the Holocaust became not just an important historical event but a critical, living, breathing issue in the geo-politics of the later decades of 20th century, all kinds of experts and amateurs engaged in large numbers to propagate their own versions of the event -- deniers, revisionists, chauvinists, etc. Holocaust deniers generally advance the idea that the Nazi genocide of Jews in Europe, as expressed in accepted history, did not happen.
It is either outright rejection of the whole deliberate genocide, or complete negation of very important parts of the event. For example, famous denialist David Irving dismissed existence and use of gas chambers in concentration camps, denied there was any official Nazi policy of extermination, and claimed that only 100,000 Jews died in the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp, mostly because of disease from unsanitary conditions.
Meanwhile, several historians sought to elevate the Holocaust to such a unique event that any comparison with other genocides was deemed not only unacceptable, but offensive. Critics accused this approach as a chauvinistic and self-aggrandising expression of Jewish ethnocentrism. Holocaust revisionists, on the other hand, seek to re-examine and re-interpret the accepted history of the event by updating new or previously omitted, more reliable information and theories. They want their thesis to be part of the mainstream, accepted history. Although many people want to conflate revisionism with denialism, others carefully advocate distinction.
A statement from the history department of Duke University is often cited to distinguish between revisionism and denial: “Historical revision of major events ... is not concerned with the actuality of these events; rather, it concerns their historical interpretation -- their causes and consequences generally. There is no debate among historians about the actuality of the Holocaust ... there can be no doubt that the Nazi state systematically put to death millions of Jews, gypsies, political radicals, and other people.”
We can see revision of accepted history at work even at the updating of the death toll in the Holocaust. After the Red Army liberated Auschwitz in January 1945, the Soviet government declared that four million people were killed in that Nazi death camp, 2.5 million of which were Jewish. The Polish government installed a stone plaque in front of the ex-camp and now converted museum, enshrining the four million figure. Not only was this number the standard textbook figure in communist countries, this was also widely used in many historical accounts.
But several historians expressed scepticism about the four million number soon after the end of the war. Raul Hilberg’s 1961 book estimated the number in Aucshwitz to be at most one million. Several other historians estimated even lower numbers. During the 1980s, historians used archival information about Nazi transportation records and simulation of logistics to estimate the figure to be between 1.1 to 1.5 million.
In the early 1990s, the Polish government installed a new stone plaque with the figure 1.1 million after removing the old one that stood before Auschwitz for more than 40 years. Famous Holocaust historian Yehuda Bauer, who was director of the Division of Holocaust Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem at that time, was the one academic who was insistent about officially revising the old figure. He said: “A historian’s first duty is to tell the truth, and in this case the truth is horrible enough.
Exaggerating the number of dead at Auschwitz would only be grist for the mills of the deniers of the Holocaust.”
Faced with the rising tide of Holocaust denialism and the increasing importance of Holocaust as a geopolitical issue, many countries in Europe started to enact laws against denialism four decades after the end of war. In the next part, I will discuss how those laws have affected Holocaust denialism and study of Holocaust history in the public discourse.
More than 40 years after WWII, countries in Europe, led by Germany, began to enact laws targeting denial of the Holocaust. Today, 14 European countries and Israel have such types of provision in their legal codes. How have these laws impacted denialism, research, and public discussion on the Holocaust?
For obvious reasons, denial law in Germany, section 130 of the German Legal Code, first passed in 1985 and revised several times afterwards, has been focus of much attention and analysis. The key provision says: “Whoever publicly or in a meeting approves of, denies, or belittles an act committed under the rule of National Socialism of the type indicated in section 6, subsection 1 of the Code of Crimes against International Law (this subsection explicitly deals with genocide as defined by international law), in a manner capable of disturbing the public peace shall be punished with imprisonment for not more than five years or a fine.”
Those who expect thoroughness and specificity in German laws would notice that “approves of, denies, or belittles” leave lot of vagueness in interpretation and application. This is actually the common theme across denial laws in all countries.
All democratic countries have to balance freedom of speech, deliberate denialism, and the sheer practicality of application of laws. Legal scholars agree that more than being practical tools to eliminate denialism from public discourse, these laws largely play an important symbolic role; they strongly give a signal of what can be acceptable or not in the public sphere.
Among all other countries, Germany and Austria have been the most serious and vigilant against denialism and Nazism, despite which they have not been able to suppress the growth of far-right political parties and Neo-Nazi organisations.
German lower courts have been often reluctant to convict people without stark evidence of denialism although higher courts are more consistent in convictions. Experts say that this difference reflects a divergence between a national policy that is more attuned to international opinion and general functioning of law in a mass society.
In spite of laws against denialism and de-Nazification laws, intellectual debate in Germany regarding the Nazi regime and Holocaust has been very vigorous and contentious.
One reason is that German basic law regarding freedom of expression, arts, and sciences (Article 5) provide strong support for intellectual freedom. We can see an example of the contentious debate within Germany from the works of famous German intellectual Ernst Nolte and from the reactions to his works.
Some of Nolte’s controversial claims of history include that the Nazi regime was not uniquely evil or aggressive when put in the unsecure context of interwar Europe, that Holocaust should be open for debate and revisionism, that, apart from use of gas chambers, there are almost no other characteristics to distinguish the Holocaust from other 20th century genocides like Stalin’s purges of class enemies and the Khmer Rouge-led genocide in Cambodia.
Nolte’s views attracted furious criticism from famous intellectuals like Jürgen Habermas, and British historian Richard Evans. Nolte had his worldwide defenders too, for example, German intellectual Joachim Fest, whose critical biographies of Adolph Hitler and Albert Speer are widely acclaimed. We can also note that Ernst Nolte, despite attracting all the controversies, was awarded the Konrad Adenauer prize in 2000, a prize of high honor given by CDU, the currently ruling party of Germany.
There is great unevenness in applying the denial laws in the 14 countries of continental Europe. While Germany and Austria are praised for their adherence to the spirit and letter of the law, most other countries have very spotty records. Particularly notorious are the East European countries where the law is applied according to the whim and political ideology of the ruling government.
For example, although Lithuania has denial laws, it also included crimes of the Soviet regimes within the law. Nowadays, the government seems more zealous about prosecuting denial of Soviet crimes than denial of Nazi crimes. Many Lithuanians collaborated with the Nazis against Soviets and, after the break up of the Soviet Union, the collaborators became heroes while the anti-Nazi resistance in Lithuania during WWII, many of whom were Jewish, are now treated as villains. These selective applications of denial laws show that laws are no substitute for institutional strength of a country and its public culture.
In contrast with the legal codes of continental European countries, the common laws of Anglo-Saxon countries like UK, Canada, and US do not have explicit Holocaust denial laws, one reason being that the common law tradition puts strong emphasis on personal liberty. The First Amendment of the US constitution strongly defends freedom of expressing, even very ugly views, including Nazi ideology and Holocaust denialism.
People who espouse such views do not get any space in academic circles and experience social ostracism but they are not legally prosecuted. Not ironically, intellectually freer US and UK have a more vigorous, diverse, and engaged community of history researchers, writers, and avid readers. The rich tradition of history study in these countries provide enough defense against all kinds of denialists and conspiracy theorists without recourse of prohibitive laws.
There are contentious debates going on within the continental European countries about the effectiveness of denial laws and whether they are compatible with liberal and democratic ethos. The debates have gained more importance because many European Muslims have pointed out the inherent hypocrisy in protecting Holocaust and Jewish history from lies, exaggeration, and ridicule while it being open season on Islam and other faiths under the guise of freedom of expression.
Some defenders of denial laws argue that questioning religious beliefs is qualitatively different from denying historical fact. Liberal intellectuals have countered that by arguing that historical facts become established only after they are openly debated, disputed, and tested against the evidence.
Protecting history in a greenhouse of laws will only make it more vulnerable and in today’s open world community; no country can stamp out revisionist and rejectionist arguments. Moreover, if governments are allowed to protect a genocide from denialism then governments can also protect denial of genocide by laws.
For example, Turkey has made it a criminal offense to argue that the Armenian Genocide during WWI took place at all. The newly-elected, conservative government of Poland is currently prosecuting Polish-American historian and Princeton Professor Jan Tomasz Gross for pointing out in a recent article that the Polish people were also guilty of murdering large numbers of Jews in during WWII.
In today’s open world, the best way to protect historical facts of a genocide is to meticulously document every evidence that can be found and open the records for public scrutiny. Israel’s Yad Vashem Centre for Holocaust remembrance has developed a database over the years that methodically list names and biographical details of every Holocaust victim it can verify. The list already includes nearly 4.5 million names and is growing.
In 2013, Sarajevo-based Research and Documentation Center (RDC) published a final database of 97,207 names of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s citizens killed and missing during the 1992-1995 war in former Yugoslavia. According to the centre, more than 240,000 pieces of data were collected, processed, checked, compared, and evaluated by an international team of experts to tabulate the names of the victims.
There will always be battles over history. As Orwell said so aptly in 1984: “Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.” Protection of the past by present laws may give an illusion of control but it only makes the present defenders weakly armed for the future.