Holocaust denial is in the news again, thanks (but no thanks) to the President of Iran. Ahmadinejad’s opinions have elicited the usual indignation, but what are we to make, finally, of Holocaust denial itself? There is no question that the “final solution” is among the most well-documented events in history. The Germans kept very precise records—not to mention the countless testimonies from survivors and perpetrators, along with all the other supporting evidence. That anyone would even attempt to deny the Holocaust has always puzzled me. Yet it’s been going on for at least forty years.
Sometimes the denial manifests as a critique of the extent or nature of Nazi persecution of the Jews, as for example in claims that the gas chambers were a myth. I don’t think it makes any difference whether a revisionist denies the Holocaust outright, or just the extent of it, or the means employed. None of it withstands critical scrutiny.
It seems to me that the question as to why such denial is being advanced has two related answers, one of them obvious, the other not as much. First, the obvious one: antisemitism. Hatred of Jews has a long tradition. The ambivalent relationship between Christianity and Judaism, in which organized Christian power incorporated the Jewish scriptures while claiming to usurp the Jews’ “chosen” place within the biblical story, has been one of the most tragic aspects of European history. The 19th century, however, saw racism as a cultural construct give way to an ideological racism. The mythical position of the Jew as scapegoat became a lightning rod for those using fear and resentment to wield a new kind of power that we’ve come to know as “totalitarian.”
When the magnitude of the Nazi regime’s crimes became widely known, the world shuddered. A supposedly “civilized” nation demonstrated to what depths human beings can go, and they were deeper and more frightening than anyone had dreamed. The post-war revelations concerning the death camps were a repudiation of ideological antisemitism. As the cause, so the effect: the end of antisemitic rhetoric was mass murder.
Rather than boldly attempt to justify the “final solution,” therefore, the antisemite of today seeks instead to deny that it existed. If there were no Holocaust, then anti-Jewish ideology can pretend once more to have a case. Holocaust denial, then, is an attempt to regain access to the destructive energy of the old Jew-as-scapegoat mythos, a time-honored source of power. Of course there are other scapegoats available (the right wing is currently using gay people for that end) but none of them have the history or the potency of the Jewish scapegoat.
I believe, however, that there is a second reason for Holocaust denial, related to the first but more subtle. That the Third Reich was really a rightist state is a fact that must be secretly embarrassing to right wingers. During the Cold War, the American right was fond of raising the specter of
As a symptom, then, of this largely unexpressed embarrassment, we witness the appearance, on society’s fringes, of Holocaust denial. For if the Holocaust didn’t happen, or even if it wasn’t as severe as we’ve been told, then Nazi Germany was just another regime that waged an unfortunate war and lost, rather than a massive criminal enterprise. And if the fascist state was not beyond the ken, then the fascist project for the future is given a new lease on life. I don’t believe the issue at stake is whether or not the denial is supported by the facts. The motive is to sow the seeds of doubt in the public mind. A gradual erosion of faith in the historical record advances the fascist cause. Most of this is unconscious, of course, just as all such ideological systems are an expression of an unconscious drive to power.
In the case of Ahmadinejad and other Holocaust deniers from Muslim countries, I think it’s primarily a symptom of their hatred of
I understand that there are Holocaust deniers on the left as well. Delusion is not the sole property of the right. But if I were to believe what the right wing noise machine tells me, liberals and leftists are natural allies of Islamic fundamentalists, although the fundamentalists oppose homosexuality, abortion, women’s rights, and just about everything else that the American right opposes. The Orwellian state of public discourse is such that indignation about Holocaust denial can be expressed by those who haven’t learned anything from the Holocaust. The mortal danger of extremist ideology, whether we label it “right” or “left,” is not something in a museum. It’s still very much with us.