Learning About the Holocaust
There are people in the world who claim or deny things about which most other people generally agree.
Sometimes these groups are quite large minorities (such as those who believe that the US government has concealed evidence of aliens in Roswell, New Mexico).
Sometimes they are smaller (such as those who believe that the Moon landing of 1969 was faked for a TV audience).
So why is denial of the Holocaust so different?
What is Holocaust Denial?
Holocaust denial is the name given to the claim that the Holocaust, as we think of it today, never really happened.
Holocaust deniers say that the killing of millions of Jews never occurred, and that places such as Auschwitz were not really death camps at all.
The extreme form of Holocaust denial claims that the whole thing is an invention.
A less extreme form accepts that the Nazis did massacre some Jews, but not on the scale which history records.
There are lots of simple common-sense objections to such denial.
Here are some of them:
Who are the Holocaust deniers?
Among many, two have become especially well-known: the British historian, David Irving and Arthur Butz, professor of electrical and computer engineering at Northwestern University, Illinois.
If you type either name into a search engine, you will quickly find links to articles on Holocaust denial or revisionism (Professor Butz's preferred term).
Some of these sites may be blocked by your Internet service provider.
Why Deny the Holocaust?
To some people, it is more important to recognize that the Germans killed millions of Jews through a deliberate and systematic policy, than to know the exact numbers who died in a particular place.
To others, including academic historians, it is important to discover the numbers.
If we cannot know the numbers exactly we may want to know them approximately, and know the reasons why we cannot be more exact.
Some other groups claim that organizations which favour or support Jewish people have used the Holocaust to gain sympathy for policies which otherwise might be less popular.
This is a crude theory, according to which modern societies are sympathetic to Jewish people to make up for the persecution of Jews in the past.
Some of those who hold this view go on to say that some details in accounts of the Holocaust are exaggerated or even invented to get more sympathy for Jewish people and their current political or social programs.
Suppose that some people really had used the historical record to support things they want to do today.
This would not change the past.
It may be helpful to us sometimes to separate the question of what really happened from the question of what we do about it today - because both are important.
And it may also be helpful to us to consider whether what happened in the past does have a connection with what we do today.
Modern societies repeatedly ask such questions.
Here are some examples:
Holocaust Denial on Trial
Near the end of the Second World War, as allied or Russian soldiers advanced into Poland and Germany, they discovered the camps where Jewish people were held.
They quickly began to gather evidence of what they found, and much of this was used after the war, in a special kind of trial, held at Nuremberg.
The purpose of this Tribunal (as it was called) was to charge the surviving leaders of the Nazi régime with guilt for what happened, and to put them on trial.
Compared to many other subjects which historians have to study, the evidence available here is huge.
The Tribunals took statements and heard testimony from many witnesses.
We still have access to the records of this tribunal.
Most of the documents are available on the World Wide Web.
You can find them by using the links below:
Although it is possible for courts to make mistakes, they have processes which give people a chance to present evidence to support what they claim to be true.
In a celebrated case recently, David Irving sued the historian Deborah Lipstadt (and her publishers, Penguin Books) for libel, because she had called him a Holocaust denier.
David Irving lost this case - which effectively meant that what Deborah Lipstadt had written about him was considered fair comment.
This very complex case can be studied in detail on the Holocaust Denial on Trial website.
Click on the link below to go to the site.
The David Irving libel case is one very well known example of Holocaust denial or revisionism.
Click on the link below to go to this page.
The Holocaust as Historical Fact
The revisionist historians generally do not dispute the Nazi persecution of Jews, but they claim that it has been exaggerated and was really less severe than most people think.
One result of this is that some less educated people may interpret their arguments to mean that the Holocaust did not happen at all.
Arthur Butz has written a book, giving his views on the Holocaust.
His title for this book is The Hoax of the Twentieth Century.
Since he is a professor (not of history) in a university, it is likely that some people will assume this means either that the deniers are right, or at least that there is lots of doubt.
This is not the case. The evidence is overwhelming that the Holocaust (in the familiar sense) certainly happened.
What historians have still to settle are some points of detail.
Of course, you should not accept this statement without checking for yourself.
The best way to do this is to look at the evidence of the documents.
Studying Holocaust Denial
Holocaust denial is important to historians, because it helps test the nature and strength of historical evidence.
It is also unusual in that the Holocaust has been the subject of important trials both immediately after the war, and more recently.
There is a mass of material available still, including witness statements.
In the 1970s, Albert Speer was interviewed extensively for Thames TV's The World at War series.
Speer was the most senior member of Nazi party to avoid a death sentence at Nuremberg.
The World at War interviews were not made under the pressure of a trial as at Nuremberg.
Speer reproached himself for not finding out more about the Holocaust and for not protesting about the conduct of Heinrich Himmler - which would make no sense if the Holocaust had not happened.
There may still be people alive in Germany who worked in the death camps, and can confirm the Holocaust by eye-witness statements, as much as the many Jewish survivors.
Responding to Holocaust Denial
There are different ways of doing this.
Historians may be concerned, not primarily with taking sides, so much as with finding out as exactly as possible what happened.
Ordinary people may be more concerned with the beliefs and attitudes this leads to - for example, denying the Holocaust in order to justify anti-Semitism or racial hatred.
In the UK the law forbids incitement to racial hatred but not Holocaust denial.
In some other countries, denial of the Holocaust is a crime.
Deborah Lipstadt's response was to name and shame David Irving.
Dr. Irving tried to use the UK's very strict libel laws to sue Professor Lipstadt and Penguin Books (who published her comments).
In winning the case, the defence had to show that what Deborah Lipstadt wrote was justified.
One result of this case is that anyone in the UK can now call Dr. Irving a Holocaust denier.
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