Holocaust Memorial Day is again widely commemorated. And for good reason. Even after decades, the world is still asking: How could such a thing happen in civilised Europe?
Holocaust Memorial Day is again widely commemorated. And for good reason. Even after decades, the world is still asking: How could such a thing happen in civilised Europe? Perhaps one answer to this question is that Europe was not as civilised as we think.
The perpetrators of the Holocaust were highly educated, which shows that a high level of education does not in itself prevent one from straying from the path we call humanity and sinking into inexplicable cruelty. Perhaps a highly educated person can justify and explain the absurd in a way that sounds reasonable on the surface.
Holocaust scholar Robert Jan Van Pelt chillingly states in his book on the Auschwitz extermination camp:
"One of the astonishing features of the Holocaust was that it was planned, initiated, carried out and completed by ordinary people who, as part of their normal chores, had learned to kill."
How could any human being do such a thing to another human being?
[destacate]A high level of education does not in itself prevent one from straying from sinking into inexplicable cruelty
[/destacate]In the film Schindler’s List, there is a scene in which the Nazi commander Amon Goeth finds himself in a bewildering ‘moral conflict’ with himself when he discovers that he is falling in “love” with his Jewish maid, Helen Hirsch, who is kept in his basement, as one falls in love with another human being. Goeth is confused about his feelings for Helen, feelings he should not have as a Nazi.
Goeth descends into the cellar where Hirsch is. What follows is a macabre soliloquy lasting nearly 5 minutes, during which Goeth paces around Helen Hirsch, who stands speechless, gripped by fear and terror. Helen barely dares to breathe as Goeth circles her like a shark around its prey. Helen is completely at Goeth’s mercy, not knowing what he is up to. “Yes, you are right”, Goeth says at one moment, as if answering the speechless Helen a question she hasn’t even asked.
Confused, Goeth tries to explain his feelings for her, not so much to her, but to himself. "I would like so much to reach out and touch you. What would that be like? What would be wrong with that?" he wonders aloud. He then continues his soliloquy, describing the "moral" struggle he is waging inside: "I realize that you are not a human in the strictest sense of the word..."
Just as Goeth is about to kiss Helen, he awakens from his spell - as if coming to his senses - and strikes, because Helen, who has not dared to move, has "seduced" him.
The extermination of the Jews during the Second World War is the best documented genocide in world history and yet 77 years later we are forced to ask a new question: How can anyone deny and say it didn’t even happen? For almost 15 years, I have studied Holocaust history as a hobby from the perspective of Holocaust denial, because this question haunts me.
How can anyone claim that there were no gas chambers for human beings, that the number of victims - some 6 million Jews - was grossly exaggerated, that there was no programmed industrial genocide by the Nazis? Such a person does not live in the same rational and moral universe with others in relation to history.
[destacate]The survivors say: This was done to me. The perpetrators say: I did it
[/destacate]Holocaust deniers may talk in a self-educated and, to the uninformed ear, very convincing way about the details of the Holocaust, such as the operation of the gas chambers, even the seals on the doors, present calculations of the amount of coke required for the crematoria, the properties of Zyklon-B gas, etc. If the Holocaust is true, where is Hitler's written order? they ask. So, the whole Holocaust is made up, they claim.
But in questioning the details, they fail to see the forest of evidence from the individual trees.
Shermer and Grobman, in their book Denying History, say: “The Holocaust is not a single event, which is why a single fact can no more prove that it happened than prove that it did not happen.”
Instead, as Shermer and Grobman point out, Holocaust history consists of an enormous body of written evidence, eyewitness testimony, photographs, the camps themselves, which form a vast parallel stream of evidence. It flows like a torrent in one and the same direction, the waterfall of which is the conclusion: the Holocaust is true.
In her book Antisemitism - Here and Now, renowned Holocaust scholar Professor Deborah Lipstadt sums up well why Holocaust denial contradicts simple logic. Let me follow Lipstadt in the following paragraphs closely.
The Holocaust, she argues, has the dubious distinction of being the best documented genocide in the world. For the deniers to be right, all the survivors would have to be wrong, Lipstadt says. Who else would have to be wrong? The bystanders. The non-Jews who lived in the cities, towns and villages of Eastern and Western Europe and watched as their Jewish neighbours were marched away, put on trains to concentration camps or shot in the woods and left to die in ditches by the side of the road. The countless historians who have researched and written about the Holocaust over the last almost 80 years would also have to be either part of this massive conspiracy or else they would have been completely duped.
But above all, the perpetrators themselves - those who actually admitted their guilt - would have to be wrong. The survivors say, “This was done to me.” The perpetrators say, “I did it.” Lipstadt asks how can deniers explain the fact that in no war crimes trial since the end of World War II has a representative of any nationality denied that these events are true? They may have said: “I was forced to kill”, but no one has claimed that the killing did not take place.
[destacate]Why would Germany bear such a historical burden if what it is accused of had not happened?
[/destacate]Lipstadt also asks why Germany was charged with enormous moral and financial responsibility for the crimes committed in the Holocaust if they did not happen. According to the deniers, the answer to this question is simple: the “Jews” forced German officials to falsely admit their guilt and threatened to prevent Germany from rejoining the family of nations. But even this, according to Lipstadt, makes no sense. German leaders must have known that to admit to genocide on this scale would leave a terrible legacy on the nation that would become an integral part of its national identity. Why would a country bear such a historical burden if what it is accused of had not happened? Moreover, almost 80 years after the end of the war, when Germany is now the world's political and economic leader, it could have declared that ‘it is not true; the Jews forced us to say this in 1945’. Instead, the German Government created a massive memorial to the murdered Jews in Berlin.
This is another illogicality on which the deniers rely: they insist that they only need one piece of concrete evidence to convince them of the Holocaust: Hitler’s written order authorizing the murder of all the Jews in Europe. No such order has been found. “Hitler probably realized that it was foolish to put his signature to such an order, which many might not have accepted if it had become public,” Lipstadt speculates. She may well have a point here. Hitler once signed an authorization to implement Germany’s secret ‘T4’ euthanasia programme, and when it came to light it provoked strong criticism of him in Germany, to the extent that he ordered the programme to be suspended.
The important thing, however, according to Lipstadt, is that historians are not bothered by the absence of such a document. Scholars never draw conclusions based on a single document. Especially in a case like this, where the Third Reich left behind a huge amount of written evidence of a government-led programme to exterminate the Jews. The deniers, of course, claim that these documents were forged by the Jews. But if that were the case, Lipstadt asks, why didn’t the “Jews” also forge a written order issued by Hitler himself?
There is no end to the irrational arguments of the deniers. They argue that if the Third Reich, a regime they describe as the epitome of efficiency and power, had wanted to murder all Jews, it would have ensured that no one would survive to testify about the death camps. The fact that there were survivors after the end of the war is proof that there was no genocide and that the testimonies of the survivors are lies. According to Lipstadt, this is easy to disprove. The Third Reich also tried to win the war, but lost it. Therefore, the assumption that the Third Reich succeeded in everything it set out to do is false. The premise is therefore flatly wrong.
It is not a question of proper historical research and clarification of the facts or a more accurate interpretation from a new perspective. Nor is it about the facts being so controversially ambiguous that anyone could objectively examine the evidence and argue that the Holocaust did not happen.
[destacate]Just as the Nazis tried to exterminate the Jews, Holocaust deniers are trying to erase their historical memory
[/destacate]The claims of Holocaust deniers have even been weighed in court and found wanting. The most famous court case, in the spring of 2000, saw David Irving, a self-taught historian and holocaust denier, sue Professor Lipstadt for libel. In her now classic book Denying the Holocaust, Lipstadt had described Irving as a dangerous anti-Semitic Holocaust denier. Irving sued Lipstadt, and the trial was held in London in the spring of 2000 to great publicity. These events have also been portrayed in the movie The Denial, which is a quite faithful portrayal of the events.
Irving lost the trial, which lasted several months and virtually destroyed the rest of his reputation. In his book Telling Lies About Hitler, the distinguished Hitler scholar Professor Richard Evans, who acted as a witness for the defence during the trial, makes the same point as the court judge Charles Gray in his closing statement: “During the trial, the defence had gone through and thoroughly documented nearly thirty examples of how Irving ‘significantly’ distorted evidence, omitted facts, mistranslated texts in order to present history in the light of his ideology. According to the court, these could not have been inadvertent mistakes, which all researchers make, because Irving’s “mistakes” invariably and consistently leaned towards the same ideological direction: to exonerate Hitler and deny the Holocaust. In layman’s terms, Irving sought to write history as it would have appeared from Hitler’s point of view.
As Evans says in his book, "Irving lost in court not because of his opinions, but because he was found to have deliberately distorted the evidence ... Irving did not investigate or interpret events, he twisted the evidence to make it look as if nothing had happened."
The denial of the Holocaust is still doing the same. It’s not about history or a legitimate interpretation of history, but about an ideology that fits the prophet Isaiah’s exclamation:
"Woe to those who call evil good and good evil! They turn darkness into light and light into darkness, bitter into sweet and sweet into bitter." (Isaiah 5:20)
Israeli Holocaust scholar Yehuda Bauer has said: "Deniers are trying to create the conditions for denying the right of Jews to live in a post-Holocaust world." He goes on to describe their efforts in this way:
"The goal of Holocaust deniers in the West is political - they want to rehabilitate the reputation of Nazism and fascism in general, and Adolf Hitler in particular, and to promote anti-Semitism and sometimes anti-Israel attitudes. In the Arab and Muslim world, the denial of the Holocaust seems to be driven primarily by the aim of undermining the perceived strong legitimacy of the existence of the State of Israel."
[destacate]Several factors create a fertile ground for Holocaust denial, while anti-Semitism in Europe is rearing its head again
[/destacate]We need to be reminded of the Holocaust repeatedly. Just as the Nazis tried to exterminate the Jews, Holocaust deniers are trying to erase their historical memory. We must not forget, so that it does not happen again. Holocaust Memorial Day therefore has an important place. Nor should it be mutated into a 'Day of Remembrance of the Persecuted', as has been the case in Finland. Such relativization, in all its well-meaning unintentionality, contains the seeds of Holocaust denial.
Although Holocaust denial is still today - thank God - a relatively marginal phenomenon, which has still not fully recovered from its loss of public reputation caused by the Irving trial, it is worth being vigilant about this phenomenon too. Decades of historical distance from the events, a dwindling generation of holocaust survivors and growing ignorance, and the potential for disinformation offered by the internet, are all creating fertile ground for Holocaust denial, while anti-Semitism in Europe is same time rearing its head again.
As the author Walter Reich, who also served as director of the American Holocaust Museum, put it so well: "What better way to make the world safe again for anti-Semitism than to deny the Holocaust?"
Pasi Turunen, theologian and radio broadcaster in Finland.
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