Why give Holocaust denial a platform?


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Deborah Lipstadt asks the key question at her blog: Why should any honorable, noble agency give a platform to people who don’t respect the facts and who have a track record of distorting history?

The distinguished debating group, the Oxford Union, has invited history distorter David Irving to speak. He was invited to speak with representatives of the British National Party (BNP), a group not known for tolerance on racial and immigration issues. While there is value to getting a range of views on any issue, Prof. Lipstadt and many others among us think that inviting a known distorter to speak is practicing open-mindedness past the point of letting one’s brains fall out (what is the difference between “open mind” and “hole in the head?”).

You know this story and these characters, right, teachers of history? You should, since these people play important roles in the modern art of history, and in the discussion over what we know, and how we know it. These are issues of “what is truth,” that your students badger you about (rightfully, perhaps righteously).

American teachers of history need to be particularly alert to these issues, since Holocaust deniers have been so successful at placing their material on the internet in a fashion that makes it pop up early in any search on the Holocaust. Most searches on “Holocaust” will produce a majority of sites from Holocaust deniers. It is easy for unwary students to be led astray, into paths of racist harangues well-disguised as “fairness in history and speech.”

Prof. Lipstadt practices history at Emory University in Atlanta, where she is the Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies. She chronicled much of the modern assault on history in her book, Denying the Holocaust, The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory (1994). In that book, she documented the work of British historian David Irving, much of which consists of questionable denial of events in the Holocaust.

Cover of Lipstadt's book, Denying the Holocaust

Irving sued her for libel in Britain in 2000, where it is not enough to establish the truth of the matter to mount a defense. In a stunning and welcomed rebuke to Holocaust denial and deniers, the judge ruled in her favor, and documented Irving’s distortions in his 350-page opinion.

While his claims are legal in England, in several places in Europe his denial of Holocaust events is not protected as free speech. Traveling in Austria in 2005, he was arrested and imprisoned for an earlier conviction under a law that makes it a crime to deny the events. Prof. Lipstadt opposed the Austrian court’s decision: “I am uncomfortable with imprisoning people for speech. Let him go and let him fade from everyone’s radar screens.”

The drama plays out again. Serious questioning of what happened is the front line of history. Denying what happened, however, wastes time and misleads honest citizens and even serious students, sometimes with bad effect. Santayana’s warning about not knowing history assumes that we learn accurate history, not a parody of it.

This event will raise false questions about censorship of Holocaust deniers, and the discussion is likely to confuse a lot of people, including your students. U.S. history courses in high school probably will not get to the Holocaust until next semester. This issue, now, is an opportunity for teachers to collect news stories that illuminate the practice of history for students. At least, we hope to illuminate, rather than snuff out the candles of knowledge.

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8 Responses to Why give Holocaust denial a platform?

  1. […] credence to the uncredible merely by allowing them to appear — in this case, in regard to the Oxford Union’s ill-thought notion to invite neo-fascists and Holocaust deniers in to discuss “freedom of […]

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  2. bernarda says:

    Ed, I would like to be clear on one thing when I said “almost no one”. I certainly recognize that you have been very good on talking about the Japanese and war in the Pacific.

    Just so others don’t think I was including or criticizing you on this point.

    In some blog discussions I have also talked about the millions of Congolese killed and being killed today; I have also talked about the more or less forgotten Congo Free State at the end of the 19th century where millions of inhabitants were massacred, by some accounts more than half the population.

    My point is that we have to keep things in perspective. I have a father, uncles, and their cousins who fought in Europe or in the Pacific. None of them fought because of the Holocaust. In fact, there was probably more knowledge of atrocities in China than in Europe because the Chinese government had a long-running public relations campaign starting before the U.S. entered the war.

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  3. Ed Darrell says:

    Odd mislink between Blogger and WordPress. I’ve got the photo in a file here, now. It was linking and then not linking — and it’s been doing it for hours. Odd.

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  4. Bad says:

    DL’s picture isn’t showing up for me, btw: just a black box with the alt text in it.

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  5. Bad says:

    I go back and forth on this. To some extent, I think giving these guys the silent treatment works pretty well, but they always seem to find a way to claim that they are being shut out and persecuted no matter what they do.

    They are, by nature, basically real-life versions of internet trolls: outrage for attention and then using the attention to try and raise their profile and cause more outrage… and so on.

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  6. nicolen says:

    Remembering the Holocaust is not just about how many people were annihilated. It’s not just about body count. It’s about how a man like Hitler came to power. It’s about apathy and strife in hard times. It’s about a populace so desperate that it would allow someone like Hitler to lead them.

    There are so many lessons surrounding that time in Germany that should be taught and learned, not the least of which were genetic and political engineering, intoleracne, and scapegoating.

    As Ed said – remembering these things and learning from them does not suggest that other atrocities occurred elsewhere.

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  7. Ed Darrell says:

    I think we need to face all of history. I do disagree with you — we need to make sure the memory of the Holocaust is kept alive.

    The links I provided describe the differences Lipstadt has with Ward Churchill, and with others.

    Remembering the dead in Europe in no way suggests we should forget the dead in Asia,or anywhere else at any other time.

    But we should never forget Hitler’s question that gave the green light to the Holocaust: “Who, today, remembers the Armenians?”

    Don’t forget, don’t play it down.

    See my earlier post about when we say “never again” has arrived. That’s what history is all about.

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  8. bernarda says:

    “Denying what happened, however, wastes time and misleads honest citizens and even serious students, sometimes with bad effect. ”

    That is true. But it is also true that labeling everyone that disagrees with you “a denier” wastes time and misleads honest citizens. Deborah Lipstadt has accused President Jimmy Carter of “soft core denial”, a term she invented. She has also called German philosopher Ernst Nolte worse than a denier because he compared Hitler to Stalin. She apparently has an ideological ax to grind.

    I have been called a “denier” because, like Professor Norman Finkelstein and historian Ward Churchill, I dispute the idea that the Holocaust was the single most important holocaust and a uniquely unique event, and for saying that it is primarily used today as an excuse for any Israeli policy. It is primarily used today as an ex post facto defense of zionism. That is in a way denial of history.

    Almost nobody ever talks about the 20 to 30 million Chinese and other East Asians who were massacred in WWII, many in concentration camps and in medical experiment camps. Why are European lives somehow more important than East Asian lives? There seems to be a double standard.

    As to free speech, Christopher Hitchens had relevant comments-he mentions the Irving case- in a debate at the University of Toronto.

    http://onegoodmove.org/1gm/1gmarchive/2007/03/free_speech_6.html#comments

    Probably, you will disagree with me, but I think it is a waste of time to continue harping on this one historical event. Other events in WWII were at least equally important and underreported. One other example, the British organized famine in Bengal in 1943 that killed 3 million people.

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