Why give Holocaust denial a platform?

November 25, 2007

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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

Cover of Deborah Lipstadt’s book, Denying the Holocaust, the Growing Assault on Truth and Memory

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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