Most people will readily affirm that the Holocaust is a historical fact. The Holocaust is the name most people give to the Nazis’ 1941–1945 campaign to systematically exterminate European Jewry—which succeeded in killing roughly six million Jews. Many Jews call it the Shoah (Hebrew for catastrophe). The Nazis called it the Endlösung der Judenfrage in Europa (the final solution to the Jewish question in Europe). Many specifics of this catastrophe are so consistently and thoroughly attested, by such an enormous multitude of sources, that they come as close as humanly possibly to being certifiable historical facts. (And yet, there are people, generally referred to as Holocaust deniers who simply, without evidence, deny those facts.)
To summarize: when the National Socialist Party came to power in Germany in 1933, they announced that the Party’s political and intellectual raison d’être was the redressing of a host of ills—from Germany’s national humiliation to supposedly parasitic finance capitalism to revolutionary Communism—and that they held what they called international Jewry responsible for all of these ills. They then passed the Nuremburg Laws, which were designed to make life for Jews so unbearable that they would emigrate, thus, they said, making Germany Judenrein (free from Jews). Under these laws, Jewish businesses and properties were first boycotted and then confiscated. Synagogues were vandalised and desecrated. Jews had to visibly wear a yellow star, on pain of death. They were deemed to have no civil rights and were prohibited from seeking any legal redress. The Nazis implemented these same laws when they extended their empire—initially to the Rhineland, Austria and the Sudetenland, and then, after the war broke out, across continental Europe, where they installed regimes charged with carrying out these laws. After Operation Barbarossa in June 1941—which the Nazis framed as a Rassenkampf (race war) against Slavs, who, they said, were controlled by the Judeo-Bolsheviks—their already rapacious antisemitism mutated into a goal of extermination. First, there was the holocaust by the bullets: Einsatzgruppen death squads and local collaborators shot an estimated 1.5 million Jews and dumped them into mass graves across Eastern Europe (the task of locating all these graves is still ongoing today). Then there was the holocaust by gas: Jews from as far away as Guernsey and Salonika were rounded up and deported to a vast death camp infrastructure (mostly in conquered Eastern Poland), where millions met their end in a combination gas chamber and crematorium.
None of these facts are deniable in any sense of that word. The only serious argument is about why this happened in the way it did. Intentionalists such as Lucy Dawidowicz and Daniel Goldhagen argue that Hitler was determined from the very beginning to exterminate European Jewry, and that the Holocaust is the implementation of passages in Mein Kampf declaring war, in the name of God, against the Jews. Functionalists such as Arno Mayer and Christopher Browning point out that the Nazis only started killing Jews en masse in 1942, after the failure of previous attempts—that were outlined in Adolf Eichmann’s Madagascar Plan—to expel or deport them, and also after the war on the Eastern Front was starting to turn against them.
Those who have questioned or rejected the proposition that any genocide of the Jews happened are known as Holocaust deniers (who may be either softcore or hardcore), or Holocaust revisionists or just plain distorters of history. Few of them are literally outright deniers. Few literally say nothing happened. Some even acknowledge a small portion of the carnage, for example suggesting that hundreds of thousands (not millions) of Jews were shot by the SS on the Eastern Front. But they deny that six million Jews perished, and they deny that there was ever, at any point during the war, a plan of genocide targeted at Jews—they call those facts either exaggerated or a fabrication. David Irving is probably Holocaust denial’s most famous mouthpiece.
The phenomenon of Holocaust denial is a frequent focus of debates about what ought to be permissible as a subject of public discourse: it puts to the test the claim that allowing a battle of ideas is always beneficial to society. Every so often, some suggest that Holocaust denial should be made illegal in more countries besides Germany and Austria—or at least that Holocaust deniers should not be allowed a public platform. In a recent row over the appropriate boundaries of free speech rights on Britain’s university campuses, the Prime Minister’s office lambasted the government’s universities minister, Michelle Donelan, for having suggested that their much vaunted free speech bill would protect even a Holocaust denier’s right to give a speech about the Holocaust on campus, since those who block any speaker would risk fines unless the speaker “strayed into racism.” (The Prime Minister’s office was presumably deeply embarrassed by Donelan’s remark, which could easily be interpreted to suggest that one can deny that the Holocaust happened without straying into racism. Holocaust denial invariably does much more than stray into racism, as it always relies on the racist claim that the Jews fabricated the facts of the Holocaust to promote their own interests.) There have also been attempts to criminalise the denial or minimisation of other genocides. For example, in 2016, the French parliament attempted to criminalise denial of the Armenian genocide, but France’s constitutional court overturned the decision in 2017, partly on the grounds that it was “unnecessary.”
I oppose laws against genocide denial, because, above all, I believe in free speech. I believe that the state has no business barging in to decide what is or is not historical truth. Historical knowledge doesn’t advance by having the state legislate on what the historical facts are. It advances through a continuous dialectic that allows even the wackiest theses to be tested against the weight of the historical evidence. (Claims that deny the genocide of the Jews in the Holocaust, or of the Armenians, Rwandans and Bosnians at other points in history, have been tested to the point of evisceration.) The First Amendment guarantees people the right to make total fools of themselves. It revolts me to listen to them, for sure, but I would rather they had the freedom to say what they want than that the government had the power to muzzle them.
Laws against genocide denial are a bad idea: not just on principle, but also strategically. They tend to make deniers look like martyrs in the cause of free speech; deniers can masquerade as free speech warriors, which can deodorise their views. These laws also tend to render the outlawed topic forbidden fruit—which may entice some into joining the deniers purely as a symbolic expression of rebellion against the consensus. And such laws also create the false impression that we feel we need to muzzle deniers for our protection. They suggest that we fear their talk, despite having the facts on our side and more than ample documentation to falsify the deniers’ assertions. They suggest that we lack faith in the integrity of the historical record or confidence that it will reveal the truth of the matter. We should never let ourselves be put on the defensive against genocide deniers. The enormous weight and depth of the evidence holds more than enough power to conclusively refute their claims. Ask yourself, which was a better way to defeat David Irving’s claims: locking him up in Vienna in 2006 for a remark about the Holocaust he had made ten years earlier; or systematically proving that he was a serial fabricator and pseudo-historian, as Richard Evans did in his impressive volume, Telling Lies For Hitler?
Genocide denial is undoubtedly a problem; it is always troubling when it makes an appearance. And while denial of the Jewish genocide in the Holocaust is a fringe position that few take seriously, other forms of genocide denial or distortion have gained more traction, especially those that can be used for political purposes. For example, the campaign, led by Slobodan Milosevic’s Serbian ultra-nationalist forces, to extirpate Bosnian Muslims from Balkan Europe, has been denied or distorted in order to discourage humanitarian intervention. And some have denied the ongoing ethnocide of the Uyghur people in China in order to claim that it is merely atrocity propaganda, designed to serve the goals of one side in the imperial conflict.
Genocide denial is not a position held by mavericks or contrarians in the interest of free inquiry: it’s purely a political tactic. Its purpose is to take advantage of people’s natural and healthy scepticism about official narratives—to create a space for doubt into which they can insert their own ideological narrative. That’s why it’s never really about the facts or the evidence. For example, in response to the DNA evidence that added scientific precision to what was already irrefutable evidence from other sources, Serbian ultra-nationalists simply denied even more forcefully that the Srebrenica massacre had happened. The more we know about the details of a particular genocide, the more the resolute the denials of its existence become. Genocide denial is, in effect, the last stage of a genocide: first the targets are exterminated, then the knowledge that they were exterminated is erased. They are erased from the world, and then erased from history, as if they had never existed in the first place.
People who are willing to say, The Holocaust was a lie! are usually also people who wish Hitler had finished the job. Likewise, those who deny that Serbian ultra-nationalist forces waged a campaign to extirpate the Bosnian Muslim presence from Balkan Europe usually also wish Milosevic had succeeded in his ethnic cleansing campaign. So, although genocide denial should not be outlawed, it does need to be combatted, and historical truth defended.
But there is something else, besides laws, that can inhibit the open discussion needed to defend historical truth. There is the danger that the memory and history of the Holocaust and other genocides will be treated as sacred, above the need for rational inquiry—a transcendent moral truth that you’re not allowed to ask a question about lest you transgress by saying something heterodox. People think that by sacralising memory they are protecting it—and protecting the honour of the victims of genocide by protecting them from the disrespect of denial and exploitation. But memory is malleable: it can be shorn of awkward facts and exploited for propaganda purposes. Sacralisation increases the risk that memory will be distorted, because it makes challenging any of its details into a kind of blasphemy.
There is some of this sacralisation dynamic at play in the way the history of the Holocaust is often taught in schools. Some awkward facts are often left out of the popular narrative. For example, Rudolf Höss, the commandant of Auschwitz, confessed to his crimes, but he did so under torture by his British captors, making assertions that contradicted one another, and exaggerating the extent of his crimes: he said that he oversaw the murder of four million people between 1940 and 1943—this was much more than he would have been capable of doing. Yet his statements were introduced into evidence at the Nuremberg trials as uncontested facts. (Later historical research has confirmed the inaccuracy of various facts—for example revising the number of murders he oversaw downward to no more than 1.1 million.)
As another example, the stories of Jews’ corpses being rendered into soap and used to make lampshades are false. Think this through: would the Nazis really have wanted to wash their hands in Jew? No! This fabrication was spread by Stalin’s anti-fascist committee and was believed in pop culture for a long time. And, every so often, some huckster will pretend to be a Holocaust survivor, maybe thirsty for a buck—or for adulation. Binjamin Wilkomirski’s best seller, Fragments, and what he called his oral testimony about living through the Holocaust, garnered multiple awards, and endorsements from Daniel Goldhagen—but it was all a complete lie. (He had spent the entire war in neutral Switzerland.) Angel at the Fence, by Herman Rosenblat, was the author’s supposedly true Holocaust romance story; it was lionised by Oprah Winfrey and got film rights worth $25 million before being exposed as a wholesale fraud. These kinds of facts are awkward because, in suggesting that much of the evidence accepted at Nuremberg was inaccurate, and that some of what we believe about the Holocaust is mere folklore, they enable deniers to lend their wholesale denials of the Holocaust a hint of plausibility.
Instead of fetishizing the memory of genocide or degrading it to the level of cheap propaganda, we have a responsibility to treat every victim of genocide as a precious individual human being. We must not allow the integrity of the historical record to be infected by falsehoods, factoids and myths—even at the level of the minor detail. We must avoid reducing education about genocide to schmaltz, and instead present the big, three-dimensional picture, complete with facts, testimony and documentation, to improve society’s understanding of the phenomenon that is genocide. We will degrade the memory of the victims of genocide if we use laws to erect a barbed wire fence around the topic, prohibiting it from being questioned. It will also be a degradation if we turn the memory of genocides into a pseudo-religion, with its own blasphemy laws and ceremonies, like ritually chanting never again! once a year. We honour their memory by instead exercising our critical faculties.
I’m not saying we should give a platform to genocide deniers like David Irving or Michael Parenti—in universities or elsewhere—on the theory that it would be enlightening. Trust me, it would not. Rather, I am saying that citizens in a democracy should be free to read, inquire, discuss and argue about history in an unfettered manner. That is simply the only effective method that humanity has ever created for arriving at historical truth. It’s also the best weapon we have for preserving and defending the truth and the memory of genocide against falsifiers and deniers. Words have power. That is why genocide deniers are feared. But we forget that words also make us powerful. So, when you encounter genocide denial, fight back!