Combating Denialism


There is a strategic problem with those who seek to combat Holocaust and genocide denialism. The traditional academic response is to use reason and learning to educate the denialist out of his or her stance. It never works — because both “sides”, in what is wrongly called “the debate”, start from different premises.

Several decades ago, the late historian Raul Hilberg “debated” electrical engineer Arthur Butz on an American television show. The moderators asked Butz to go first. “It didn’t happen”, declared Butz in three short words. In reply, Hilberg pulled his three-volume The Destruction of the European Jews from his briefcase, and began quoting from page 465 on details. In terms of audience attention, Butz won by a knockout.

Here, as in thousands of similar examples, we have the historian, or the community leader or journalist who is tuned into history, up against an asserter. The great majority of denialists assert. Rarely do they offer proof, or disproof of recognised proofs. Their technique is to put the historians off balance, pushing them to pedal backwards furiously to adduce the proofs, to table, for example, the Einsatzkommando #3 killing documentation.

The inherent problem is that denial stories are generally much more believable than genocide stories. Imagine a class of teenage pupils in 2014 or 2024 trying to decide which is the more credible:

That displaced, louse-infested Jews were disinfected in showers before going to work camps, or that mere handfuls of Germans, with local helpers, were “processing” 12,000 stukke, that is, murdering, on average, 10,000 to 12,000 “pieces” per day in specially built death factories in Poland?;

That more Turks than Armenians died in a civil war, one in which armed, rebellious, fifth-columnist Armenians suffered some unavoidable casualties, or that Turks systematically killed Armenian children in early model gas chambers in military hospitals, shot men, blinded young girls in hospital theatres, and death-marched women and children to Syria as a way of eliminating at least half the people they viewed as “microbes” in their body politic?;

That Australian Aboriginal children, especially girls, were removed from cruel environs where they were promised in marriage to decrepit old men, or that a clutch of senior officials meeting in Canberra in 1937 were engaging in some eugenicist fantasy to breed Aborigines forever out of the Australian landscape?

Very occasionally, a denialist emerges who presents himself as a serious scholar and adopts the appropriate style and manner of the professional historian. David Irving tried, with mild success for a limited period, and crashed spectacularly when he sued Deborah Lipstadt for defamation. In court, his fiddling and fudging of facts came to the fore and while the evidence confirmed that he was a “writer”, the conclusion was that he was not an historian. Similarly, Australia’s Keith Windschuttle’s privately published two volumes of The Fabrication of Aboriginal History have failed to make any inroads into the accepted chronicles, leaving him as titular head of a very small coterie of “true believers”.

The first rule in combating denialists is to stop treating them as professionals, as historians. They are politically-motivated people. They have to be treated politically and not as co-equal combatants engaged in academic discourse. Their backgrounds, affiliations, orientations are fair game. Above all, their agendas and motives have to be openly and seriously questioned.

Rule two: never debate denialists, publicly or privately. Debate gives them a platform and a credibility that is quite unwarranted, and is always misplaced. “Debate” in a courtroom is different, but even that arena has led to several Canadian cases (notably Keegstra, and Zundel) in which the Holocaust itself has been on trial. (Irving put himself, not the Holocaust, under forensic scrutiny.)

Rule three: if one is manipulated into a “debate”, one has to be offensive, not defensive. An offensive approach, for example, is to insist at the start that the denialist show proof that Einsatzkommando reports were forgeries, and provide evidence of who the forgers were and what techniques of typewriter, ink, paper quality, rubber stamp and signature fraud they engaged in. One must demand proof that Talaat Pasha’s telegrams to provincial governors to begin the genocides were fakes, that the Turkish Courts-Martial of 1919 —where Turkish leaders were tried for “crimes of massacre” — were a set-up and the evidence offered was by way of a hoax. One must insist that denialists show that forcibly removed Aboriginal children were given mind-warping drugs or hypnotised into “believing” that they were stolen from their parents and either fostered, adopted or incarcerated for decades.

Denialist motives vary. What propels Holocaust denialists differs from what fuels Turkish or Australian “revisionists”. In the latter two cases, a primary motive is to show that decent democrats can’t commit such atrocities and that anyone who says they did so is trying to besmirch the nation’s repute. Thus, for them, serious historians are turned into traitors, traducers, mischief-makers or “mistaken” scholars. The scale of denialism is also significant: in Turkey, the whole nation state is dedicated to denial; in Australia, it is but a dozen journalists and two men of academic pretension who seek to repaint the national portrait. Holocaust denialists are essentially non-Germans: several dozen Frenchmen, Americans, Britons, Australians and Canadians. Even Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, knows better than his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, about the futility of defying the undefiable.

Dr. Colin Tatz;   Australian National University, Canberra