Jewish Political Studies Review 22:3-4 (Fall 2010)
“How many Jews lost their lives during the Holocaust?” Every year I begin my Introduction to the Holocaust course by posing that question. For an hour and a half I then attempt to answer by providing my listeners with names, facts, and especially numbers, emphasizing over and over that numbers are less debatable than interpretations and thus form one of the central components of understanding any historical phenomenon. In the course of the discussion I periodically reduce the number of the victims, citing evidence from well-known Jewish Holocaust scholars, until I reach a very low number – generally one and a half to two million Jews – who can “really” be called Holocaust victims, and not victims of the world war, fascism, and so on. Few students try to argue with me and for those who nevertheless raise a question or a claim, I have an answer ready and another prominent Jewish historian whom I can quote in response.
Several times in the course of the lecture I remind students that what I am doing is totally unconnected with those claiming that the Holocaust is a fabrication, those arguing that Hitler was basically copying Stalin with little independent innovation, those trying to prove that the “so-called” victims actually remained alive and were hidden by the Soviets somewhere in Siberia, or those maintaining that the gas chambers were actually disinfection chambers. Each time I reaffirm that my aim is to present the precise historical facts, giving us a basis for a common discussion in the rest of the course.
After about an hour and twenty minutes the discussion reaches its crescendo. Just as I begin to connect the German reparations with the financing of IDF activity in the West Bank and Gaza, I abruptly end the discussion, watching the students squirming uncomfortably in their seats, and ask them why they haven’t been throwing rotten tomatoes at me yet. I then end their suffering and explain that all this has been an exercise to see how they react when facing Holocaust revisionism. Not the sort of crude “Holocaust denial” that usually evokes instant rejection by the listeners, but a refined, careful revisionism widely practiced today, which ostensibly does not subvert the foundations of the Shoah yet slowly erodes its components until nothing is left of it.
I then add that even though just about all of them are graduates of the Israeli education system and have studied the Holocaust as a matriculation subject, participated in numerous Holocaust Day ceremonies, have certainly seen Holocaust movies and have read a number of Holocaust books, they are still ignorant of some of the basic facts on the subject. Their inability to argue with my half-truths proves just how much they still need a course on the Holocaust in which they will learn not only the facts but also the ways to argue against those trying to distort these facts and use them against us.
A Work of Scope
I thought about this class, and my students’ reactions, when I read Manfred Gerstenfeld’s book The Abuse of Memory, in which he discusses the various forms of Holocaust revisionism and the dangers of each. Gerstenfeld, a former business consultant who is chairman of the Board of Fellows of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, has written a work of scope, one of the book’s major innovations; so far the works on this phenomenon have focused on a specific Holocaust revisionist, one or two different forms of revisionism, an attempt to deny the Holocaust in a particular country, and the like. Compared to researchers who may be insightful in their analysis but sometimes limited in scope, Gerstenfeld’s book sheds light on the phenomenon in all its sundry manifestations, including quite unique and unexpected ones.
As Gerstenfeld asserts in his introduction, Holocaust revisionism is generally a manipulation of facts and of interpretations. He also notes that the term Shoah, or more precisely the foreign term Holocaust, was already in use – and not in relation to Jews but to other phenomena – before Hitler’s rise to power. Holocaust revisionism, Gerstenfeld maintains, is closely linked with the memory of the Holocaust, or, more precisely, with manipulations of its memory that yield a reinterpretation of the facts that supposedly are “known” to all.
The first of the categories Gerstenfeld enumerates, “Holocaust justification,” is the attempt by certain elements, including the Nazis, to justify their acts in the Shoah by claiming that the Jews “brought it on themselves” by their own behavior. Many in this group assert that “the Nazis’ work is not yet finished” or that “the Nazis were unable to finish their work and someone else has to do it for them.” A variant of this position is that the state of Israel has no right to exist because it was established on account of the Holocaust; yet, in their view, the Holocaust is a phenomenon that was justified by Jewish behavior.
A second category denies the Shoah in its entirety or tries to reduce its dimensions. Those belonging to this group raise various and peculiar claims, such as that the gas chambers were not built to kill people but rather to disinfect clothes, that most of the Jews did not die at the Nazis’ hands but rather from natural death in the ghettos or in the course of the war, or that Hitler did not at all intend to murder Jews and knew nothing about the Final Solution, which was carried out by the lower echelons and not by the senior Nazis. This group also argues something similar to what I do in my introductory class, shrinking the dimensions of the Shoah or the number of victims. By doing so, it questions Jewish credibility, both with regard to the Shoah’s dimensions and the way the Final Solution developed.
A third category tries to absolve different groups of any connection with the murder of the Jews. Those in this group do not deny the mass murder but claim it was not perpetrated by the Germans alone and was often carried out by locals. Others, particularly populations in countries that were occupied, maintain that they themselves were victims of the Germans in attempting to absolve themselves of blame regarding the Jews.
A fourth category is the de-Judaization of the Shoah: an attempt to deny the Jewish identity of the victims. Anyone who visited the extermination camps in Poland up to the late 1980s remembers the signs there proclaiming that the victims belonged to the Polish, Czech, or other peoples without openly referring to the victims’ Jewishness. This was also done in the Soviet Union for years, making no mention of the fact that the victims were murdered by the Nazis for being Jews.
A fifth category is the attempt to compare the Shoah with other cases of mass murder before or after it. Here the deniers argue that there was nothing unique about the Shoah and offer parallels with the murder of the Armenians, the genocide in Biafra, or the soviet Gulags. In all these cases the revisionists, including even some among the German people, assert that the Nazis’ deeds were not unique in the twentieth century, and that there is no justification for focusing on the Nazis and the Final Solution (and thus also on the Jewish victims) while ignoring other murderers.
A sixth category presents the Jews as Nazis and the state of Israel as a tool for realizing their lethal aims. This is a rapidly growing group all over the world, and such claims are heard both in the East and the West.
A seventh category is the trivialization of the Shoah, an attempt to equate it with other phenomena which those in this group oppose. Examples including equating the Shoah with global warming, cigarette smoking, abortion, animal slaughter, and so on. Many of those who use this technique have no connection with anti-Semitism. Yet using the Shoah for comparison with such phenomena entails diminishing its uniqueness and cheapening it.
An eighth category is the physical or metaphorical attempt to erase the memory of the Shoah. This category includes defacing gravestones, damaging monuments, disrupting remembrance ceremonies, or changing them into universal and not uniquely Jewish ones. An additional way to erase the memory of the Shoah is what Gerstenfeld calls “Holocaust silencing,” which involves claiming that Jews talk too much about the Shoah and also do so to promote a different Jewish agenda each time.
Gerstenfeld’s book is not encouraging. Along with the analysis of the various forms of Holocaust denial, its second part offers five articles by and interviews with researchers, activists, and witnesses that deal with different and very current modes of Holocaust denial: distorting the memory of the Holocaust and its implications for the state of Israel, the Holocaust in the Arab discourse, presenting the idea of the Holocaust in today’s Germany, erasing the memory of the Holocaust in former Yugoslavia, and the use of the Holocaust as an anti-Zionist and anti-imperialist tool by the British Left. Gerstenfeld’s book is a harsh reminder to all of us about the extent to which the well-known French saying, “the more things change the more they remain the same,” applies in many places in the world, both with regard to the Holocaust and to Jews, and, concomitantly, to the state of Israel and its future.
* * *
PROF. JUDITH TYDOR BAUMEL-SCHWARTZ is chair of the Graduate Program in Contemporary Jewry at Bar-Ilan University. Her most recent book, Perfect Heroes: The World War II Parachutists and the Making of Israeli Collective Memory, was recently published by the University of Wisconsin Press.