For most of us, the idea of denying the Holocaust—the systematic extermination of some six million European Jews by the Nazis in World War II—is about as plausible as denying the sphericity of the earth. Of course we have all heard of Holocaust deniers. The image we are likely to conjure up is of a right-wing kook who visits the barber too often and distributes books like The Hitler We Loved and Why. Why should we take them seriously? After all, there are also people who deny that the earth is round. But as Deborah Lipstadt shows in her disturbing new book, Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory (Free Press), the phenomenon of Holocaust denial must be taken seriously, partly because it is sharply on the rise, partly because it undermines the idea of historical truth.
What is particularly troubling is the way in which such trifling with the historical record is proliferating. It is not simply that there are more and more crackpots declaring that the Holocaust was (in David Duke's phrase) a “historical hoax.” That, to be sure, is troubling enough. Yet even more worrisome is the legitimacy conferred upon such declarations by the actions of the media and the academy. This is not to say that the media or the academy grant the idea credence; denying the Holocaust has not—not yet—won respectability. But it has managed to win an audience. That itself is extraordinary. Instead of being instantly dismissed as pernicious nonsense, denying the Holocaust is increasingly accorded the status of a “different perspective,” a “dissenting point of view,” “another opinion.”
Thus it is that Professor Lipstadt, who teaches at Emory University, has repeatedly been asked by various television shows to debate individuals who deny that the Holocaust occurred. The usual plea made by television personnel eager to book her on a program is: “I certainly don't agree with them, but don't you think our viewers should hear the other side?” It sounds like good liberal doctrine: free speech, everyone entitled to his own opinion, and so on. But Professor Lipstadt consistently refuses these offers— rightly in our judgment—because she understands that to participate in such debates would be to grant her opponents a measure of credibility they do not deserve. She refuses because she knows that to deny the Holocaust is not simply to offer “another perspective” or express a “different opinion.” It is to engage in the kind of ideological warfare that corrupts the very nature of opinion in order to promulgate historical falsehood.
It is a telling fact that this point meets widespread resistance today. Invoking the principle of free speech, many people of good will see nothing wrong—everything right—with providing a platform for those who deny the Holocaust. But this liberal sentiment plays directly into the hands of the Holocaust deniers. As Professor Lipstadt observes, “Unable to make the distinction between genuine historiography and the deniers' purely ideological exercise, those who see the issue in this light are important assets in the deniers' attempt to confuse the matter.” As has so often been the case, the well-intentioned efforts of liberal apologists help create an atmosphere of legitimacy and tolerance for movements whose goal is to destroy those institutions and attitudes that guarantee liberal tolerance in the first place.
In this context, it is important to understand that denying the Holocaust is only one of many efforts to undermine the authority of historical truth. The phenomenon of Afrocentricism (which, incidentally, often indulges in a bit of Holocaust denial as a sideline) belongs here, as do many varieties of academic literary “theory” that now reign in the academy: deconstruction, extreme examples of “reader-response” theory, new historicism, etc. For all of them, facts are fluid and historical truth is a species of fiction: what actually happened in the past, or what a given text actually means, are for them ridiculous questions. Nor are these attitudes confined to the cloistered purlieus of the academy: in watered-down versions they have become standard-issue liberal sentiment: Rather than risk having to make an unpleasant judgment about the facts, deny that there are any such things as facts.
When we ask how this state of affairs came about, the first answer is the widespread acceptance of cultural relativism. As Professor Lipstadt points out, part of the success of the Holocaust deniers “can be traced to an intellectual climate that has made its mark in the scholarly world during the past two decades. The deniers are plying their trade at a time when much of history seems up for grabs and attacks on the Western rationalist tradition have become commonplace.” This tendency, she notes, can in turn be traced to intellectual currents that have their origin in the emancipationist ideology of the late Sixties.
Professor Lipstadt tells the story of a teacher at a large Midwestern university who, in a class on the Napoleonic Wars, informed his students that the Holocaust was a myth propagated to vilify the Germans and that “the worst thing about Hitler is that without him there would not be an Israel.” The teacher was eventually dismissed. But many students defended him, arguing that he had a right to present his “alternative” views. Professor Lipstadt comments: “These students seemed not to grasp that a teacher has a responsibility to maintain some fidelity to the notion of truth.” This gets to the nub of the problem. Without an allegiance to the ideal of truth, teaching degenerates into a form of ideological indoctrination.
And this brings us to one of the gravest legacies of relativism. What we are witnessing is the transformation of facts into opinion. This process is not only destructive of facts —when facts are downgraded to opinions they no longer have the authority of facts —but, curiously, it is also destructive of opinion. As Hannah Arendt observed in an essay called “Truth and Politics,” opinion remains opinion only so long as it is grounded in, and can be corrected by, fact. “Facts,” she wrote, “inform opinions, and opinions, inspired by different interests and passions, can differ widely and still be legitimate as long as they respect factual truth. Freedom of opinion is a farce unless factual information is guaranteed and the facts themselves are not in dispute.” What is at stake, Arendt concluded, is nothing less than the common world of factual reality and historical truth.
It will be pointed out that truth is very often difficult to achieve, that facts are often hard to establish, that the historical record is incomplete, contradictory, inaccessible. Yes. Precisely. But the recalcitrance of truth is all the more reason we need to remain faithful to the procedures for achieving it: without them we are blind. Behind the activity of the Holocaust deniers is an unhappy efflorescence of anti-Semitism. But the problem goes even deeper. As Professor Lipstadt warns, “at its core” such a denial of history “poses a threat to all who believe knowledge and memory are among the keystones of our civilization.” This is one reason that we must pay attention to kooks.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 12 Number 1, on page 1
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