Outright denial of the Holocaust is a phenomenon almost exclusively in the realm of utterly discredited figures who deserve condemnation. One of those figures is David Irving, who lost his libel suit against Deborah Lipstadt, an American professor and author, who correctly characterized him as a Holocaust denier in her book Denying the Holocaust. A new film, called Denial, about the trial, opens today in Vancouver and the Independent interviewed Lipstadt earlier this week.
It only takes a quick Google search to find that there are certainly people in the world today who, for various reasons, make it their business to allege that the Holocaust did not happen or, in an insidious manner presumably intended to lend a hint of credibility to their position, acknowledge that it happened but quibble about details – as if the number of millions murdered can be considered “details.”
There is, however, a different kind of Holocaust denial that also deserves attention and is potentially more dangerous. This form of denial does not rest on the supposition that the Holocaust did not happen. Rather, it is more often an expressed view that it doesn’t matter. Of course, these ideas are rarely expressed so crudely. Yet, this is the subtext of a commonly expressed position, even in so-called polite company, that the Holocaust has had its run, that we have spoken enough about it, that it happened 70 years ago, that it is time for people other than the Jews to have their historical grievances addressed.
The idea that we talk about the Holocaust too much has both particular and universal consequences. The Holocaust was particular in its intention to eradicate the Jewish people from the earth. However, as most individuals and organizations devoted to Holocaust education, commemoration and awareness understand, work about the particular experience of Jewish genocide is foundational to the prevention of future genocides affecting other groups, as well as violence and discrimination that does not meet the level of genocide.
This should not diminish the Jewish particularity of the Holocaust, and it need not. However, while the Holocaust was a particular product of Nazism and of Germany, we will fail the future if we do not recognize the Holocaust as a keystone to understanding the human capacity for genocide, as well as less cataclysmic group targeting, isolation and discrimination. Ultimately, the Holocaust was perpetrated on human beings by other human beings.
The word genocide was invented to find language for the Shoah. Tragically, we have been able to apply it to many terrible incidents since – and before, such as the Armenian genocide. To create a better future, we need to devote more resources to understanding these events and their antecedents. These are not pleasant topics to discuss, to put it mildly. There can be nothing in human experience more distressing to confront than genocide. Yet we must.
There are many truths around the Holocaust that cannot be denied. One of them is that, because human motivations are not an exact science, particularly when extrapolated into the madness of crowds, we really do not understand why the Holocaust or other genocides have happened. The proof of this statement is that, we hope, if we did understand genocide in a complete way, we would have eradicated it from the world.
In the context of how much it matters and how much we have left to learn, we are certainly not talking too much about the Holocaust, devoting too many resources to it or moving far enough away from it in time to start deemphasizing it. No. We have barely begun to discuss and understand it.