THE RIGHT TO THINK & FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION
People think the strangest things and there is often a spurious relationships between personal beliefs and the physical reality that people inhabit. We can think one thing and act otherwise – ask anyone who prides themselves as professional, part of which is the disconnect that judgements are not personal, subjectively-driven; we suspend personal-held values and judgements to do the job. This disconnect can be very creative and productive in terms of imagined work, the realm of fiction and entertainment. However in constructing a record of what has happened reliance on evidence to the nature of the event, subject to the corrective of new discovery and disclosure, remains the founding criteria for historical accuracy and understanding. Raising questions and interrogating the details of an event are all established avenues of advancing a more complete reconstruction of historical events and revising an understanding of why and what happened.
The term Holocaust Denial Literature (HDL) is a descriptive label that accurately characterises a genre of writing that raises some fundamental issues around freedom of expression, the nature of truth and enquiry in society and our presentation of history. It has ramifications for an understanding of the past, behaviour in the present and consequences for the future in making.
The preferred term “Holocaust Denial Literature” is used on the proposition that it is a misnomer to simply refer to “Holocaust revisionism” since its advocates do not seek to revise but to negate, as denial does not seek to reinterpret an event, but rather the intention is to disprove the historicity of an event that is thoroughly documented by testimonies and primary sources (including visual records) from the perpetrators, their allies and their victims. While historical records do contain inconsistencies and errors, these do not cast doubt on the culmination contingency of evidence of that event.
In questioning a perceived demonization of 20th Century Germany there are many approaches to advocate a contextual rehabilitation of its reputation, but to counterpoise that Germany acted in self-defence in WW2 against “the Jews”, that gas chambers never existed and industrial style murder did not take place but are believed because of “Zionist lies” shifts into the realm of delusional conspiracy and neo-Nazis partisanship.
HDL draws upon a relatively limited range of ideas and approaches as it doubts the scale of suffering, questions minutiae (e.g. presenting gas chamber as sites for delousing clothes not mass murder) and argues that disease not murder accounts for those who died, trying to cast doubt on the historic narrative.
Where is the written order they ask. The methodology of HDL becomes familiar with its reading: the snapshot focus, side-lining the lines of evidence converging on the reality of the Holocaust, singling out a historical document or their presented fact and stripping it of its historical context, all selects the story they want to tell. The murder of Jewish people was not a by-product, the collateral damage amidst a larger carnage, but a culmination of, even before Hitler came to power in 1933, attacks upon the Jewish people with a murderous fury and sense of vengeance. Jewish people were targeted for murder in the pits of Easter Europe as detailed in the Einsatezgruppen reports and in the work and death camps of the Final Solution.
Driven by an ideological stance HDL questions the historical legitimacy of the Holocaust in a range of material that employs techniques such as relativisation. Counterpoising other historical occurrences when others have been subject to genocidal treatment (e.g. American natives), the deniers argue that the Holocaust should not be accorded any specific attention – as in dedication day of January 27th – or specific consideration, after all, everyone suffers in war citing Hiroshima and Dresden. Somewhere in the mix a denier will employ a wrap logic that the victims should accept responsibility for their own victimisation as it rest on accepting the spurious racist premise that underlines the victimisation in the first place.
HDL draws on, and reinforces many of the myths and stereotypes attributed to Jewish people. In framing their arguments there is an intertwined objective to revise the past for present political and ideological purposes by influencing public consciousness and public opinion.
There is attempt to trivialise– the deaths “a mere footnote in the wider conflict” – or minimise the event of the Holocaust, as well as the memories and experiences of victims of the Holocaust so as to question their historical validity and relevance. So gas chambers are portray as de-lousing facilities accompanied by discussion concerning combustion rates of gases and mathematical formulae. The existence of concentration camps are acknowledge but not the mass murder in them; death explained as by disease and ill-health. Attempts to isolate and de-contextualise the entire experience by ignoring the practice of regime then assert – in the face of the policy records and the bureaucracy to enable it – there is no documentation of an official extermination order, linguistically challenging the use of Final Solution.
And this shades into allusions that the Holocaust was a complete historical fabrication, which involves not simply the details but the actual record of events as they happened. In labelling the Holocaust as a hoax it advances the belief that it was not a lived experience but a concocted narrative; that there was no attempt to exterminate the Jews of Europe during World War Two.
The question is why acknowledge HDL and its arguments, even if just to refute them. It is fictitious literature posing as revisionist history. Holocaust denial is not based on evidence but is a position upheld because its adherents want it to be true. Theirs is a belief sustained by easily accessible lies that proliferate in print and on the internet.
There is abundant scholarly literature, documentation, court transcripts, witness testimonies and confessions, photographs and film, and the physicality of the institutions of mass extermination. The genocide of the Jews was a Nazi war aim, and German Jews had been subject to a degrading dehumanising onslaught from the very beginning of the Nazi party’s existence, and it culminated in the mass killing pursued domestically, and wherever they could reach throughout the demands of waging a world war.
The focus on the Jewish tragedy of the deliberate state-sponsored murder of around 5-6 million European Jews comes under the description of the Holocaust, although there was an equal number of other people who died. The detention started in Germany in 1933, the killings shortly afterwards: quarter of million physically and mentally disabled, driven by eugenic beliefs of racial purity three hundred thousand sterilized in medical experimentation, half a million Roma (Gypsies)killed, nearly two thousand Jehovah Witnesses, political opponents including communists, social democrats, dissenting clergy, homosexuals, one million and eight hundred thousand Polish and Slavic people, evangelical Lutherans, escaped British POWs, German resistance fighters and two million and three hundred thousand Russian prisoners of war.
In the dominant western intellectual tradition there is a trend that regard ideas as inviolable, that it is impossible to legalise ideas, only the expression of those ideas. So belief in something or anything exists but the expression of that belief or action consequential to those beliefs can have social sanctions applied. And this position has migrated throughout the ages to be applied regardless of the medium of expression hence action taken on the internet.
Libraries have a standard position that the service to the public, financed by the public, should support intellectual freedom, the social responsibility not to stock false information and provide access to material from all points of view, even if that involves access to unsettling ideas and distasteful views.
There is a basic commitment to the flow of all kinds of information without regard to its truth or falsehood – the texts are on the shelves so that readers can access them and make their own judgements. Librarians (in an argument appropriated by internet platforms) should not undertake the role of arbiters of truth. Professionally the librarian’s primary responsibility is access to a depositary of material. Inclusion and access to all material (legally obtainable), presenting all points of view on current and historical issues has been ingrained in library practice that accepts that American First Amendment right to free expression must be extended to those with unpopular or offensive ideas.
Libraries (financed by the public purse) as custodians and access to the fruit of human thought and communication (within a finite budget). Whilst having a professional duty not to mislead the people they serve and neither have a partisan approach, a philosophical stance (echoing post-modernist thought) is that libraries provide access:
“not to reality, but to multiple representation thereof. Truth and reality must fend for themselves.”
However this position that there are no taboo ideas is not honoured as an absolute, compromised (even where there are no legal restrictions) by “banned books” deemed unsuitable and subject to unconscious basis in the sourcing or procedures of acquisition. Those in an academic setting can argue that the proper function of education is to engrain critical thinking so the choice is with the reader.
Libraries operate in the real world of political consideration, and while burning books is associated with different regimes, in the past, local town libraries would often have a locked glass fronted cupboard, or area safely out the back away from public access, were the controversial or provocative material, explicit or disreputable books. Often a matter of historically-conditioned ‘taste’, books that contain profanity, explicit sexual passages, graphic violence, age-sensitive material have their literary value re-adjusted and moved to the main collection. An act implying a judgement on the merit of the text. So should institutions move HDL to a restricted area where one would have to ask to read them? Also consider if librarians have a professional duty not to mislead the people they serve, the exclusion of HDL – a substantial body of scholarly endeavour has established it as inaccurate, a deliberate falsehood uttered to deceive in that HDL denies the undeniable – this has greater implications than kooky flat-earth assertions. There is a question of degrees of error involved, and social consequences of acting upon those errors.
In the library HDL is shelved and given access and subject to the compromise- the tao of the mean – whereby a solution is found in classification via a subject heading for HDL that gives it a separate class number to differentiate itself from Holocaust history section. This technical approach can result in HDL material being shelved at the same location. HDL placed on the open shelves alongside other historical studies grants HDL a status as part of a body of scholarship, albeit a dissenting viewpoint. Whereas it is value is undermined when placed in the sub-category called ‘Errors and Inventions’. Where to shelve can be reduced to an occupational issue of involving the conflicting issues of intellectual freedom, collection balance and controversial materials however to include HDL in a library collection does not imply the library endorses such values and opinions, what it says is that they – in a professional capacity – make no value judgements in providing access to the ideas themselves.
Such work may be considered more appropriate for academic libraries involved in critical scholarly activity (rather than public institutions) and identified through cataloguing, classification or labelling guidance, given the trigger-warning –style treatment. Although it raise the concern of how such institutions are equipped to undertake such evaluation. For good reason there are no distinction about what to accept as truthful as such censorship through selection could make libraries gate-keepers for what society can and cannot read or think.
The guiding belief is that erroneous points of view can be challenged in open (non-censored) environment and the truth will emerge. The collar of this position being that Holocaust denial myths cannot be debunked if they are banned from the bookshelves.
The argument of last resort is that freedom to express hateful and dangerous lies may be the worst of policies – except for all the others that have been tried over time. Tolerance is given by advocates of free speech and expression as fundamental political rights, what they are not supporting is the validity of what is claimed. The uncomfortable position is that toleration is meaningless without tolerance for what some may consider morally detestable and factual empty. Thus libraries do facilitate HDL when is the right of individuals to hold and express these ideas. The consequences of the abstract principle involves supporting the right to material that lies and deceives. The consequences borne may be that the echo-chamber of self-referring publications and websites in the name of free speech benefits the lies that fester there.
The position assumes that reasonable, rational people will reject the malpractice of presenting provable lies as acceptable facts although an assumption sorely tested in distinguishing between truth and lies in contemporary political practice. To suppress expression of such ideas in HDL is regarded as the thin edge of a wedge that could aversively affect the ecology of the system of discourse. Whereas rebuttal of HDL is powerful testimony to the original crimes.
Underling the stance is an avoidance of criminalisation of dissent, a rejection of the concept of ‘thought crimes’:– in reality, libraries are full of factually questionable material i.e. horoscopes and alternative medicine, and controversial material on euthanasia and the existence of God, flat earthers, those who dispute the moon landings, accounts of alien abduction, explanations of reptilian elites and other conspiratorial histories. None of these are inconvenient truths, they may be simply wrong but intellectually we live with them. This stance avoids creating criteria to exclude others. False facts are too often accepted by many even when others have demonstrated otherwise. When confronted with deliberate fabrications of the historic record the decision in favour of intellectual freedom is the freedom to support the right to lie. There can be no guarantee that truth, justice or morality will prevail in some constructed marketplace of ideas.
In the attempt to make the Holocaust denial myth intellectually respectable, deniers mimics standard academic presentation and procedure. Questions of authenticity and authorative nature are camouflaged as conferences, journals, institutions, websites and books aim to build and construct an aura of academic respectability to HDL. The requisite notes and bibliography, the acknowledgement of archives and library collections, quoting from established authors in the field are all hallmarks of scholarly work that some authors employ in their work e.g. see the ‘Revisionist Bibliography’ compiled by Keith Stimley for the self-styled Institute of Historical Review.
Reinterpreting history is a practice that constantly occurs, but malicious falsehoods, in the guise of open debate seeking the imprimatur of credibility and free inquiry, presented as historical scholarship, remains a blatant distortion of the truth. Despite the scholarly veneer it mimics, HDL is far removed from being “the other side” of inquiry, an alternative or divergent view to reconcile with an existing orthodoxy. That respectability of intellectual enquiry sought in Thomas Dalton’s Debating the Holocaust: A New Look at both sides (2009) suggests an equal value to the revisionist argument when the book is clearly part of a revisionist propaganda wave seeking to shift historical interpretation. HDL is largely written by right-wing pro-nazi polemicists who ignore a substantial mass of evidence that runs counter to their pre-set conclusions. The collection of essay entitled, Dissecting the Holocaust: the growing critique of ‘Truth’ and ‘Memory’ gives the game away with a preface by grandfather of deniers, Robert Faurisson!
HDL tends to be published by a limited number of specialist publishers known for producing far right texts. As an idea it has no traction in mainstream commercial publishing. Whereas their critics are published by well-respected and established publishers with the occasional counter-propaganda producers (e.g. Hope Not Hate produced ‘Rewriting History: Lying, Denying & Revising the Holocaust’ (2018)).
Professor Richard Evans described Holocaust deniers as inhabitants of “an intellectual world that was far removed from the cautious rationality of academic historical scholarship”, who are motivated by “a strange mixture of prejudice and bitter personal experience”.
Their research “findings” do not go unchallenged. Recognised historians reject the so-called “scholarly works written by deniers, their use of tautological argument and selected evidence whereby contrasting documents are labelled forgeries, witnesses as liars and believers are dupes at best. Criticism of such propaganda raises awareness about the intentions and methods of deniers without legitimizing their arguments.
The demolition of the self-style pretentions of David Irving in a law court reinforced the belief that,
“As Irving’s demise revealed, it is only by analysing and deconstructing the malevolent myths informing Holocaust denial that its proponents can be rubbished and ridiculed. Spuriously-crafted claims will not be defeated by gathering dust at the back of a warehouse, but instead in the hands of a discerning mind. Publication, not restriction, is the best way to defeat abhorrent doctrines.” https://www.telegraph.co.uk/authors/jacob-furedi/
Influential in HDL was The Leuchter Report – a forensic study of the gas chambers at Auschwitz, a book answered by Shapiro who edited a demolition of its case in Truth Prevails: Demolishing Holocaust Denial: the end of The Leuchter Report (1990). Deborah Lipstadt’s book Denying the Holocaust: the growing assault on Truth and Memory (1993) directly related with Richard Evans’ Lying About Hitler: History, holocaust and the David Irving Trial (2002) and Lipstadt’s own experience in the trial against Irving in History On Trial: My Day in court with a Holocaust denier (2006).
David Irving had objected to being labelled a Holocaust denier and sued for libel, however the judge concluded it was “incontrovertible that Irving qualifies as a Holocaust denier.” Irving was later imprisoned in Austria (in 2006) for precisely doing that. In his study Hitler’s War, Irving groundlessly asserted that the mass murder of Jews had been carried out behind Hitler’s back.
IN THE INTERNET AGE
A focus on access through libraries seems quaint and old fashion, after all people are more likely to stumble across HDL readily available over the internet than in its print format. After all, commercial sites like Amazon lists self-published books promoting Holocaust denial and anti-Semitic texts ; coming across neo-Nazi literature is far more common in a digital world than when it was produced in print.
The core ideas of HDL have remained the same over the years in its transition from print literature to an internet existence. The arguments employed, and authors referenced, are drawn from, and considers of fellow self-reinforcing deniers. Their sites are not forums for inquiry and discussion into historic events: there are more exclamation marks than question marks. While not reflective of the views espoused by all Holocaust deniers, as variations exists in the degree and manner that this denial occurs, amalgamated these sites form a body of HDL that form the referring authority within the literature.
Websites provides access to multiple links giving the impression of a varied body of research work. The appeal to free speech and right to dissent is employed in such website as “The Committee for Open Debate on the Holocaust”. Here intellectual freedom with respect to the Holocaust camouflages the partisan and single-sided commitment to the deniers’ narrative. Here hate propaganda is treated as a legitimate contribution. Whilst not as crude to imitate the “Holocaust LOL” sections of other sites or signal political allegiances in its url (like nazigassing), it presents in the language of inquiry and educational endeavours. Even then not all sites clearly identity themselves, hiding behind anonymity. Well-designed websites like IHR mimics the scholarly but that is no indication of authorative context when, far from being disinterested, it has the intention and purpose of promoting the denial position as much as a more personal site like zundelsile run by Ernest Zundel. The provision of free download of HDL underlines that propaganda intention. Counterpoised to this propaganda are the numerous websites knowledgably and evidence-laden about the actual history of the Holocaust.
The continued existence of discredited and disproved Holocaust Denial Literature may seem the price borne for the right to think and freedom of expression but it stands also as the reoccurring importance of intellectual enquiry and methodology that tests the sources of information, can place them with a context of a wider confirming body of knowledge and critical interrogates the arguments and conclusions it presents. On these grounds HDL fails and the memory of the Holocaust reaffirmed.