The Holocaust, the effort of the German Nazis to wipe out the entire Jewish population of Europe, is the greatest tragedy that the Jewish people every faced. It is also a Christian problem because most of the perpetrators of the Holocaust were baptized church members, and the bystanders, those who did nothing to halt it or even to assist their beleaguered Jewish neighbors, as well were members in good standing of Protestant and Catholic churches.
Unfortunately, there are people out there who claim the Holocaust never happened. For them to say that the Jews imagined or invented their tragedy is the most vicious and virulent form of anti-Semitism imaginable. It negates the shared experience of the Jewish community today and lays the groundwork for the possibility of another attempt at total destruction.
The Holocaust deniers constitute a vast, interlocking network. They maintain a strong presence on the Internet and their sites cross-reference one other. This is illustrated by the well-known story of the high school teacher who had assigned her students to write a term paper using the World Wide Web. One young person chose the Holocaust and wrote a horrible paper denying its historical validity, having drawn on material from the denier Web sites. The teacher had failed to explain that not everything on the Internet can be trusted.
These people utilize a number of approaches to negate the clear facts of this incredible tragedy. One is to explain the deaths of Jews in the camps as the result of wartime exigencies–Allied bombings, spread of disease, food shortages, overcrowding and overworked prison labor. As for the gas chambers and crematoria, they were for delousing the clothing of inmates and disposing of those who had died naturally, and the latter were many because of the difficult wartime conditions and unanticipated overcrowding of the camps.
Another approach is that of moral equivalency. Some deniers maintain that what Nazis did to Jews was no different than what other nations did to their enemies. The United States dropped atomic bombs on two Japanese cities and placed Japanese-Americans in concentration camps. The British systematically destroyed German cities through their area bombing campaigns. Stalin and the Chinese Communists killed far more people than the Germans did.
I would argue that Holocaust “revisionism” or “denial” is completely off-limits for Christian scholars, and in fact it is quite dangerous in even the most general sense.
1.) It leads people to be confused as to what had really happened, and it spreads doubt in the public mind. A few years ago the American Jewish Committee commissioned a survey by the Roper Organization. Of those polled 22 percent said it seemed possible to them “that the Nazi extermination of the Jews never happened” and 12 percent said they “didn’t know.”
2.) Holocaust denial is at the core a threat to all who believe that knowledge and memory are keystones of our civilization. The Holocaust is not merely a tragedy of the Jews but a tragedy of civilization in which the victims were Jews. It was carried out by a highly advanced technological society, by people who were products of one of the best educational systems in the world. Thus to deny its reality is not a threat just to Jewish history but a threat to all who believe in the power of reason. Holocaust denial repudiates reasoned discussion in much the same way that the Holocaust itself repudiated civilized values. It is the ultimate glorification of irrationalism.
3.) Holocaust denial reflects the direction that the intellectual climate in the scholarly world has taken in the last quarter century. The deniers are plying their trade at a time when much of history seems to be up for grabs and attacks on the Western rationalist tradition have become commonplace. There are no objective truths; there is no one version of the world that is necessarily right while another is wrong. Every conceptual system is as good as another. One cannot dismiss out of hand even the most far-fetched notions simply because they are absurd.
Modern deconstructionist thought argues that experience is relative and nothing is fixed. Thus, this atmosphere of intellectual permissiveness makes it difficult for people to assert that anything is false or off-limits. How can one say that the Holocaust denial is a movement with no scholarly, intellectual or rational validity? After all, no fact, no event, no aspect of history, has any fixed meaning or content. Any truth can be retold. Any fact can be recast. There is no ultimate historical reality. Knowledge dissolves into nothingness.
4.) Holocaust denial rehabilitates anti-Semitism in the modern world. As Walter Reich, a former director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, wrote in the New York Times on July 11,1993, the deniers, “by convincing the world that the great crime for which anti-Semitism was blamed simply never happened–indeed, that it was nothing more than a frame-up invented by Jews, and propagated by them through their control of the media,” make anti-Semitic arguments seem once again respectable in civilized discourse and even acceptable for governments to pursue anti-Semitic policies.
Holocaust denial makes the world safe for anti-Semitism, and in effect, as historian Yehuda Bauer has said in my hearing, creates the preconditions that would deny the Jewish people the right to live in the post-Holocaust world.
5.) Finally, Holocaust denial is a deterrent to exploring the deep effects which sin has on human society. Historians, theologians, philosophers, sociologists, and psychologists have sought to explain the Holocaust by asking the most fundamental question of all about the human condition: “Why did this happen?” As we explore the matter ourselves, we as Christian scholars are prepared to include human sin as a root cause. However, the deniers respond: “It didn’t happen.” Thus, we don’t need to ask this ultimate question about human failure. But as Christian scholars, is this not the very place where we should begin our inquiry?
Richard Pierard is professor of history emeritus at Indiana State University and Stephen Phillips Professor of History at Gordon College in Wenham, Mass. This article is condensed, with the author’s permission, from a longer version that first appeared in the Global Journal of Classical Theology. Click here to read the full article.