Posts Tagged ‘Holocaust Denial’

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

Many people undoubtedly have found it strange how much history has been in the news lately. Whether it is the Confederate monuments being taken down in New Orleans or the fact that Frederick Douglass and Andrew Jackson were trending on Twitter recently, historical topics are hot right now. But truthfully, Americans have always been contentious about our history, since our history is…well…contentious. Topics like the Civil War or Jackson’s role in ‘The Trail of Tears’ will spark lively, sometimes angry, disagreement.

However, there are certain historical events that mainstream Americans generally agree upon. One such non-contentious event is the Holocaust. The American public, pop-culture and politicians for the last 40 years have universally depicted the Holocaust as THE horrific event of modern times. Case closed.  No discussion needed.  For 20th century Americans, Nazi Germany has been the quintessential ‘bad guy’ of  history. We have taken this so far that the era of the Holocaust and the event itself is in danger of being portrayed in simplistic political bromides. It is easy, if no less true and unthinking, to state that Nazi Germany and Hitler were irredeemably evil. The murder of Europe’s Jews was Nazi Germany’s most horrendous crime. Who would argue with that?

This is why the last four months have been so disturbing.  Since taking power in January, the Trump Administration has had not one…but TWO ‘Holocaust’ controversies.  First, there was the strange, and evidently intentional, Holocaust Remembrance Day statement issued by President Trump which did not specify Nazi Germany’s specific war on European Jewry. Then, in April, Press Secretary Sean Spicer stuck his foot in his mouth by claiming that Hitler ‘didn’t even gas his own people’, unlike Syrian President al-Assad. After immediately being called on this outrageously false statement, Spicer sounded even more like an idiot when he referred (I assume) to extermination camps as ‘Holocaust centers’.

What is going on?  Some, like Holocaust historian and famous scholar of Holocaust denial Debra Lipstadt felt that the Trump White House’s Holocaust Remembrance Day statement was a classic case of ‘soft denialism’.  On the other hand, most commentators believed that Spicer’s slip-ups simply pointed to incredible historical ignorance. However, such ignorance and ‘soft denialism’ are not mutually exclusive.  Whether or not Lipstadt is correct in her assessment of Trump’s statement, such ‘denialism’ does exist in certain corners, and it will become easier to peddle to the general public as their inevitable ignorance of the past created by passing time increases.

‘Never forget’ can easily become an unthinking slogan, but that makes it no less true. So, with these notions in mind, I feel it is important to provide a quick reading list of books all Americans should read about the Holocaust. These are 15 works that any one with a passing interest in the topic can pick and read today.

  1. Saul Friedländer, Nazi Germany and the Jews: Volume 1 and The Years of Persecution and Volume 2, The Years of Extermination. Friedländer’s highly readable classic account. A great place to start for a thorough overview.515XRWk2Q6L._AC_UL320_SR214,320_
  2. Peter Hayes, Why: Explaining the Holocaust. A book that was just published a couple months ago. Deals with the big ‘why’ questions people always ask regarding the Holocaust. Does so with clear, jargon-free language. Read this after Friedländer’s workhayes
  3. Ian Kershaw, Hitler: 1889-1936, Hubris and Hitler: 1936-1945, Nemesis. Kershaw’s massive two part biography is still generally considered to be the definitive explanation of Hitler’s life and worldview.kershaw
  4. Christopher Browning, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland.  Though 30 years old at this point, still a groundbreaking take on why people commit ‘evil’ acts.browning
  5. Gitta Sereny, Into That Darkness: An Examination of Conscience.  Sereny was a journalist who had the opportunity to interview Franz Stangl, the Commandant of Treblinka.  Her book investigating the man is fascinatingly horrible.sereny
  6. Wendy Lower, Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields. A recent book that sheds light on a topic ignored by many previous historians: Women’s role in genocide.lower
  7. Primo Levi, Survival at Auschwitz and The Drowned and the Saved.  An Italian Jew, Levi survived the war and produced some of the most important writings of the 20th century.the-complete-works-of-primo-levi-book-cover
  8. Viktor Klemperer, I Will Bear Witness, 2 Volumes.  Klemperer was a German Jew who chronicled life in Nazi Germany from the beginning of 1933 until the end of the war.  The amazing story of his survival will make you forget the 1000 pages.klemperer
  9. Art Spiegelman, The Complete Maus. I wrote a blog about this work a couple years ago. It is a graphic novel, and though that may seem like a strange genre for a Holocaust memoir, I believe it is required reading.maus
  10. Nikolaus Wachsmann, KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps.  If you are looking to find out about the horror, structure and ubiquity of the Nazi camps, this is the new definitive text.images
  11. Deborah Lipstadt, The Eichmann Trial. Though Hannah Arendt’s classic Eichmann in Jerusalem is still important on a philosophical level, Lipstadt deals with the true history of the trial. She also illustrates a historically accepted truth that Arendt missed. Eichmann was not really banal, but he was evil.lipstadt
  12. Daniel Mendolsohn, The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million. Mendolsohn is a famous literary critic. In The Lost, he provides a touching, beautiful memoir of discovering his family’s Holocaust past.TheLost_4.30
  13. Rich Cohen, The Avengers: A Jewish War Story. The story of Jewish resistance to Nazi crimes is still one not often told.  Cohen’s narrative tells the story of his grandmother who fought alongside Abba Kovner, the most famous Jewish partisan during the war.cohen
  14. Claude Lanzmann, Shoah. Technically, this is not a book. But, it is a text. Shoah is Lanzmann’s 8 hour film masterpiece.  Filmed in the early 1980s, Lanzmann interviewed victims, perpetrators and collaborators.  Most of the interviews are emotionally wrenching. It may take you a couple days to get through.Editors-Pick-Shoah
  15. Thomas Kühne, Genocide and Belonging: Hitler’s Community, 1918-1945. This is the one specifically scholarly monograph I am adding to this list.  After reading and watching all of the above, tackle this one.kuhne

 

These books are accessible. They are readable. But they are not going to be ‘fun’. They can hit you in the gut, and leave you staggered.  That is what makes them all the more necessary.

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By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

A disturbing story out of California grabbed my eye last week.  In the town of Rialto, just outside Los Angeles, a school board caught flack for an 8th grade assignment asking students “to debate in writing whether the Holocaust was ‘merely a political scheme created to influence public emotion and gain’, or an actual historical event.  Facing harsh criticism, the board initially defended the assignment, saying it was a way for students to

The 8th grade assignment in question.

The 8th grade assignment in question.

evaluate evidence, and to use ‘critical thinking’ skills.   The schoolboard finally apologized for it’s poor judgement as news spread that the language used in the assignment had actually been lifted from a ‘revisionist’ website.  In the realm of Holocaust studies, ‘revisionism’ is a euphemism coined by anti-Semites and Neo-Nazis for Holocaust denial.  After such an embarrassing revelation, apologies are now flying, and amends are being made.  On Monday, the LA Times reported that the eighth grade teachers who oversaw the assignments will be going through mandatory sensitivity training, including a trip to the Museum of Tolerance.  Hopefully, the physical evidence of the Nazis’ war on the Jews displayed at the museum will illustrate to the teachers why the assignment was a horribly distasteful mistake.

Case closed?

Not quite. This story is about much more than an 8th grade assignment.  There are troubling implications here.

But first, let’s make one thing clear: I don’t think the schoolboard is run by Holocaust deniers, or Neo-Nazis. As the Anti-Defamation League stated, it seems this case is not a sign of a “larger, insidious agenda.” Instead, this is an instance of a group of people making an incredibly bad, misinformed decision.  No evil here; just banal ignorance. But, the banality of the ignorance points to the disturbance. This assignment was intended to be an attempt to get students to use ‘critical thinking skills.’  Critical thinking is a buzzword in today’s world of education. It has nothing but positive connotations, and rightly so.  But, here we see a danger.  Critical thinking skills can only be developed if we can critically recognize when thought and arguments deserve criticism. Not so simply put, we can’t be critical thinkers when we don’t have critical thoughts to critique. To recognize what stances deserve critical assessment, we need to identify what is worthy of discussion, and what is not. There are simply some opinions that are not worth hearing.  

The Rialto school board was ignorant.  They were ignorant that not all thoughts should be critically assessed, and they were even more ignorant of history. They simply took two seemingly disparate views, and told students to analyze them.  After all, to the school board, the ‘revisionist’ website used the language of a critically thought out position. It ‘seemed’ historically sound, which is exactly what the ‘revisionists’ intend. Holocaust deniers want to take advantage of such ignorance; when they do, they win the battle, and help destroy history.  

The other especially disturbing aspect of this story is the method the board used to get  information.  As mentioned, the assignment was taken almost directly from a Holocaust denial website.  The board’s ignorance is chilling, but it becomes dangerous when combined with the accessibility of extreme lies in cyberspace.  Now, I am not a luddite. The internet has  radically altered communication, and accessibility to information largely for the better. But the internet does not separate the noble from the vile. Extreme hate has found a new home on the web.

Teaching my Holocaust course, I realize this, and point out to my students to be cautious when doing research online.  There is a huge array of radical hatred that could be stumbled upon by them unwittingly as they

Nazi Anti-Semitic Propaganda poster found in search.

Nazi Anti-Semitic Propaganda poster found in search.

search out for the answers to assignments in class.  Let me just give you an example how easy this is: If I Google image search ‘Nazi Jewish Propaganda’, I get over 6 million hits.  Most images come from the holdings of Yad Vashem, or the U.S. Holocaust Museum, or some other reputable memorial institution.  But, the image search also can bring me to other, more troubling sites. The 11th image retrieved in this particular search is of a Nazi anti-Semitic poster produced during the Second World War.  If I click on the image, I see that it comes from a page called ‘Zion Crime Factory.’  The small caption to this image states, “Hitler, like Goebbels, understood the reality of Jewish warmongering against the Reich…‘ What we have here is a modern anti-Semitic, perhaps Neo-Nazi site utilizing Nazi propaganda, not to illuminate Nazi persecution of Jews, but to illustrate that the Nazis were actually correct in their persecution.  If my students were looking for propaganda for one of my assignments, they may accidentally stumble upon this site.  Hopefully they would recognize this site for what it was and avoid it like the plague. But, what about all those who had never studied the Holocaust before, and don’t know what they are looking at?

What about 8th graders researching a critical thinking assignment?