Defending Truth – Holocaust Denial in the Classroom

The recent film Denial, which recounts Deborah E. Lipstadt’s legal battle for historical truth against David Irving, who accused her of libel when she declared him a Holocaust denier, provides an opportunity to critically examine Holocaust denial and contemporary antisemitism. For students, analyzing the ways that what they have learned about the Holocaust debunks the assertions of deniers allows them to reach important conclusions based on evidence.

Echoes and Reflections sat down with Dan Leshem, PhD, Director of the Kupferberg Holocaust Center at Queensborough Community College, CUNY, and former Program Manager of the Holocaust Denial on Trial website (HDoT.org), to learn more about what teachers should know as they consider this topic from an educational perspective.

What is Holocaust Denial?

“Holocaust denial is a very strange concept and a very difficult thing to teach,” Leshem explains, “because it requires student to hold a lot of things in their mind at the same time… Students have to reflect on the historical truth of the Holocaust while also considering the denier’s claim, think about why someone would deny the Holocaust, question the way denying the Holocaust hurts the people that were there, and how it hurts Jewish people today. Holocaust denial becomes a complicated story.”

Leshem emphatically states that the most important thing to know is that Holocaust denial is antisemitism. “There is no other reason that it exists other than to hurt Jews and rehabilitate the image of Hitler and the Nazi party.” He goes on to add that, many of the most vehement Holocaust deniers are antisemites as well as being anti-immigrant, racist, misogynistic, homophobic haters of all “others”.

Much of denial focuses on inserting doubt or suspicion into the narrative about the Holocaust and presenting assertions as if they are historical fact and historical proof. “Offering a series of logical fallacies is less detectable. Insert enough doubt and people start to think that ‘maybe there is more to the story than I was told.’”

Dr. Lipstadt uses the term “immoral equivalencies” to describe these logical fallacies. In an interview transcript on HDOT, she explains that Holocaust deniers will say, “Yes, the Germans had camps (because they can’t deny that there were concentration camps. Those were reported even in the German press, which was hardly a free press, but everybody knew there was this system of concentration camps), but the Americans had camps too… they did bad, we did bad, in war bad things happen.” The danger in these assertions, Lipstadt explains, is more than that they’re completely false. It is that, “There is no moral equivalency for the Holocaust,” so deniers need to negate its significance to further their own hateful agenda.

Common Contentions of Holocaust Deniers

According to Leshem there are, at the heart of deniers’ rhetoric, two core themes: that the Jewish people were not the victims but the victimizers, and that the material evidence of a genocide were all fabricated.

In Lipstadt’s trial, Richard Evan’s expert witness report listed the following common contentions:

  1. The number of Jews killed by the Nazis was far less than six million; it amounted to only a few hundred thousand, and was thus similar to, or less than, the number of German civilians killed in Allied bombing raids.
  2. Gas chambers were not used to kill large numbers of Jews at any time.
  3. Neither Hitler nor the Nazi leadership in general had a program of exterminating Europe’s Jews; all they wished to do was to deport them to Eastern Europe.
  4. ‘The Holocaust’ is a myth invented by Allied propaganda during the war and sustained since then by Jews who wish to use it to gain political and financial support for the state of Israel. The supposed evidence for the Nazis’ wartime mass murder of millions of Jews by gassing and other means was fabricated after the war.

“It can be very challenging to debunk some of these ideas if you’re not an expert,” Leshem adds. These contentions require one to be knowledgeable about the Holocaust and able to point to all the pieces of evidence that negate each claim.

Is Denial Unique to the Holocaust?

“Denial is the last stage of every genocide,” Leshem explains citing Gregory H. Stanton, noted Professor in Genocide Studies and Prevention at George Mason University and President of Genocide Watch. Stanton’s extensive work in genocide studies led to his paper, The 8 Stages of Genocide, which offers a framework that is now used throughout the world. “There isn’t a group in history that has experienced a genocide, that does not have a group that is trying to deny it… The difference with the Holocaust is that the government of Germany has made a conscious effort to acknowledge what they did.”

To most people, given the evidence, to question whether the Holocaust happened or the facts surrounding it is irrational; it is one of the most documented events in human history. And yet, as we move farther away from the event in history, and with the enormous amount of information and misinformation shared through the Internet, students may have seen or heard some of the propaganda that Holocaust deniers spread.

If the topic comes up in class, Leshem recommends approaching it as an opportunity to teach critical thinking and research.  Challenge students to consider, “How do you evaluate the credibility of your source? Where did you get your information?” He also recommends that students dig deeper into their research to find multiple credible sources to measure evidence against. “In this day in age it is also a digital literacy question… If your source is comments on YouTube, how good is that source compared to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum?”

Teaching Resources

Echoes and Reflections provides students and teachers with authentic primary sources, survivor testimony, and historical facts, that reveal what took place. If students, or adults are voicing myths and misinformation about the Holocaust,  HDOT’s Debunking Holocaust Denial provides historical data to refute the most common assertions and provides fact sheets for debunking Holocaust denier claims.

Additionally, consider these new resources from Echoes and Reflections:

  • Teacher’s Discussion Guide – The new film Denial recounts Deborah E. Lipstadt’s legal battle for historical truth against David Irving, who accused her of libel when she declared him a Holocaust denier.
  • Contemporary Antisemitism Resource – Provides an opportunity for students to understand that antisemitism did not end after the Holocaust, and tools for interpreting data and content students encounter on and offline.

Dan Leshem, Ph.D. is the Director of the Kupferberg Holocaust Center at Queensborough Community College.

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