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:
- 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.
- Gas chambers were not used to kill large numbers of Jews at any time.
- 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.
- '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?”
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 resources from Echoes and Reflections:
- Teacher's Discussion Guide - The 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.
As I prepare to retire from my role as the National Director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) this month, I have spent considerable time reflecting on my past and the experiences that shaped me over the last half century. I came to the ADL exactly 50 years ago, fresh out of law school, and fueled with a passion to fight for the safety and security of the Jewish people. This passion, no doubt, is always and forever informed by being a child survivor of the Holocaust, hidden by my Polish-Catholic nanny, and then miraculously reunited with my parents. Surely, I am a product of the worst in humankind and the best in humankind.
Many know that I survived World War II and the Holocaust thanks to my nanny, but some don’t realize that after being reunited with my parents at the age of 5, I had to learn how to be Jewish. One thing I remember is making the sign of the cross in the home of my parents, who were observant Jews. Even once I was reunited with my parents, I did not know who or what I was. As a child, with my nanny, I had been a good practicing Catholic. I grappled with this terrible burden for years and those feelings and memories left a lasting impression. The Holocaust changed the trajectory of my life—and millions of others—simply because we were Jewish.
The transformation that followed, and the rediscovery and reengagement with my Jewish faith and culture, was not easy; but the experiences of my childhood coupled with the lessons my parents taught me inspired my lifelong commitment to fighting anti-Semitism and ensuring the lessons of the Holocaust are never forgotten.
The devastation of the Holocaust has ripple effects beyond what is often taught in textbooks or as a passing reference in a history class. Every single survivor has a story—stories often replete with horror, desperation, and a one in a million chance of survival. I realized early on that it is very important to provide a human voice to the Holocaust so that others understand that each life lost or saved was a person with feelings, experiences, family, and a future. It’s easy for people to repeat “six million” and “never forget” without actually understanding what that means for both the Jewish people and the human race.
So it may come as no surprise that as I retire, I do so with the greatest pride in the role the ADL has had in building Echoes and Reflections, our Holocaust education program developed in partnership with USC Shoah Foundation, Yad Vashem, and the ongoing leadership and support of Dana and Yossie Hollander. This innovative program lends that human voice to the experiences of the Holocaust and prepares teachers to help students understand the ongoing relevance of this history to our contemporary society.
This work has never been so critical. Can you imagine my disgust as I read articles about Eric Hunt (a Holocaust denier known for attacking Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel) who is creating a virtual "Holocaust Hoax Museum” that will dispute the Holocaust happened? It seems inconceivable that in 2015 Holocaust imagery and phrases like, “Hitler Should Have Finished the Job” are being used on college campuses and to desecrate synagogues nationwide.
How is it possible that seventy years after the Shoah, we are questioning whether or not Jews can live peacefully in pluralistic countries like France, Belgium, Sweden, or Denmark? And just last month in Spain, three visibly identifiable Muslim women reportedly chanted, “Catch and kill all the Jews…. Exterminate them, exterminate them, the world will be better off,” while one of the women stabbed a doll of an Orthodox Jew with a knife.
This rise of anti-Semitism here and abroad disturbs me deeply and is heartbreaking for the thousands of Holocaust survivors who remain, who fear that humankind has really not learned from the horrors of its past. For me, I want my grandchildren to understand that evil exists in this world, and that Jews and other groups of people are being persecuted even today, but just as importantly, I want them to know that there are far more people out there who will stand for others, who challenge misinformation, stereotypes, and who do not and will not sit idly by in the face of hate.
I have often said that until we develop an antidote to hate, education is our best response. I firmly believe this to be true. This is why I have such a deep respect and gratitude for the more than 25,000 educators who have worked with Echoes and Reflections these past ten years.
For those of you reading this who are a part of our Echoes and Reflections educator community, I know that teaching about Holocaust history can be daunting and challenging, with limited time, competing priorities, and the need to respond to the many diverse needs of the young people in your classrooms. I fear sometimes that we are giving you too heavy a burden; the history is too horrible, too complex, too removed for many students in 2015.
Yet, you do not shy away from the challenge. Every day, we see more and more of you come to our programs, you help your students understand the seemingly incomprehensible level of man’s inhumanity to his fellow man, you ask them the tough questions and help them make meaningful connections, and you find enough grace and hope in this dark past to give belief in a brighter future. It is your actions that give me hope in a brighter future.
For this, as a Holocaust survivor, as a Jew, as a father and grandfather, I say thank you.
Abraham H. Foxman, is the former National Director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). Currently, he is the head of the Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City.