WHAT IS HOLOCAUST DENIAL?

“I shot the sheriff, but I did not shoot the deputy.” In case you’re not old enough to remember, it’s an Eric Clapton song from 1974.

“Yes we killed millions of Jews during the war, but not only Jews.”

“Yes we killed millions of Jews, but it was spontaneous, not systematic.”

“Yes we gassed them, but we didn’t use Zyklon B.”

“No we didn’t gas them. It turned out bullets were still cheaper.”

“No there was no program of extermination. But because we couldn’t very well draft them into the army, what we decided at the Wannsee Conference was to get out of them what we could for the defense of the Reich. Just remember that the enemy killed as many Germans as Jews died in the camps.”

Which if any of these is Holocaust denial? None? Some? All? Because the Holocaust is the umbrella term for hundreds of millions of individual events, there are virtually an infinite number of ‘revisions’ about which the same question can be asked.

How many grains of sand do I have to move from here to there before it’s not the same beach? The standard answer, it seems, is to ask whether, given the proposed revisions, it’s still a beach. If it is then it’s not Holocaust denial. If it’s not then it is.

Fair enough. But then we need to know what counts as a beach. A beach, like a chair, is a functional concept. It’s a chair if it can be sat on. It’s a beach if it can be laid on, and then returned to after a swim. But a Holocaust, I conjecture, is a moral concept, and as such it’s perspectival. The extermination of a bee hive would be a Holocaust, but only from the perspective of the bees. Or of bee sympathizers.

So whether one can be ‘guilty’ of Holocaust denial hangs less on the details of his proposed revisions than on the moral assessment he seems to be urging us to revise. As far as some of us are concerned, the passage of the Nuremberg Laws in 1935 would have warranted history’s unstinting censure of the German people even if there’d never been an invasion of Poland in 1939, or of the Ukraine in 1941, and so there’d never been an Auschwitz or a Babi Yar. So if one wants to defend the Nuremberg Laws, he has a much harder row to hoe. As have the Israelis in defending their recent passage of their so-called “Nation Law”.

If one thinks he only needs to defend the existence of the camps, he has to explain how we’re wrong to think that an occupier is bound by the rules of war to protect those under its occupation, because in that case neither need the Israelis apologize for Sabra and Shatilla.

If one wants to defend the separation of children from their parents at the gates of these camps, he’ll no doubt also defend the separation of children from their ‘criminal’ parents at the fence between America and Mexico.

If one wants to defend the deaths not by asphyxiation but starvation at these camps – because, after all, these were terrible times for everyone – then he’ll no doubt want to say that Herman Goering just had a thyroid problem. And so on and on it’ll go.

So I’m not sure what the point of Holocaust denial might be, either on the part of the deniers of the ‘myth’ or on the part of its defenders. So neither do I see what all the fuss is about. I’ve been to Yad Vashem. There is a miniature paper mache mock-up of the change room, the gas chamber, and ovens. But apart from that there’s not a whole lot of revisions to the exhibits that have been proposed. Unless, of course, that copy of the Nuremberg Laws is a forgery, not unlike, as some have suggested, The Diary of Anne Frank.

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