Guest speaker, Holocaust Memorial Service, Beth El Synagogue, St. John's, NF, 4 May 1997
How can anyone seriously deny the Holocaust in the face of testimonies by countless witnesses, including survivors, observers, and former Nazi officials? Moreover, the Nazi regime itself, inheriting the Prussian tradition for bureaucratic thoroughness, has left behind such a mass of indicting records that no serious student of the Third Reich can overlook it. Indeed, thanks to international historical scholarship, the systematic extermination of millions of European Jews in the Third Reich has acquired the distinction of the most frequently studied and most thoroughly documented event in modern history.
To be sure, the available evidence has given rise to certain arguments of interpretation among scholars. One of these has focused on the origins of the Holocaust. Did Hitler intend it from the beginning of his political career or did the so-called "final solution" emerge only in 1941 after forced emigration of Jews had failed and Germany had embarked on the conquest of Russia? Another debate has involved the question of who first ordered the systematic killing of Jews. Did an unknown secret order from Hitler trigger the killing or did he encourage his subordinates Himmler and Heydrich to devise the implementation?
These and related scholarly debates, however, in no way minimize or deny the occurrence of the Holocaust. On the contrary. They have deepened our appreciation of this crime's enormity and uniqueness in modern history. Indeed, historical research has opened our eyes to the disturbing fact that the Holocaust was neither undertaken in complete secrecy by a small fanatical minority nor committed under duress. It was carried out, instead, with the surprisingly widespread involvement of supposedly cultured, civilized people in a prosperous, highly advanced, industrial nation.
How then can anyone in his or her right mind belittle the Holocaust or declare it a hoax? And, if anyone is crazy enough to advocate such an obvious historical falsehood, why should we make it an issue by getting excited about it? Wouldn't we serve historical truth and the memory of the Holocaust victims better by simply ignoring such an absurdity? Unfortunately, we cannot ignore Holocaust denial for two serious reasons: first, because Holocaust denial pretends to be valid historical research but actually functions as a front for hate doctrines; and second, because the Holocaust deniers' message targets an ignorant, gullible audience. The aim is to recruit the audience to the Holocaust deniers' cause. Let me explain this more clearly.
Generally speaking, Holocaust denial has appeared in two forms--as a deliberate distortion of history and as a non- deliberate distortion of history. Deliberate distorters--that is, those who knowingly deny the truth--are, in reality, advocates of hate doctrines. They are adherents of such diverse right-wing extremist beliefs as neo-Fascism, neo-Nazism, antisemitism, or racism. Their real agenda is the promotion of these beliefs. They have to deny the Holocaust since its acknowledgement would negate their appeal. These hate-mongers have appeared in every western country since the end of World War II. In fact, they assist each other politically, ideologically, and financially through a well-functioning international network.
In Canada the best known advocates of this deliberate Holocaust denial have been James Keegstra and Ernst Zündel. Keegstra has been exposed as a product of prewar western Canadian antisemitism. He taught that the Holocaust was a fraud calculated to perpetuate the so-called world Jewish conspiracy. The postwar German immigrant Zündel, on the other hand, prides himself on being a neo-Nazi. He named his first publication "The Hitler We Loved and Why." Immigrating from Germany as an apolitical teenager in 1958, he was converted to neo-Nazism in Canada by the veteran Quebec fascist Adrien Arcand and his international network of contacts. Zündel's motive is to whitewash the Third Reich so that neo-Nazism can be marketed. He has characterized the Holocaust as a gigantic hoax aimed at blackmailing the German people. According to Zündel's reasoning, the alleged victims of the Holocaust are really "holocaust racketeers." Today Zündel is one of the most prominent popularizers of Holocaust denial. With his own publishing house (called Samisdat) in Toronto he has placed Canada on the global map as a major exporter of neo-Nazi material.
Deliberate Holocaust deniers resort to deception to promote their cause. They deliberately confuse those unfamiliar with their tactics by mixing proven facts with absolute lies and by quoting each other as authorities regardless of scholarly refutations. They propagate their views as the legitimate "other side" of history and use such phony scholarly covers as the "Journal of Historical Review" and the "Institute for Historical Review," both launched in the United States. They also generate pseudo-scientific reports on the Auschwitz gas chambers claiming that the design and chemical residues of these facilities precluded the killing of 6 million people. When attacked, they counterattack as champions of freedom of speech. To give his hate propaganda the appearance of legitimacy, Zündel has improvised such agencies as "The Concerned Parents of German Descent," "The German-Jewish Historical Commission," and "Samisdat Publications." (By the way, Samisdat was the term used by Soviet dissidents for their underground publications.)
We would probably not have to worry much about the crazy fringe of deliberate Holocaust deniers, were it not for the more numerous group of what I would call non-deliberate Holocaust deniers. They arrive at their negative views of the Holocaust for essentially three reasons--repression, latent prejudice, and ignorance. Repression is evident, for example, among refugees, expellees, and displaced persons who resent having their own traumas of forced migration and suffering subordinated to the Holocaust. A second, more frequent reason for non-deliberate Holocaust denial is latent anti-Jewish prejudice. For instance, surveys of Canadians have repeatedly indicated that between 11 and 22 percent of respondents expressed anti-Jewish sentiments as a basis for negative attitudes towards the Holocaust.
The most important cause of non-deliberate Holocaust denial, however, is ignorance. According to surveys during the last decade, as many as 55 percent of North American high school seniors were unable to link the Holocaust to the Third Reich and 22 percent of Canadians under 25 even blamed Jews for the Holocaust. Following the 1985 Zündel trial in Toronto, one out of eight Canadians surveyed believed the figure of 6 million Holocaust victims to be too high. Even in Newfoundland distortions of Holocaust-related facts are perpetuated, as I discovered to my dismay. For example, in a 1995 publication entitled Those In Peril, one prominent Jewish refugee who spent part of World War II in Newfoundland continues to be stigmatized as a Nazi spy, just as he was during the war. This serious falsehood appeared despite the explicit documentation in my book Sanctuary Denied, published in 1992, in which I clearly prove his correct identity as a Jewish refugee.
What conclusions should be be drawn from this review? The claim of deliberate Holocaust deniers to represent "the other side" of history should be ignored wherever possible because they thrive on public and media attention. But, whenever necessary, deliberate deniers should be reined in legally and politically. For example, Germany has gone as far as declaring Holocaust denial a crime. Studies have confirmed the positive educational impact of the Eichmann and Zündel trials. After the 1985 Zündel trial, Canadian surveys made the interesting discovery that respondents unaware of the trial were more likely to deny the Holocaust than those paying attention to the trial.
No doubt, the widespread historical ignorance and gullibility in society is our real challenge. Non-deliberate Holocaust denial, just as negative stereotyping, feeds on ignorance. This can easily turn, as the career of Zündel demonstrated, into deliberate, aggressive Holocaust denial. It is historical ignorance, therefore, that makes the small number of deliberate deniers a menace. The only lasting protection against a recurrence of the Third Reich nightmare is vigilance and awareness. To this end, Memorial University is going to introduce a History course on the Holocaust next year.
Our fellow Canadians need to know about the Holocaust and the nature of Holocaust denial so that the six million innocent victims did not die in vain. The history of antisemitism and its culmination in Hitler's flourishing Germany should remind us constantly that even in our affluent society and advanced civilization, barbarism lurks just around the corner.