How should we approach challenging Holocaust deniers?

Students on the Holocaust Educational Trust (HET)/UJS Lessons from Auschwitz Universities Project, visiting Auschwitz. Photo credit: Yakir Zur - via Jewish News
Students on the Holocaust Educational Trust (HET)/UJS Lessons from Auschwitz Universities Project, visiting Auschwitz. Photo credit: Yakir Zur - via Jewish News

 According to a recent opinion poll by Opinion Matters for the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust (HMDT), more than 2.6 million, or 5% of all  British adults, believe the Holocaust is a myth.

The results of the poll point to a ”terrible worrying level of denial”, say survivors and anti-racism campaigners. Well, there are so many in UK  because the country has no legislation banning Holocaust denial, say the people who want such laws that exist in 16 European countries plus Israel.

But with the exception of a few (very few) notable convictions in Germany, Austria and other countries, even they cannot boast fewer deniers than UK and much less frequent antisemitic acts.

Their regular flare-ups always remind me of Uncle Georges.

Uncle Georges is just an ordinary Frenchman, a “Français moyen”, as his compatriots would say. However, in the town in which he lives, he is famous for his irreconcilable hatred of the English. So much so that his motto could be Odio ergo sum (I hate therefore I am). No one knows the origin of his supreme antipathy, but all it takes is for someone to utter the word “English” within earshot of Uncle Georges and his cheeks become scarlet and he launches into one of his periodic and furious attacks on the neighbours across the English Channel.

In fact, in order “to make his day”, to please him and to let him justify his existence, at every family gathering, someone will, at some point, mention the English “in passing”. Uncle Georges will suddenly stand up and recite his mantra, after which everyone will be satisfied and have a great time, especially Uncle Georges.

That is the subject of a humorous short story by the French author Alphonse Allais, if my memory serves me right, and it regularly comes to mind when I meet people with a single but fixed idea, and who, without it would go through life totally unremarked. People who have dedicated their entire existence to this or that personality or cause, ignoring everything else. People who only see life through the prism of their beliefs, impervious to any alternative suggestion or idea.

We all have met such people, be they conspiracy theorists convinced that the Covid-19 vaccine makes it easier to brainwash the recipient, that aliens are among us or that the earth is flat. There are also pseudo-scientists who believe in, for example, communicating with the dead and in reincarnation, or historians who “embellish” the past as they see fit or even deny certain past events outright, including the Holocaust.

The Holocaust has left in its wake more eyewitnesses and material evidence than all the theories mentioned above put together, but it is still the most controversial.  Do not misunderstand me. I do not mean or even imply that without their denial, the Holocaust deniers would be non-entities, like Uncle Georges.

No, some of them are professors, historians, writers or politicians but they have come to be defined by their denial, the world forgetting everything else about them.

And yet they persist on their path undeterred, despite the fines some have paid or even the time they spent in prison. It is hard to prove that they are driven by ferocious antisemitism. Maybe they are fuelled by a hot passion for what they see as the “historical truth”?

By an impulse to become martyrs? By sheer vanity? Do they need publicity?  To quote Oscar Wilde: “There is only one thing worse in the world than being talked about and that is not being talked about.”

If so, the laws in different countries that punish Holocaust denial ensure the very publicity some deniers might crave. This is just one of the reasons why I never agreed with that legislation. Antisemitism and the denial of historical truth cannot be eliminated by laws and courts, but only by education.  Education is, alas, a very rigorous and lengthy process. How do we now prevent the antisemites and the Holocaust deniers from selling their goods unhindered to all the gullible people willing to buy them? Do we let them take advantage of their freedom of expression to gain followers through universities, social media, the press, literature and other areas of public life?  We know from experience that Goebbels was right when he said that a lie repeated many times will eventually be believed.

Eisenhower also knew this in 1945 when he urged his soldiers to take as many photographs as possible of the death camps and the newly-liberated inmates, because, he said: “There would come a time when some people will claim that these horrors never happened.” Well, that time came very quickly after the war and the great lie continues to be believed even today, despite the hard evidence, witnesses and even the confessions of some Holocaust architects. Sadly, I came to believe a long time ago that antisemitism will never go away.

I admit, I am a pessimist (although some would call me a “realist”). I even came to hope that this plague would only remain at a “declarative” level, like Uncle Georges saying he hated the English or others stating that they couldn’t stand the Americans. Or like in a scene depicted by the French writer Roger Ikor, in his book Les Eaux Mêlées (Mixed Waters), where there was an antisemitic demonstration in the Jewish quarter of Paris at the beginning of the last century. Participants marched through the streets chanting “Death to the Jews!” An elderly Jewish lady, caught up in the protest, tried to run away, stumbled and fell. A young demonstrator broke away from the crowd and rushed to help. He put her back on her feet, dusted her down, checked she was fine, rejoined the crowd and took up the chant of “Death to the Jews” again.

What a difference a mere century makes, especially in Paris! I do not argue that we should treat Holocaust deniers like we treat followers of the flat earth theory, with an amused tolerance.

The latter are harmless; there is no chance that their belief will lead to the death of millions of people. With the deniers it is different. Their ideas could spread quickly if they are not stopped in their tracks.

But I don’t think they can be stopped by law.

The law can only prevent for a moment their public expression, but not their dissemination by other means. That, while we wait for the benefits of proper mass education, which is not even on the drawing board now, must be done in another way.  Unfortunately, nobody seems to know what..


About the Author
Dorian Galbinski is a journalist and a former radio producer in the BBC World Service, Romanian Section