Denial: How angry should I be?
On struggling for the right tone in writing about Holocaust denial
In the Preface to my 2018 book Denial: The Unspeakable Truth, I confessed to a weakness for the conspiratorial, alternative truths:
I’ve always loved nonsense dressed up as scholarship. During my A-level studies in early modern history, one of my teachers gave me a copy of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail to read and report back on to the class. I loved it. Its outré thesis – that Jesus survived the crucifixion and went to live in the South of France and spawned a secret society, the ‘Priory of Zion’, that has acted as a hidden hand in the history of Western civilisation – was thrillingly written. And of course, as I took pleasure in pointing out in my class presentation, it was no less improbable than the Christian story of crucifixion and resurrection.
I go on to make clear that I never gave any credence to books like that. Still there was something so voluptuously amusing about them that, despite my Jewishness, my youthful reaction to Holocaust denial was similarly insouciant:
As a teen who liked to read radical anti-fascist publications such as Searchlight, I also heard about Holocaust denial, although I never encountered it first-hand. This was pre-Internet, and it took commitment to track down such works – commitment that, as a soft suburban Jew, I didn’t have. But I did yearn to explore this demi-monde. What could be sillier than arguing the Holocaust never happened? It was all a big joke to me. A Jewish university friend and I used to fantasise about forming a Jewish metal band that espoused Holocaust denial and boasted that we really do kill Christian kids and use their blood in our Passover rituals. On holiday in Egypt, another Jewish friend and I visited bookstores to ask if they stocked Did Six Million Really Die? and The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. What larks!
In contrast, here is how the Italian philosopher Donatella Di Cesare begins her new book If Auschwitz is Nothing: Against Denialism (a collection of 3 essays, recently translated into English and published for the first time):
The new edition of this book is the result of my unexpected and traumatic experience of a criminal trial. I was forced to ensure the lawsuit because I had termed someone a 'denier' - as I considered quite appropriate - in an article published in La Lettura, the weekly cultural supplement of the Corriere della Sera, on 22 October 2018. The proceedings before the Tribunale di Milano concluded on 12 January 2021 with my complete acquittal.
The contrast between Di Cesare's opening words and my own makes me wince a little. It's not that my book defends or trivialises Holocaust denial, indeed, my argument suggests that its implications may be even more horrific than is appreciated. I open with a light-hearted confession as a rhetorical device in order to demonstrate not only that I now take it much more seriously, but that the reader should too. Still, di Cesare has experienced the hateful sting of denialism in a much more visceral and threatening way than I have. My book on denial (which covers other denialisms as well as Holocaust denial) provoked a few angry emails but nothing that really constituted a threat, legal or otherwise.
Reading If Auschwitz is Nothing, I was constantly reminded of the experience of reading Deborah Lipstadt's book on Holocaust Denial, as well as her account of her successful defence against David Irving's libel action against her. The books are very different in many ways - as a philosopher, Di Cesare is able to distill the fundamentals of denial much more effectively than Lipstadt, a historian - but at their best, the books do draw on a certain kind tonal pallet: Disgust, anger, contempt and outrage; yet also dignity, carefully-controlled destruction and penetrating insight.
The finest example of Di Cesare's use of such a tone comes at the end of a short chapter that acknowledges the terrible futility of the necessary act of refuting Holocaust deniers:
Denial forces a checking of minutiae, an examination of particulars, in an investigation that gets lost in the details. This means losing sight of the sheer enormity of what we are talking about. Is this not the real intention? To hermetically seal the iron doors of the gas chambers? To leave behind the muffled screams? To ensure that our gaze never meets with the unseeing eyes of the asphyxiated? The aim is to make us accomplices...We become illiterate: 6 million is just a number.
Di Cesare refuses to be an accomplice, a page or two after this passage she turns to the account of an Italian Jew, Shlomo Venezia, who was one of the very few survivors of sonderkommando, whose awful fate was to assist with the gassing and cremation at Auschwitz. After a few sentences by the author, the next 2-3 pages are given over to Venezia's horrendous account. Then the chapter ends, without any further word from Di Cesare. Her silent de-centering of herself at this moment is not just an ethical act of allowing one who experienced so much to speak for himself, it is also a tacit acknowledgement that words can only do so much. Venezia will not defeat the deniers, nor will Di Cesare. At the same time, words can bear witness, can recover dignity, can allow us to mourn (and interweaving words and silence can do so too).
In my own book I did not call on others to bear witness. I did not attempt to convince the reader of the moral stain of denial and the crimes the deniers attempt to hide. Nor was my tone one of outrage, carefully-controlled or not. Instead, I cultivated a tone of bitter irony and exaggerated pathos. I argued that denialism emerges out of the inability to articulate a desire that has been rendered 'unspeakable' in the modern world. I 'pitied' the neo-Nazi who is 'forced' to claim that the a genocide as perfect as the Holocaust never happened:
Denialists are caught in a trap of their own making. In order to keep the flame of their desire alive, they have to turn their backs on real embodiments of that desire. They have to deny even that which their beliefs would seem to embrace. It is as though their desire fails them at the crucial point. Everything they argue seems to point to a certain end, yet they have to swerve away just before the moment of consummation. If the Jews are so pernicious, why not call for their extermination and praise previous attempts to do just that? If one believes so strongly in free market capitalism founded on the exploitation of scarce resources, then surely the costs of global warming are worth paying in blood? If one believes that industrialised medicine is so dehumanising, then surely the deaths of untold numbers of children is a small price to pay?
I remain proud of my book on denial. I think its arguments are novel and its tone is different to other works on the subject. Yet, reading Di Cesare, I kept wondering whether my tone in the book constituted a form of privilege; an assumption that, as a an educated, middle class white male (albeit Jewish), I would be unlikely to reap the whirlwind after the book came out. The fact that Di Cesare and Lipstadt are both female is unlikely to be a coincidence. And if I had close relatives or friends who survived the Holocaust, or were vulnerable to other denialisms (such as Pacific islanders whose homes are threatened by climate change), I may not have been able to avoid adopting an angrier tone.
Still, regardless of my personal stake in fighting denialisms, it is difficult for many of us to truly grasp monumental forms of human evil. The Holocaust was so monstrous, so mind-boggling in scale that, as Di Cesare points out, its victims can easily be reduced to statistics. Personally, the Holocaust - and its denial - only 'hits' me at odd moments, sometimes when I least expect it. And Holocaust deniers are, for all their vileness, so absurd that I find it hard to hate them personally and as a mass.
In fact, the instance of denialism that hit me hardest had nothing to do with the Holocaust. The parents whose children were killed in the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting have had to live through the torture of the accusation that they were 'crisis actors'; that their children never existed and they have been paid to publicly mourn them as part of a cynical strategy to pass gun control legislation. Some of these parents have been forced to move house over and over again and live a kind of underground existence to escape their persecutors. Alex Jones, who did more than most to stoke this conspiracy theory, may have been bankrupted by the damages imposed by a court at the end of 2022, but he remains on the air and his followers have not gone away. He, and they, are scum. I cannot take comfort in his absurdity. I have only rage.
Why this and not Holocaust denial? Sandy Hook, after all, could not have happened to me; it happened in a distant land (albeit one where my wife's family live). Perhaps the handful of parents who have suffered so much from the shooting is easier to relate to than the untold numbers who lost children in the Holocaust.
While none of my close relatives were survivors (my great-grandparents emigrated here in the late 19th century), there were branches of my Polish-Jewish family that were wiped out in the Holocaust. In May, I will be going on a memorial trip to Kutno, where my maternal ancestors came from. I don't know how I will feel. It may be that I will begin to feel a hatred for Holocaust deniers that I have not experienced before. Or not. I don't know.
Will Storr wrote a book in which he infiltrated a group of Holocaust deniers. As I understand it - I haven't read the book - he discovered they all had personal reasons for needing to deny or minimise the Holocaust - for examples, they had family members who were involved. No doubt some neo-Nazis deny the Holocaust cynically, but I would guess others, like Storr's deniers, do so as a psychological defence mechanism, maybe a way to reconcile their political beliefs with their self-image as a morally upright person.
That circle has been squared in other ways, too. I remember hearing Zizek talk about some SS commander - it may have been Himmler, but maybe not - who told his men that the greatest heroism was to take on the moral burden of performing terrible acts. He didn't tell them killing Jews was good; he told them killing Jews for a greater good was a noble self-sacrifice. I bet even the top Nazis thought they were only doing it because they had no choice. No one is the villain in their own story. The human mind is a sick and depraved thing.
I'm sure you have never considered the possibility that you are wrong, and are convinced that everything you read from official sources is the cold hard truth. "Denial" is the vocabulary of the fanatic, utterly convinced that their version of events is 100% certain, and that contravening this in any way is heresy.
This may be the mindset of the Jerusalemite; but there are Athenians willing to consider alternative viewpoints, and we aren't going anywhere soon, as angry as that may make the Pharisees. I'm more than happy to be the Happy Heretic.