On January 27, 2017 President Trump commemorated the Holocaust without mentioning Jews. The Jews of Europe were, of course, the chief victims of the Nazis. For many Jewish organizations, Trump’s omission was not just a mistake, but an insult to the six million Jews killed during the Holocaust. On the other hand, Richard Spencer, a leading Alt-Right ideologue celebrated what he termed the “de-Judiafication” of the Holocaust. Trump’s spokesmen (I use the gendered noun purposefully), with the calm, measured judgment for which the administration is known, called criticisms of the statement “pathetic” and “asinine.”
The omission is particularly worrisome, given the administration’s flirtations with antisemitism. The doyen of the history of Holocaust denial in the United States, Emory historian Deborah E. Lipstadt had this to say:
Holocaust denial is alive and well in the highest offices of the United States. It is being spread by those in President Trump’s innermost circle. It may have all started as a mistake by a new administration that is loath to admit it’s wrong. Conversely, it may be a conscious attempt by people with anti-Semitic sympathies to rewrite history. Either way it is deeply disturbing.
Before proceeding, let’s just stop and think about what is going on right now: the country is trying to decide if our President engaged in Holocaust denial. Holocaust denial was previously the province of neo-Nazi backwaters on the internet like Stormfront and now we are trying to decide if our President is a Holocaust denier! This is not normal. That being said, still more needs saying about this. Tragically.
Holocaust denial isn’t always what the name sounds like. What Lipstadt calls “hardcore” Holocaust denial is denying specific facts about the Nazi genocide. Books like Northwestern University’s Arthur Butz‘s book, The Hoax of the Twentieth Century is a good example of this kind of Holocaust denial: Jews weren’t special targets of extermination, there were no gas chambers at Auschwitz, Hitler just wanted a little peace! Sure there were deaths in the concentration camps, but there was a typhus epidemic and the Allies had bombed the rail lines so Germans couldn’t feed their prisoners properly! Trump’s statement certainly didn’t contain anything like that which is why Lipstadt called the statement “softcore” Holocaust denial: not an outright denial of historical facts but a reinterpretation that minimizes or obscures them. Here, Lipstadt definitely has a point. To understand why, we need to clearly recognize that Holocaust denial is quite prevalent.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Eastern European states are now confronting old antisemitic prejudices. And Iran and other states in the region are certainly churning out Holocaust denial ideology in their fervent desire to condemn Israel (some of which they learned from actual Nazis who fled there after the war). All of this has meant that historians have needed sharper analytical tools to understand Holocaust denial.
Softcore Holocaust denial, or Holocaust obfuscation, can take many forms. For example, the Nazi genocide is only one of several genocides of the twentieth century, why is the Nazi Holocaust the only one that gets remembered? Even the Nazi genocide was not limited to Jews, so why do we only talk about the murdered Jews and not the other victims? Besides, war is hell and lots of bad things happened. The United States had concentration camps for their own citizens. The United States’s firebombing of Dresden killed 135,000 people in one night for no particular strategic purpose. And do we need to mention the A-bombs and all the innocent civilians they killed?
Here’s why softcore Holocaust denial is more dangerous than hardcore Holocaust denial. No one, except those on the antisemitic right, doubts there were gas chambers at Auschwitz designed specifically to kill people. To deny the gas chambers is to say something like, “There was no such person as Elvis Presley“. Arthur Butz is relegated to “conferences” where he spins his wild theories to other nutjobs who already believe him (which makes me wonder why he bothers). But all those questions in my previous paragraphs are legitimate questions that historians worry about. How the Holocaust came to be taken as a symbol of the ultimate evil is a question that historians have tried to address seriously. I don’t mean to explore the answers to those questions here but simply to note that they are serious questions being asked by serious scholars.
A legitimate historical question can be transformed into softcore Holocaust denial by the context in which it is asked. Since the Trump administration is already flirting with outright antisemites and antisemitism is on the rise since his election, it would seem difficult to explain why the administration chose not to mention antisemitism as Obama, Bush, Clinton, and Reagan did in their statements except that it did so in order to deny that the Jews were special victims of the Nazis.
Sean Spicer, with his typical delicate touch complained about those who were“nitpicking a statement that sought to remember this tragic event that occurred, and the people who died.” This is ridiculous. The way you remember all the victims is not to gloss over the fact that Jews were the special targets of the Nazis. This is exactly how the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum urges us to remember the Holocaust. You commemorate the dead by speaking of the dead, not by ignoring the dead.
And, while stopping short of claiming that “some of my best friends are Jews!” the administration was quick to point out that the statement was drafted by a Jew, that Trump’s son-in-law was a Jew, and that Ivanka Trump converted to Judaism in 2009. To which the proper response is, who cares? The country should not care a bit if Trump is antisemitic “in his heart.” The country should care that he is under the influence of an antisemitic editor and publisher, that he adopts the rhetorical tactics of softcore Holocaust denial, and that, when he speaks, he speaks for us.
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