Issue 5 - September 2007
Historical Truth and Antisemitism - Eric B. LitwackAs I researched this article, the world’s most prominent Holocaust denier, President Ahmadinejad of Iran, convened a pseudo-scholarly conference whose purpose was to offer a forum to an international group of neo-Nazis and other antisemites. From media coverage of this odious event, it appeared that the goal of linking the response to the Holocaust and the justification of Zionism was of particular focus. It is thus timely to underline the importance of historical truth in combating antisemitic propaganda, of both the anti-Zionist and Holocaust denial varieties . (1)
Firstly, a political observation: both of these problems are by no means limited to segments of either the political right or the political left . (2) They are to be found among a variety of extremists, both secular and religious.
Historical Truth as A Regulatory Notion
As much as philosophers are keen to either theorize or deflate it, the notion of truth imposes itself on our thinking in all spheres of thought. This means that although it might not figure explicitly in our precise explanations, it always lurks in the conceptual background, allowing us to distinguish between fact and fiction. As such, it is an explanatory requirement of any analysis that would seek to be factual and precise, whether it is historical, scientific, or quotidian. (3) It is inconceivable how historical research and writing could even be done, without it being distinguished adequately from both fiction and myth-making. This is not to deny both that inadvertent falsehoods exist within even the best historical accounts, and that highly interpretive and relative narratives will sometimes colour the work of even the most professional of historians. Rather, the pursuit of truth, defined austerely as discovering at least aspects of what actually happened in the past, is a methodological virtue in presenting explanations that are properly described as historical rather than as exercises in story-telling . (4)
Truth, however it is conceived, is best seen as a regulatory notion. Although it would go beyond the parameters of the present work to elaborate what I take to be a robust account of truth, I would like to give a brief account of what I take to be both a workable and compelling notion of historical truth, and how it is to be distinguished from interpretation.
As is often pointed out, it is certainly the case that both ideological presuppositions and particular interpretations frequently enter historical explanations, and that some of this is both reasonable and innocuous. This is especially true with reference to judgements of value, both ethical and political. Two points ought to be made in this connection, however. Firstly, the mere fact of disagreement does not imply that there is no truth of the matter. Secondly, any workable notion of truth will have to include “brute facts” as part of its historical repertory. By brute facts, I mean artefacts, actions and events that cannot be denied on any reasonable grounds. This ought, in at least some cases, to be extended to their causal powers and historical influences as well. That some of this truth claims do not admit of certainty does not imply that none of them do.
There is indeed real room for interpretation and controversy in historical descriptions and explanations, but only to a logical point bound by brute facts. For example, in an account of U.S. President Abraham Lincoln’s intentions at the end of the U.S. Civil War in 1865 for the coming Reconstruction, there is ample room for debate as to whether his policies would have favoured the Radicals or the Conservatives in his own Republican party. (5) There is no room for debate as to whether or not there was a Civil War between the states, an intended Reconstruction of the Union, or for that matter, an American president named “Abraham Lincoln”. Furthermore, that the individuals, artefacts, and events that constituted the Civil War had a major influence on the subsequent history of the United States through their numerous causal effects is equally undeniable.
Holocaust deniers exploit a general ignorance of historical methods by attempting to pass off a denial of brute facts, akin to the latter examples, with the legitimate debates attendant to the former examples. That they do so with the intention of libelling the Jewish people adds racist propaganda to pseudo-scholarly rubbish. This is generally done with an appalling air of self-righteous martyrdom in the defence of freedom of speech. (6)
It is worth noting that part of the reason why this debate is so daunting is the very nature of historicity, or significant past facts. The past, by definition, is no longer directly accessible in the way that existing material objects and present states of consciousness are. Rather, one is approaching, through our current language and concepts, several phenomena. These can include any combination of: primary and secondary sources, artefacts, and sometimes collective and personal memories.
However, that does not imply, as strongly relativistic accounts of historiography would have it, that there can be no objective facts about the past. Consider the meaning of some terms frequently encountered in history e.g. riot, diplomacy, sub-culture. All of these important terms are subject to a legitimate range of interpretation. “Riot” or rowdy demonstration? “Diplomacy” or thinly veiled military threat? “Sub-culture” or new culture? In history, as elsewhere, there are borderline cases. However, what would be required in order to doubt or deny the application of the word “war” to what is now termed the “First World War”? Nothing short of a complete and consistent transformation of one of our most basic and workable concepts—indeed, our entire conception of the world would have to change with it. (7)
To state the entirely obvious: there were functioning gas chambers at Auschwitz-Treblinka, and well over one million people perished in that concentration and extermination centre between 1940 and 1945. Furthermore, a large majority of them were killed for no other reason than that they were Jewish. Any historically respectable and morally decent account of what happened in that terrible place will have to take these, and many other, brute facts into account. Given its general ideological profile, and failing a case of remarkable ignorance, the denial of said brute facts may be said safely to be antisemitic in both inspiration and effect. People who do this are not, as the neo-Nazi movement maintains, akin to genuine historical revisionists who offer a controversial interpretation of the English Civil War based on agreed facts concerning that event. They are rather like phrenologists who would claim an intellectual authority equivalent to that of neurologists, in discussing the brain, and do so in the interests of slandering an entire religious and ethno-cultural group. Not being clear about this in the current climate of radical historical relativism is downright dangerous.
Once these truths of history are acknowledged, as both historical accuracy and social ethics require, there remains ample room for legitimate debate about more particular details. Thus, reputable Holocaust historians disagree on questions such as the importance of intentions versus functionality in the Nazi hierarchy’s thinking, (8) on issues about the role of Pius XII and the Vatican, and on the ethical lessons to be learnt from all of this. All of these debates take place against the background of respect for historical truth, and that, properly understood, is not a matter of interpretation. Historical relativists such as E.H. Carr claim that “…interpretation enters into every fact of history” . (9) In so doing, they open wide the door of history to ignoring the reality of brute facts and the important line between bias and legitimate interpretation. (10)
What are the consequences of ignoring the importance of historical truth, in the case of antisemitism? Firstly, it will distort our very understanding of Jewish history, which is regrettable in its own right. Secondly, it will prevent the very possibility of our actually learning from the past, so as to avoid further victimisation of Jews and other persecuted minority groups. That these lessons have not always been taken to heart since 1945 is evident (e.g. Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, and probably contemporary Darfur). Yet unless an attempt to recognise and to come to grips with it all is made, there is no hope for any improvement…it is only the honest and sensitive recognition of historical truth that allows for genuine wisdom and political improvement, although it does not guarantee it . (11)
Holocaust Denial and Radical Anti-Zionism: Partners in Slander
There is no necessary logical connection between denying the Holocaust and denying Israel’s right to exist. Having said that, both common sense and empirical evidence (12) would indicate that individuals and groups who are racist enough towards Jews to delude themselves into an anti-Semitic flight of fantasy such as Holocaust denial would not be favourably disposed towards Jewish self-determination. (13) Conversely, some anti-Zionists on the political Left have made use of Holocaust denial in their propaganda, but most would likely reject this categorically. (14)
The truth of the matter is more subtle and invidious. Namely, anti-Zionism and Holocaust denial are different contemporary expressions of antisemitism that exploit pervasive historical ignorance and radical relativism in the promotion of their social designs: the destruction of Israel and the rehabilitation of Nazism, respectively.
Holocaust denial that has converged the questions of historical truth and antisemitism in a particularly disturbing manner since the late 1970s. (15) Although the related debates over historical truth, standards of evidence, and eyewitness testimony pre-date this period considerably, they have been necessarily conjoined as part of what might be termed the logic of responses to hate propaganda. Holocaust deniers are notorious in trading upon such genuinely contentious epistemological questions, thereby posing as legitimate revisionists. (16) In so doing, they mask their antisemitic propaganda as serious contributions to historiography…apparent truth-seeking in the service of genuine group libel. Nothing could be a greater insult to both Hitler’s millions of victims and to real scholarship as well.
Of course, there is a flip side to all of this. Respecting historical truth also implies seeing through propaganda in the service of one’s own commitments, and not only respecting but encouraging the bringing of new evidence and facts to light, wherever they may lead. This can be illustrated by turning to some current controversies in the history of Zionism and the movement of refuges in the twentieth century.
The recent debate over the historiography of Israel’s “new historians” such as Benny Morris, only underlines this. However painful it may be to acknowledge past wrong-doing, if it truly happened, then it will have to be recognised and dealt with, both historically and ethically. That it is why supporters of Israel must ensure that their claims and arguments are securely moored to the mast of historical truth, and this will sometimes imply both opposition to propaganda and fanaticism from within our own ranks, as well as a possible qualification of some long cherished beliefs. No comparable school of self-critical historiography on the subject of Zionism exists elsewhere in the Middle East, and this is a tribute to Israeli democracy and scholarship.
For example, at the heart of Morris’ work is the claim that more Palestinians were expelled from their homes during the 1948 War of Independence than the Zionist movement has hitherto acknowledged. Clearly whether or not this occurred has major implications for the perspectives of both sides. I will leave the finer points of this debate to the scrutiny of Middle Eastern historians, but both the ethical and philosophical implications of all of this are clear, given respect for historical truth. If it is indeed the case, then it must be evaluated morally and in the context of a life and death struggle between the nascent Jewish state and its numerous Arab foes. It is also true that hundreds of thousands of Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews were coerced, without proprietary compensation, out of their long-held homes in Arab countries. I strongly suspect that this is a little-known fact, as one rarely if ever encounters it in academic and general discussion of Israel’s early history (c. 1940s-50s). (17) It is also true that the very existence of a close to twenty percent Arab minority within Israel itself is blatant refutation of the mass expulsion thesis. One could also cite the much larger expulsions of millions of Europeans as well as Indians/Pakistanis in the twentieth century, (18) involving far more than the two cases of 600-800,000 people, those of the Palestinians and the Middle Eastern Jews.
All of this can and should be adduced by defenders of Israel in order so as to respect historical facts and avoid the pervasive double-standard against Israel’s actions. Many wrongs do not make a right, however. Therefore, the discussion ought not to end with this global context—it will not detract from the logical and moral need to address the central claim being made in its own right. More precisely, did this alleged expulsion actually happen, and if so, was it justified given both international law and the very real existential struggle of the Jewish state? It is certainly to democratic Israel’s credit that these questions are being debated openly, a sort of historical debate which does not take place within the borders of its authoritarian adversaries. Once more, the truth of the matter is fundamental, and discussions should revolve entirely around what it is best taken to be.
There may also be a more subtle effect of ignoring the truth about past events. In the case of Holocaust denial, it is likely to cause an underestimation of the gravity its denial on the part of antisemitic groups and regimes, such as the current Iranian administration. There are many reasons for rejecting theocracy and espousing democracy and human rights, and one of them ought to be the contempt for minority rights and history on the part of governments motivated by blind faith and propaganda of the most distorted and malicious variety. The morally and politically appropriate response to groups such as the Ahmedinejad regime, Hamas, and various neo-Nazi and ultra-nationalist cults around the world is a historically informed no pasaran. The issues involved go well beyond their Holocaust denial. Nonetheless, it ought to be considered one of their worst rhetorical and ideological excesses. As such, respect for historical truth is seen to be both a political virtue, as well as a matter of sound methodology and ethical reasoning.
It is perhaps not surprising that the principle of “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” (19) would prove attractive to critics of the foreign policy of Western regimes. However, it sometimes turns out that my enemy’s enemy is also my enemy, whether or not recognised as such. Because if that group or individual holds beliefs and engages in actions that are inimical to my own way of life—in this case the complete denial of democracy, human rights, equality for women and gays (20), among the many other abuses on the part of authoritarian regimes against their own people—than one’s evaluations ought to be more nuanced, to say the least. Furthermore, to confuse opposition to such human rights abuses and extremism with the legitimate problem of ethnocentrism is to miss the point entirely.
There remain those who believe that historical relativism or even radical scepticism are allies in combating antisemitism, due to their perceived tolerance and openness. If my thesis is correct, then we have nothing to fear from historical realism in this renewed campaign against the Jewish people. On the contrary, it ought to be considered a prime philosophical ally.
I would like to end on what I take to be a separate but cognate matter of contemporary concern. Since 9/11, there has been the predictable plethora of conspiracy theories (21), many indicting the U.S. government for carrying out a huge “covert operation” so as to justify military operations abroad and/or political repression within its own borders. Others make the preposterous claim that the American government, or the C.I.A. in particular knew that the attacks were coming, but refrained from acting against them so as to pursue said devious agenda. These views may be widely held, and they are pervasive on the internet.
In other words, it is alleged that some of the ablest intelligence officers in the world could not come up with a provocation less damaging than the destruction of their own financial centre, of a wing of their own military headquarters in Washington D.C., and the deaths of a huge number of their own citizens. One might add the many billions of dollars of damages lost in the painstaking reconstruction, and the general damage to the U.S. and world economy from the attacks. Note also the anti-Semitic version of this peddled by Hamas and other Middle Eastern extremist groups, with its ludicrous allegation that thousands of forewarned Jews stayed home from their jobs in the World Trade Center that day. (22)
With reference to historical truth, there is a broader point to be made in this context. There is a natural tendency, in response to trauma and/or phenomena beyond one’s comprehension towards cognitive dissonance, denial, and simplistic explanation. It is far easier for some to resort to such defence mechanisms than to face exceedingly unpleasant truths about the world in which they live.
This includes the fact that there are fanatics who despise them for their civilizational identity, rather than in tailor-made response to anything that they have done or condoned.
The wilful suspension of critical analysis involved in the eager endorsement of such views is genuinely disturbing. People who go in for this kind of thing will be vulnerable to all manner of propaganda and brainwashing. It underlines the fact that the teaching of both proper historical and scientific methodology, as well as critical thinking skills is essential to democratic culture. (23)
A healthy scepticism aside, much of this can only be seen as an exercise in what Richard Hofstadter has called “the paranoid style in American politics” (24), although it is by no means limited to the U.S. Once more, historical truth, however conceived, remains an important tool in the response to paranoia, including its anti-Semitic manifestations. More broadly, it ought to be seen as both a core value of inquiry concerning the past, and as an affirmation of humanity’s courage to face the facts—whether they be pleasant or unpleasant.
Eric B. Litwack,
Queen’s University (Canada)
International Study Centre
East Sussex, UK
(1) I am deliberately avoiding the use of the deniers’ self-description revisionist, which is perfectly legitimate in genuine historical debates e.g. the debate among American historians concerning the causes of the Cold War. See P. Novick (1988) on this. Thus, revisionism, properly understood, ought to imply a radical disagreement within the boundaries of arguable historical fact, and not wilful deception in the service of a nefarious ideology
(2) A classificatory word of caution: the traditional Right/Left distinction, for all of its French revolutionary pedigree may no longer hold the conceptual water that it once did. For example, environmentalism is not readily classifiable on its axis, and there are other important issues such as isolationism vs. humanitarian interventionism that would also seem to defy it. I use it here cautiously, as a broad distinction. In particular, I take contemporary leftism to consist of a broad gestalt of egalitarian causes, including (but not limited to): anti-racism, post-colonialism, feminism, economic redistribution and strong criticisms of the market, along with a generally critical stand towards authority and tradition.
(3) For one of the best general philosophical treatments of this in recent philosophy, see Nagel T. (1997).
(4) As such, I take my position to be at odds with both strongly constructivist and relativistic conceptions of historicity e.g. that of the British historian Carr, E.G. (1961) as well as postmodernist accounts such as that of Foucault, M. (1963). In short, I take it that any account of historical explanation and objectivity that fails to recognise the centrality of truth as a regulating notion will fail to do justice to its objects of study. Moreover, this regulation by truth must have at least some trans-cultural and trans-historical aspects in order to be adequate to its task. The very notion of historical explanation implies not just the possibility, but the need to understand and judge other times and places, and to be open to such judgement on the part of others in the future. The relativistic denial of historical truth renders both these real and important activities even more difficult than they genuinely are, possibly to the point of incoherence.
(5) For a concise account of this, see Current R.N. (2006).
(6) As is the case with the recent Iranian conference, which billed itself as an “open alternative” to the Western media, allegedly controlled by a “Zionist conspiracy.”
(7) On this question of the real and often underestimated semantic cost of excessive relativism and scepticism, see Wittgenstein, L. (1972). Here Wittgenstein ably indicates the untenability and ultimate incoherence of doubting without adequate grounds, and the fact that doubt can only exist against the background of certainty. This clearly applies to what might be termed the most radical forms of Holocaust denial, grounded in a general and excessive scepticism about the past (both history and memory). For the more detailed versions of the problem, claiming particular and evidential grounds, the enormity of primary source evidence against them is the basis of a potential thorough refutation, bracketing the controversy over whether or not such slanderous claims merit a rational reply in a civilised society. This was recently brought out in the David Irving case. See Lipstadt, D.E. (2005). Irving’s own recent admission in Vienna that the Nazis murdered millions of Jews highlights the plausibility of claims that the historical relativism in question is merely feigned strategically, in order to reduce the culpability of Nazi Germany.
(8) For a good summary of this debate, see Marrus, M. R. (1987), Chapter Three.
(9) Carr, E.H. (1961), p. 13.
(10) For an able delineation of this by a contemporary realist philosopher of history, see McCullagh, C.B. (2000), as well as the work of the contemporary realist historian, Richard J. Evans (notably 1997).
(11) For a short and accessible statement of this, see Charles Fried’s “Getting at the Truth”, in the December 13, 2006 Boston Globe.
(12) Note the seemingly ridiculous spectacle of avowedly white supremacist and Holocaust denial groups in the US and elsewhere styling themselves champions of Palestinian rights. However, this has a historic precedence in Hitler’s sympathy for Haj Amin Muhammed al-Husseini, the Mufti of Jerusalem during the British Mandate in Palestine, after 1921. As such, he was the nominal religious leader of the Palestinian Arabs for close to a quarter of a century. He spent much of the Second World War as an Arabic language broadcaster for the Nazi state radio, appealing to Arabs and Balkan Muslims to support the Axis and its genocide of the Jews, and helping to form Bosnian Muslim SS and Wehrmacht divisions in the Balkans. It is evident that the Nazis viewed him as a useful tool against the British and the Jewish people, and not as an ideal representative of the “Aryan race”. See I. Abramski-Bligh (1990).
(13) One notable exception to this would be the receptiveness of some European antisemites to Zionism during the 1930s, on the grounds that it would solve their respective nations’ “Jewish problem” through mass emigration. This position was not, however, that of the Third Reich, although it did send Adolph Eichmann and an associate to British Palestine on a fact-finding mission in 1937. Their report to Berlin was unfavourable to Zionism, stressing the prospective dangers of an independent Jewish state to the Third Reich. On this, see Nicosia, F. (1990).
(14) Note the Holocaust denial publications of the radical Parisian publishing house , “La Vielle Taupe”, which began as an anarcho-Marxist press. This appears to be a classic case of being willing to embrace anything that is opposed to what one takes to be the devil incarnate—in this case, capitalism and Western liberal democracy. To describe such reasoning as simplistic would be an understatement. On this, see P. Vidal-Naquet (1995).
(15) Although there were earlier manifestations of Holocaust Denial, e.g. that of Rassinier,in the 1950s.
I take the scurrilous publications of A. Butz and R. Faurisson to have inaugurated a new and more widely-publicised stage of this propaganda, between 1976 and 1978.
(16) Note also the pseudo-scholarly style of some of their publications, such as the so-called Journal of Historical Review (now defunct). The website of its parent body, the Institute for Historical Review, focuses heavily on Holocaust denial and articles highly critical of Israel, Jews, and U.S. policy in the Middle East. It also, however, seems to make a point of including legitimate pieces of unrelated historical revisionism, presumably in order to complete the charade of genuine scholarship. See note one above.
(17) See Sachar (1996), Chapter Fifteen.
(18) On the general ignorance of the expulsion of over twelve million ethnic Germans in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, the see Mazower, M. (1999). Whatever one’s interpretation of the event, this remains the largest single movement of European refugees in history.
(19) Note Kofi Anan’s explicit rejection of this simplistic adage during a recent. visit to Tehran. He is reported to have denounced Holocaust denial to his hosts for what it is--hate propaganda.
(20) Note the recent international campaigns against female genital mutilation (FGM), and the fact that homosexuality remains a felony offence in many countries today. Israel, for all of its genuine problems and human rights controversies, does not exhibit either of these common human rights abuses. For example, on Israel’s Gay Pride activities, seehttp://www.worldpride.net/.
(21) The technical aspects of sixteen of these claims have been ably de-bunked by an expert team of over seventy applied scientists and engineers drawn together by Popular Mechanics magazine. See the cover story of its March 2005 issue, J.B. Meigs, editor.
(22) See the Gorowitz Institute report (2003). It is estimated that several hundred Jews died when the Twin Towers collapsed, a number roughly in proportion to the Jewish population of greater New York City. No doubt the legion of the paranoid will only see this grim fact as a stalking horse for the larger conspiracy. …Nothing, it would seem, can be adduced that would falsify any of their fanatically held beliefs.
(23) A good critical thinking textbook could consist largely of methods for debunking conspiracy theories of this sort, as well as other paranoid and extravagant claims and unsound explanations.
(24) See Hofstadter (1964).
Abrmaski-Bligh, I 1990, “Hajj Amin Al-Husseini” in Gutman, I., Volume Two.
Anti-Defamation League 2003, “Unravelling Antisemitic Conspiracy Theories”, New York, Gorowitz Institute.
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Vidal-Naquet, P. 1995, Les Assasins du Mémoire, Paris, Seuil.
Wittgenstein, L. 1972, On Certainty, New York, Harper & Row.
Yahil, L. 1990, “Adolph Eichmann”, in Gutman, I, Volume Two.
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