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The Fashionable Form of Holocaust Denial

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Authored by Professor David Patterson
Published on 9th August, 2018 10 min read

The Fashionable Form of Holocaust Denial

What do Holocaust deniers deny?

The most extreme among them deny that the Nazis’ the extermination of the Jews ever happened—or, if some portion of it did take place, the Jews were behind it. These include such notorious figures as Paul Rassinier, author of Le drame des Juifs européens (The drama of European Jewry, 1964); Professor Arthur Butz, author of The Hoax of the Twentieth Century (1976); Professor Robert Faurisson, author of The Problem of the Gas Chambers (1980); Marxist philosopher Roger Garaudy; Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, author of The Other Side (1983), former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinijad; and others.

Holocaust denial arises neither from a lack of evidence nor from the monstrosity of the events. Holocaust denial is itself part of the singular monstrosity of the Holocaust, and it is rooted in antisemitism. Other horrors in history have been ignored and even denied, as the Turkish government denies the Armenian genocide, but they have not been explicitly and systematically denied on a worldwide scale. Holocaust denial, however, can be found in more subtle forms; it is a phenomenon that runs a spectrum, ranging from the outright claim that there was no extermination to a willing, if at times unwitting, trivialization and evasion of the subject. Here too, I believe, in its more innocent and even fashionable forms there lurks the specter of antisemitism.

Antisemitism is not a subset of bigotry or racism in general. In the end, antisemitism is about the obliteration of the millennial teaching and testimony signified by the Jewish presence in history. It seeks an ultimate elimination of the so-called Jewish Question. And what is the Jewish Question? It is the first question put to the first human being: Where are you?  It lies in the two questions put to the first man born of a woman: Where is your brother?  And what have you done?  It is a question that announces our infinite responsibility to and for our fellow human being. It summons us to a radical reckoning and therefore to a radical vulnerability, so that, like Adam, we hide. Holocaust denial, in all its forms, is not about history but about the removal of the Jews from history. That is why, without exception, the Holocaust deniers are anti-Zionists who demonize and thus delegitimize the Jewish state by referring to the Israelis as Nazis, the Jewish state as an apartheid state whose very existence is a violation of international law and all moral norms, and so on—whatever the going evil of the day might be, Israel is guilty of it. This form of self-righteous anti-Zionism is a particularly fashionable form of the antisemitism that lies at the root of Holocaust denial.

The overt forms of Holocaust denial are easy enough to identify and pose relatively few challenges to analytical inquiry beyond what I have briefly noted. In the West these overt forms of Holocaust denial are not taken seriously and are quite out of fashion; in the West there are many programs in what passes for Holocaust studies. It also has its Islamist manifestation, which is far more widespread and far more mainstream; in the Islamic world there are no programs in Holocaust studies. But beyond the overt forms of denial, both in the West and in the Islamist world, perhaps the most insidious form of denial lies in the fashionable relativization, trivialization, and minimization of the Holocaust, which is a de-Judaizing of the Holocaust. Here we see a much more subtle attempt to erase the Jews from history.

The more subtle forms of Holocaust denial are akin to denial in a psychological sense, that is, the avoidance of confrontation or the evasion of a grim truth too upsetting to deal with.[i] The Holocaust is undoubtedly painful, even traumatizing, for those who engage it. What makes it so traumatizing is not only the empathy for human suffering but also the ethical outcry that implicates all of us.  Taking flight from the ethical implication, the ego curls up in the cave of its complacency, which becomes the cave of its complicity. While it may not be steeped in a conscious hatred of the Jews, this temptation to flee is the temptation that underlies the fashionable forms of Holocaust denial.

I have personally witnessed this phenomenon, when colleagues have said to me, “You’re going to teach a course on the Holocaust again? Can’t we get over it? It happened so long ago!” I have never heard anyone declare to a colleague, “You’re going to teach a course on the Civil War again? Can’t we get over it? It happened so long ago!” During the years when I sat on a state Holocaust commission, to take another example of subtle denial, a professor from a leading university declared that in our discussions of the Holocaust we must avoid the word evil because of its “religious baggage.” Religious baggage always comes with ethical implications.  And the ethical implications, above all, must be avoided.

This psychological denial of the Holocaust can be seen in the elimination of the Jews from a consideration of the Holocaust. It can be found not only in the popular culture that would trivialize the event but also in the halls of the academy and the exhibits of the museums that would relativize it. As this relativization becomes more commonplace, Alvin Rosenfeld points out, “a less taxing version of a tragic history begins to emerge—still full of suffering, to be sure, but a suffering relieved of its weightiest moral and intellectual demands.”[ii] Relieved of its weightiest moral and intellectual demands, the Holocaust is relieved of its Jewish demands.

The Nazis’ victory turns out to be more pervasive than we think. More and more—in academia and in the public mainstream, on museum boards and Holocaust commissions—we do not speak of the Jews at all. Instead, we speak of victims in general, so that the Jews get lost in the list of Gypsies, homosexuals, handicapped, and Communists. If we happen to comment on the Jews, we generally say nothing of what it means to be a Jew. But what can it mean to speak of the murder of the Jews without addressing the Judaism that makes them who they are? This leads to the blurring of the Holocaust in the bin of genocides in general, as if each genocide did not have its own defining features.

Postmodernist thinking contributes to the fashionable forms of Holocaust denial, as postmodernism questions the “empiricist view of history,” that is, the view that “objective observation” is possible.[iii] History, in other words, is nothing more than a kind of fictional narrative. According to Robert Eaglestone, the problem with Holocaust denial is that it “doesn’t obey the rules of the genre.”[iv] But in the name of what can the postmodernist declare one set of generic rules to be privileged over another? What is the ethical demand attached to following the rules of the genre? Once we are left only with the narrative, we are left without the Jew. Left without the Jew, we are left without the ethical demand. And so we slip into an intellectually fashionable form of Holocaust denial.

The process of de-Judaizing the Holocaust has crept into various quarters of academia to produce what I call “Holocaust studies without the Holocaust.” In the postmodern era the other who unsettles and troubles the good conscience of those engaged in Holocaust studies is the Jew. That is why many of us seek to eliminate the Jew from our thinking about the Holocaust. We do not deal with the Jews because, in our effort to get rid of the absolute responsibility that the Holocaust imposes on us, we do not want to have to respond to the first question put to the first human: “Where are you?” We do not want to look into the faces of slaughtered Jews through whom the question resounds. Instead, we hide the Jews by burying them in the meaningless category of victims-in-general. In doing so, we play into the hands of Holocaust deniers by rendering the study of the Holocaust Judenrein. Rather than speak of Jews and Judaism, we speak of coping and trauma, dialogue and healing, representation and remembrance, textual analysis and ethnic tolerance, even bullying—all of which are quite fashionable.

Another subtle form of Holocaust denial can be found in the effort to get rid of it by explaining it away, a phenomenon that Emil Fackenheim understood very well. “We take it,” he writes, “in the style of Enlightenment liberalism, as a mere lapse into atavistic prejudice, superstition, or neurosis, ills that should not happen in this day and age and for which—soon if not now—there will be a cure. Or we take it, in neo-Lutheran style, as a mere case of national pride, lust for power, or xenophobia.”[v] Just as the Jew vanishes into general explanations, so the Jew disappears into other agendas that exploit the Holocaust, such as race, class, and gender studies. Often the Jews themselves are deemed complicit in their own murder, as they get blamed for positing the absolutes that underlie racism, sexism, and colonialism.

In the end, radical Holocaust deniers, like those who fall into a psychological denial, deny the Holocaust not because they believe it never happened but precisely because they know it happened. The deniers’ issue with Holocaust testimony, then, is not an issue with evidence; nor is it about this narrative or that. As for the denial phenomenon itself, it is not about undermining the scientific methods of historical research, and least of all is it about following the rules of the narrative genre called “history.” The why of Holocaust denial, both fashionable and otherwise, lies in either silencing or turning away from the Jewish Question for which the Nazis sought a Final Solution, the question that implicates each of us in our responsibility to and for our fellow human being. It is the question of what we stand for, why we live, and why we die. No one wants to have his sleep interrupted by such a disturbing question. Holocaust denial is an attempt to silence the question that comes both from within and from beyond the Jewish people by turning them over to the silence of the grave.

No, wait.  Not the silence of the grave. Those turned over to the silence of the grave at least have a grave. The Holocaust deniers would rob the Jews of their own graves. They would remove the Jewish people from history altogether and turn them over to the silence of non-being: the Holocaust is nothing but a rumor—it never happened. The Jews never happened. And there is no ethical absolute. This erasure, in its most subtle forms, has become most fashionable.




[i] See Edward Erwin, ed., The Freud Encyclopedia: Theory, Therapy, and Culture (New York: Routledge, 2002), 142-43.

[ii] Alvin Rosenfeld, The End of the Holocaust (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011), 11.

[iii] Robert Eaglestone, Postmodernism and Holocaust Denial (Duxford, Eng.: Icon Books, 2001), 21.

[iv] Ibid., 50.

[v] Emil L. Fackenheim, Encounters between Judaism and Modern Philosophy (New York: Basic Books, 1993), 192-93.

Authored by Professor David Patterson

Professor David Patterson

David Patterson is a professor of literature and history at the University of Texas, Dallas and the Hillel A. Feinberg Chair in Holocaust studies. A winner of the National Jewish Book Award and the Koret Jewish Book Award, Patterson has published more 30 books and more than 140 articles and chapters in journals and books in philosophy, literature, Judaism, Holocaust and education.

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