Sunday, February 12, 2023

Negationism, the concept

(Foreword to Prof. Em. Aruna Sinha's book *Itihās mė Nakārvād, Kyā, Kyõ aur Kaise?*, Ashir Publ., Delhi 2023) Negationism as a word is based on the French term négationnisme, coined by social scientist Henry Rousso in 1987. It means “denial of historical facts”, specifically of the Holocaust, but also of other genocides. Let us first explain the concept’s career in Europe. In France the term has mostly been directed against the Association des Anciens Amateurs de Récits de Guerres et d’Holocaustes (AAARGH, Association of Ancient Amateurs of Stories of Wars and Holocausts), a group around literary historian Robert Faurisson, including both rightist and leftist deniers of the Jewish Holocaust (1941-44) as well as of several other genocides with high visibility in French public opinion, notably Armenian (1915-18) and Cambodian (1975-78). Faurisson, a specialist of the many forged pseudo-ancient narratives produced during the Romantic period to give a country a glorious past depicted in an epic of its own, like Ossian for Scotland or the Ura Linda Book for Frisia, started his negationist career with the claim that the Diary of Anne Frank was -- you guessed it -- ²a forgery. Anne Frank was a Dutch-Jewish girl who absconded from the Nazis (that’s the period covered by her diary), then was caught and taken to Auschwitz, then in the sight of the Red Army’s advance evacuated westwards to Bergen-Belsen, and there died of typhus. In fact the standard version of what happened to Anne Frank’s family ought to have been welcomed by the Holocaust deniers, for none of them was gassed or otherwise killed: her father survived the war, staying in Auschwitz till the end, while his wife and two daughters died of disease. In fact this doesn't really prove anything extraordinary: it can perfectly be explained by the timing. This happened at the end of the war, when the Nazis were deliberately winding up their extermination project and concentrated on destroying the evidence (but negationists will keep that explanatory circumstance out of view), and when shortages of medicines and disinfectants because of logistics breakdowns made the outbreak of diseases uncontrollable. Faurisson wanted to take it a step further, though: he denied the veracity of the diary. It was the girl’s father who, after his return in 1945 to Amsterdam, had edited the diary before publishing it, and he had left out some passages he deemed inconvenient, especially about the sexual awakening of his pubescent daughter. Even so, this petty fault-finding left the girl’s report about the persecution of the Jews entirely unchallenged. This will remain a common scenario in the negationist movement: focusing on marginal elements that are convenient and obscuring what proves the genocide. This is not uncommon among polemicists defending any cause, but the grimness of the case makes it more serious here. Story of negationism It is also in France that negationism as a movement took off. In 1948 its pioneer Maurice Bardèche still accepted that a systematic extermination of the Jewish people by the German National-Socialist regime had taken place. He only contrasted it with false claims by the erstwhile French Résistance that the French people as such had also been earmarked for extermination. He himself had been a Résistance fighter, but had been arrested by the Germans to spend the rest of the war in Buchenwald concentration camp. There he had not seen those fabled gas chambers that everybody post-war talked about. Extrapolating from his own experience, he questioned the existence of gas chambers anywhere, and evolving from there, he ended up questioning the attempt at extermination of the Jews as such. When in 1961 the historian Raul Hilberg published the first scholarly study of the Holocaust, The Destruction of the European Jews, he countered it with arguments that were to become classics of Holocaust denial. Thus, he explained the disappearance of so many Jews from the population figures as the consequence of a large pre-war Jewish emigration to the Americas. But such a scenario would have left a large paper trail of visa proceedings, a peak in house sales in Germany and Poland, a peak in house purchases in the US or Argentina, etc. As a mere amateur in history, at a time when coming by these foreign documents was a lot harder than today, he may be forgiven for not finding them, but in the decades since, no one else has found them either, though the same argument has been endlessly repeated. “Liars” It is often said that the negationists are liars. While it is not unthinkable that some anti-Semite purposely fabricates arguments for the falsity of the Holocaust narrative in order to accuse the Jews of a false victimhood narrative thought up in order to “blackmail” the Gentiles, on the whole this is very unlikely. Given the enormous social and professional cost you can expect to pay if you out yourself as a negationist, no one will accept this burden for a belief he considers untrue. Only those with a heartfelt belief in the non-existence of an extermination plan are going to express that conviction in public. Far more than lies, it is wishful thinking that explains negationism. In particular, Germans and sympathizers with the German war generation (e.g. because most people take a liking to underdogs and losers), would prefer them not to be guilty of the Holocaust. Because of this bias, they become receptive to any argument that brings this version of the facts closer. Thus, the German-born Canadian Ernst Zündel based his negationist discourse on an unconcealed sympathy for the Nazis, as expressed in his co-authored book (with Eric Thomson) The Hitler We Loved and Why (2004). Some deniers closely study the historical facts (in knowledge of details they often trump the mainstream historians) thinking that this can only strengthen their argument, but then find that the facts turn out to support the case for the Holocaust. Thus, in the 1960s the British self-taught historian David Irving gained himself a reputation as a connoisseur of pertinent German primary sources, then started asserting a negationist view of the genocide in the 1990s (the high tide of Holocaust denial), but twenty years later his study of SS chief Heinrich Himmler’s diary and other confidential sources threw up a privileged testimony of how the SS had organized that very genocide he had earlier denied. Once the most authoritative denier, at the end of his life he ended up providing the most compelling evidence (from the horse’s mouth) in favour of the Holocaust. Similarly his friend David Cole from California, whose critique of the sweeping use of Auschwitz as the proverbial extermination camp had angered many of his fellow Jews, nowadays lambasts the remaining negationists. He affirms the reality of two of the three pillars of the Holocaust, viz. the killings of Jews (on the same footing as partisans) by neck shot behind the frontline during the advances in Soviet territory in 1941-42, and the killing of some 3 million Polish Jews in temporary extermination camps like Treblinka and Majdanek in 1942-43. He only doubts the cinemagenic case of Auschwitz, which was started as a labour camp with Jewish slave labour (but also including Polish labourers who after hours went back to their families every day), and of which he fails to see proof that it shifted to an extermination regime, eventhough the death rate from various causes was high. At any rate, remaining a dissident, he estimates the death toll of the Jewish genocide "only" at 3.5 million deaths rather than the official estimate of 5.3 million (usually rounded off to 6 million). But more decisively, he corroborates that between 1941 and 1944, the Nazi elite corps of the SS conducted an intentional extermination of the Jewish people. Less quality, more quantity The ”creative” period of Holocaust negationism is definitively over, because the leading deniers who tried to give their case a veneer of scholarly evidence have either died (Faurisson, Zündel) or ended up affirming the intentional genocide after all (Cole, Irving, my recently-deceased Danish colleague-Orientalist Christian Lindtner). The deniers' last moment of glory was the negationist conference called in 2005 by Iran’s then president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Teheran. The elderly Faurisson reported on it in triumphal terms, but the triumph was only in terms of finally getting some governmental recognition, not of discovering any desired evidence that had always eluded them. This event could be seen as a passing of the baton from the scholars to the masses: not the rare and disappearing neo-Nazis in the West but the masses in the Muslim world, including the growing Muslim community in the West. In European schools, ever more history teachers feel compelled to skip the chapter on the Holocaust, for fear of their combative Muslim pupils. These think the narrative is “Jewish-concocted”, meant to blackmail the Europeans and justify their land grab from the Arabs. Note a difference: contrary to what the received wisdom makes the public believe, that old rightist negationism, though a problematic nuisance, wasn’t all that dangerous: it tried to live up to human-rights sensibilities by minimizing the massacre. It shared the premise that genocide is a bad thing, at least publicly (privately some deniers may have felt that "Hitler didn't kill enough of them"). The Nazis were presented as not all that bad because they had purportedly not committed a genocide, implying that they would have been bad if they "had really" been guilty of genocide. By contrast, among Palestinians and their sympathizers, the opinion is widespread that the Jewish people as such is guilty and therefore deserves the direst punishment, genocide not excluded. But on the other hand, the Palestinians are unlikely to be as effective as the Germans were, so their massacre is unlikely to go beyond stray acts of terrorism. Therefore, in a renewed form, Holocaust negationism is still with us, in a less sophisticated but more massive incarnation. But the Muslim world, already less hostile to Israel than in the past, is increasingly open to modern information, so the argument for the historical reality of the genocide is bound to percolate there as well. The end of Holocaust denial is certain, but it may still take some time to materialize. India What is the importance of all this for India? There was no "Holocaust" in India, with the stated goal of wholesale extermination. (Better to call it "Hindu-hatya" or some such newly-coined native term, more distinctive than a plagiarized term from elsewhere.) The Islamic scriptures didn't envisage the physical annihilation of the unbelievers, only their acceptance of Islam or at least of a serf status under Islam's supremacy. Violence came in when the Pagans resisted this "invitation" to join Islam. Only rarely did it take the character of a genocide, latterly in East Bengal 1971, where more than two million Hindus were slaughtered. But what the Islamic massacres of Hindus lacked in intensity, they made up for in quantity. The Holocaust lasted for less than four years and was confined to occupied Poland and the conquered part of the Soviet Union. By contrast, the massacres of Hindus started in 712 AD, covered a whole Subcontinent, and it is unlikely that we have seen the last of them. Hindu polemicists bandy about the number 80 million for the Hindus killed between the years 1000 and 1525: Mahmoud Ghaznavi's invasions and the end of the Sultanate. This comes from historian Prof. KS Lal, who published this estimate in 1979. Though Lal was scrupulous in calculating it, such grim research findings obviously need further verification, which hasn't been tried ever since. After all, investigating the crimes of Islam has become taboo. But today the intellectual atmosphere seems to have cleared up sufficiently to make this type of research possible again. Though the Nazi massacres in Central Europe and the Islamic massacres in the Subcontinent are different in nature, the attempts to deny them are very similar. They use the same techniques, such as highlighting marginal non-representative facts and obscuring representative facts; or when not feasible to deny events, then putting a spin on the motive behind them. That is why, unlike "Holocaust", "negationism" remains a term that can perfectly be transferred to India But the deniers in India also have a trump card that Holocaust deniers can only dream of: the establishment supports them. Even Hindu Nationalist governments have not been effective, and generally not even seriously motivated, to change the narrative. That is why in India, negationism remains a problem to deal with.

No comments: