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.
For me these developments are intensely personal—not because I have immediate family members who died in the Holocaust. I don’t. But I have spent a good number of years fighting something which the White House now seems to be fostering.
Last Friday, I was in Amsterdam attending a screening of the movie Denial. It’s a film about the libel suit David Irving, once arguably the world’s most influential Holocaust denier, brought against me for having called him a denier. The trial, held in 2000, lasted 10 weeks. Because of the nature of British libel laws which placed the burden of proof on me, I had no choice but to fight. Had I not fought he would have won by default and his denial version of the Holocaust—no gas chambers, no mass killings, no Hitler involvement, and that this is all a myth concocted by Jews—would have been enshrined in British law.
After an intense day of press interviews and screenings, I had gone for a short walk. Intent on enjoying my surroundings, I ignored the pinging of my phone. Ironically, I had just reached the Anne Frank House, the place where Anne wrote her diary, when the pinging became so incessant that I checked to see what was happening.
I quickly learned that the White House had released a statement for Holocaust Remembrance Day that did not mention Jews or anti-Semitism. Instead it bemoaned the “innocent victims.” The internet was buzzing and many people were fuming. Though no fan of Trump, I chalked it up as a rookie mistake by a new administration busy issuing a slew of executive orders. Someone had screwed up. I refused to get agitated, and counseled my growing number of correspondents to hold their fire. A clarification would certainly soon follow. I was wrong.
In a clumsy defense Hope Hicks, the White House director of strategic communications, insisted that, the White House, by not referring to Jews, was acting in an “inclusive” manner. It deserved praise not condemnation. Hicks pointed those who inquired to an article which bemoaned the fact that, too often the “other” victims of the Holocaust were forgotten. Underlying this claim is the contention that the Jews are “stealing” the Holocaust for themselves. It is a calumny founded in anti-Semitism.
There were indeed millions of innocent people whom the Nazis killed in many horrific ways, some in the course of the war and some because the Germans perceived them—however deluded their perception—to pose a threat to their rule. They suffered terribly. But that was not the Holocaust.
The Holocaust was something entirely different. It was an organized program with the goal of wiping out a specific people. Jews did not have to do anything to be perceived as worthy of being murdered. Old people who had to be wheeled to the deportation trains and babies who had to be carried were all to be killed. The point was not, as in occupied countries, to get rid of people because they might mount a resistance to Nazism, but to get rid of Jews because they were Jews. Roma (Gypsies) were also targeted. Many were murdered. But the Nazi anti-Roma policy was inconsistent. Some could live in peace and even serve in the German army.
German homosexuals were horribly abused by the Third Reich. Some were given the chance of “reforming” themselves and then going to serve on the eastern front, where many of them became cannon fodder. Would I have wanted to be a homosexual in the Reich, or in the rest of Nazi occupied Europe? Absolutely not. But they were not systematically wiped out.
This is a matter of historical accuracy and not of comparative pain. If my family members had been killed by the Germans for resisting or for some other perceived wrong I would not be—nor should I be—comforted by the fact that they were not killed as part of the Holocaust.
Had the Germans won, they probably would have eliminated millions of other peoples, including the Roma, homosexuals, dissidents of any kind, and other “useless eaters.” But it was only the Jews whose destruction could not wait until after the war. Only in the case of the Jews could war priorities be overridden. Germany was fighting two wars in tandem, a conventional war and a war against the Jews. It lost the first and, for all intents and purposes, nearly won the second.
The de-Judaization of the Holocaust, as exemplified by the White House statement, is what I term softcore Holocaust denial. Hardcore denial is the kind of thing I encountered in the courtroom. In an outright and forceful fashion, Irving denied the facts of the Holocaust. In his decision, Judge Charles Grey called Irving a liar and a manipulator of history. He did so, the judge ruled, deliberately and not as the result of mistakes.
Softcore denial uses different tactics but has the same end-goal. (I use hardcore and softcore deliberately because I see denial as a form of historiographic pornography.) It does not deny the facts, but it minimizes them, arguing that Jews use the Holocaust to draw attention away from criticism of Israel. Softcore denial also makes all sorts of false comparisons to the Holocaust. In certain Eastern European countries today, those who fought the Nazis may be lauded, but if they did so with a communist resistance group they may be prosecuted. Softcore denial also includes Holocaust minimization, as when someone suggests it was not so bad. “Why are we hearing about that again?”
What we saw from the White House was classic softcore denial. The Holocaust was de-Judaized. It is possible that it all began with a mistake. Someone simply did not realize what they were doing. It is also possible that someone did this deliberately. The White House’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, boasted that while at Breitbart he created a platform for alt-right. Richard Spencer, the self-proclaimed leader of the alt-right, has invited overt Holocaust deniers to alt-right conferences, and his followers have engaged in outright denial. During the campaign, he was reportedly responsible for speeches and ads that many observers concluded trafficked in anti-Semitic tropes.
After Hicks’s defense of the statement, Chief of Staff Reince Priebus doubled down, insisting that they made no mistake. On Meet the Press Chuck Todd gave Priebus repeated chances to retract or rephrase the statement. Priebus refused and dug in deeper, declaring “everyone’s suffering in the Holocaust, including obviously, all of the Jewish people… [was] extraordinarily sad.”
In the penultimate sentence of the president’s statement on Holocaust Remembrance Day, the White House promised to ensure that “the forces of evil never again defeat the powers of good.” But the statement was issued on the same day as the order banning refugees. It is hard not to conclude that this is precisely what happened at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue on Holocaust Remembrance Day.