In this book, historian Deborah Lipstadt describes a growing movement to defend the idea that the Holocaust never happened, or that it was not as severe as it is purported to be (for instance, some deniers claim that what the Allies did to the Germans is as bad as the Holocaust, or that it is impossible to kill six million Jews because it was mathematically impossible to do so given the number of Jews that existed prior to the Holocaust). This is a fringe movement that utterly lacks credibility. An equivalent belief is that the earth is flat. Holocaust deniers are driven by anti-Semitism and claim that the Holocaust is a hoax perpetrated by Jews to build up the state of Israel or to earn money in the form of reparations.
It was difficult for Lipstadt to decide to write about Holocaust denial. One of the themes of this book is that there is a danger that, just by giving the deniers a platform and seriously engaging with their ideas, they can steadily carve out a space as the “other side,” people who just provide another viewpoint on historical reality. The fact is though that Holocaust deniers cast aside methodological constraints and do whatever it takes to advance their anti-Semitic ideology. They are therefore not to be taken seriously as historians.
A big dilemma is created on college campuses. Free speech is a hot issue right now especially in relation to college campuses. Violent protests erupting over the presence of various speakers on college campuses have led some to chastise overzealous social justice warriors. But, does a commitment to free speech also mean allowing Holocaust deniers a platform in a school paper or a speaking event? Lipstadt does not think so. She criticizes school newspapers who published ads created by Holocaust deniers in the name of free speech. Sticking to a very literal interpretation of the first amendment, Lipstadt claims that the first amendment only prevents government from restricting speech. It is okay for a private organization, therefore, like a campus newspaper, to ban certain viewpoints from their publications.
As we move farther and farther away from the Holocaust and the remaining survivors die off, the deniers attempts to sway public opinion become more and more dangerous. Recently, the Trump administration came under fire for failing to mention, when paying respect to victims of the Holocaust, that Jews were the specific targets of the Holocaust. When pressed, people in the administration stood by their omission. This is problematic because the Jews were singled out by the Nazis as in particular deserving of extermination. Also, there have revisionist renditions of history that claim that Jews were not the primary target of the Holocaust. For instance, some Communists have claimed that Communists were the main target of the Holocaust.
Holocaust deniers engage in every kind of logical fallacy and sophistry imaginable in order to avoid plain facts. For instance, it is a fact that Jews had to wear a yellow star; if they were found not to be wearing one, they could be killed. Holocaust denier Robert Faurisson recognizes this fact but explains it away, claiming that it was a necessary measure to protect Germans. Jews, Faurisson claims, were involved in dangerous activities like espionage, terrorism, and arms trafficking. Another fact is that even Jewish children had to wear a yellow star. Surely, these children couldn’t have been dangerous? But, Faurisson, in the grips of an evil ideology, maintains his theory, Even the Jewish children were dangerous and Germans needed an immediate way to identify them.
Holocaust deniers are committed to their ideology and it is impossible to debate with them. Debating them can actually backfire, as the very act of debating someone implies a certain level of credence for their view. If it has to be refuted, there must be some merit to it. One doesn’t have to refute the idea that 2+2=5. Still, there is a need to defend those who perished so tragically in the Holocaust. As Lipstadt writes, “The still, small voices of millions cry out to us from the ground demanding that we do no less.”