Thursday, December 14, 2006

Holocaust Denial Is No Joke (Anne Applebaum)

It might be tempting to regard the government-sponsored Holocaust-denial conference in Tehran this week as no more than a sick joke, and it certainly does have some ludicrous aspects. But it would be a mistake to take it too lightly or to minimize how genuinely appalling it is. Aside from being morally and intellectually despicable in itself, it exemplifies some very dangerous larger trends, so it is not simply an isolated oddity. We are living through an era in which an ideological climate of virulent anti-semitism, reminiscent of the 1890s or even the 1930s, is epidemic in large parts of the world and is treated with increasing indulgence and 'understanding' in others (for some overviews and examples, see here & here & here & here & here). And efforts to deny or minimize the Nazi Holocaust are often explicitly linked to the agenda of eliminating Israel (as they were at this conference--see here & here).

Some reasons to be outraged and alarmed are explained in Anne Applebaum's piece below and a recent London Times editorial, "Criminal Denial: Iran’s posturing on the Holocaust is an affront to history and to humanity".

=> There is a small silver lining in this cloud. One of the ironies the situation is that Iranians, especially young and middle-class people, are on the whole less anti-semitic (and less obsessively hostile to Israel) than other populations in the Middle East. On Monday a protest against President Ahmadinejad at Tehran University actually included denunciations of this conference ("Iran Students Denounce Holocaust Denial"):
Dozens of Iranian students burnt pictures of President Ahmadinejad and chanted “Death to the dictator” as he gave a speech at a university in Tehran yesterday.

Never has the hardline leader faced such open hostility at a public event, which came as Iran opened a conference questioning whether Nazi Germany murdered six million Jews.

One student activist said that the protest was against the “shameful” Holocaust conference and the “fact that many activists have not been allowed to attend university”. The conference “has brought to our country Nazis and racists from around the world”, he added.
(For a further roundup, including some photos, see this post by Gene at Harry's Place.)

The Iranian students' protest was brave and, as Norman Geras noted, served to defend their country's honor. Of course, one shouldn't make too much of one student protest. Bur, frankly, it is hard for me to imagine something similar happening in any Arab country. If anything, oppositionists in those countries are more likely to try to outbid their governments in expressions of anti-semitism than to get angry about a government-sponsored anti-semitic event. (If there are exceptions I have overlooked, I'd be happy to hear about them.) This protest is one more indication of why, despite present appearances, in the long run Iran offers more grounds for optimism than almost any other society in the region. (The short run is another story.)

--Jeff Weintraub

[P.S. 12/18/2006: It appears that some of the Iranian students involved in the protest against Ahmadinejad have gone into hiding after threats from regime goons.]
December 12, 2006
Holocaust Denial Is No Joke
The Iranian Holocaust conference is sordid and cynical, but we must take it seriously.
By Anne Applebaum

On Monday, the Iranian foreign ministry held an international conference. There's nothing unusual in that. Foreign ministries hold conferences, mostly dull ones, all the time. But this one was different. For one thing, the International Conference to Review the Global Vision of the Holocaust dealt with history, not current politics. Instead of the usual suspects—deputy ministers and the like—the invitees seem to have included David Duke, a former Ku Klux Klan leader; Georges Thiel, a Frenchman who has called the Holocaust "an enormous lie"; and Fredrick Töben, a German-born Australian whose specialty is the denial of Nazi gas chambers. The guest list was selective: No one with any academic eminence, or indeed any scholarly credentials, was invited. One Palestinian scholar, Khaled Ksab Mahamid, was asked to come but was then barred because he holds an Israeli passport—and also perhaps because he, unlike other guests, believes that the Holocaust really did happen.

In response, the United States, Europe, and Israel expressed official outrage. The German government, to its credit, organized a counterconference. Still, many have kept their distance, refusing to be shocked or even especially interested. After all, the Holocaust ended more than six decades ago. Since then, the victims of the Holocaust have written hundreds of books, and the scholarship on the Holocaust has run into billions of words. There are films, photographs, documents, indeed whole archives dedicated to the history of the Nazi regime: We all know what happened. Surely Iran's denial cannot be serious.

Unfortunately, Iran is serious—or at least Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is deadly serious. Holocaust denial is his personal passion, not just a way of taunting Israel, and it's based in his personal interpretation of history. Earlier this year, in a distinctly eerie open letter to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, he lauded the great achievements of German culture and assaulted "the propaganda machinery after World War II that has been so colossal that [it] has caused some people to believe that they are the guilty party." Such views hearken back to the 1930s, when the then-Shah of Iran was an admirer of Hitler's notion of the "Aryan master race," to which Persians were meant to belong. Ahmadinejad himself counts as a mentor an early revolutionary who was heavily influenced by wartime Nazi propaganda. It shows.

Of course, Holocaust denial also has broader roots and many more adherents in the Middle East, which may be part of the point: Questioning the reality of the Holocaust has long been another means of questioning the legitimacy of the state of Israel, which was indeed created by the United Nations in response to the Holocaust, and which has indeed incorporated Holocaust history into its national identity. If the Shiite Iranians are looking for friends, particularly among Sunni Arabs, Holocaust denial isn't a bad way to find them.

And yet—this week's event has some new elements, too. This is, after all, an international conference, with foreign participants, formal themes ("How did the Zionists collaborate with Hitler?" for example), and a purpose that goes well beyond a mere denunciation of Israel. Because some former Nazi countries have postwar laws prohibiting Holocaust denial, Iran has declared this "an opportunity for thinkers who cannot express their views freely in Europe about the Holocaust." If the West is going to shelter Iranian dissidents, then Iran will shelter David Duke. If the West is going to pretend to support freedom of speech, then so will Iran. Heckled for the first time in many months by demonstrators at a rally yesterday, Ahmadinejad responded by calling the hecklers paid American agents: "Today, the worst type of dictatorship in the world is the American dictatorship, clothed in human rights." The American dictatorship, clothed in human rights spouting falsified history: It's the kind of argument you can hear quite often nowadays, in Iran as well as Russia and Venezuela, not to mention the United States.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that this particular brand of historical revisionism is no joke, and we shouldn't be tempted to treat it that way. Yes, we think we know this story already; we think we've institutionalized this memory; we think this particular European horror has been put to rest, and it is time to move on. I've sometimes thought that myself. There is so much other history to learn, after all. The 20th century was not lacking in tragedy.

And yet—the near-destruction of the European Jews in a very brief span of time by a sophisticated European nation using the best technology available was, it seems, an event that requires constant re-explanation, not least because it really did shape subsequent European and world history in untold ways. For that reason alone, the archives, the photographs, and the endless rebuttals will go on being necessary, long beyond the lifetime of the last survivor.

Anne Applebaum, a Washington Post and Slate columnist, is currently a fellow at the American Academy in Berlin. Her most recent book is Gulag: A History.