On Holocaust deniers

Given the previous discussions here about conspiracy theorists and climate change deniers, I thought this article on American Holocaust deniers might be of interest.

The case study of Holocaust deniers reveals weird and unsettling things about human psychology, such as how otherwise ordinary-seeming people can believe such appalling and offensive things, despite massive historical evidence. That being said, while Holocaust deniers do a grave injury to the accurate understanding of modern history, they probably have a limited ability to contribute to future debacles. Climate change deniers, alas, are far more dangerous.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

26 thoughts on “On Holocaust deniers”

  1. Godwined.

    I haven’t been too fond of the recent posts invoking morality and now holocaust parallels. What’s the point of this post?

    According to other recent posts you’ve made, your site is increasing steadily in traffic. This means it can be a really valuable resource for those seeking information about climate change. You have written many well reasoned articles that outline why we need change, and what sort of solutions might bring about this sort of change. On the flip side, posts like this jeopardize your arguments by making the site look like a fringe site. Posts like this really change the tone of the discourse, away from mainstream acceptability.

  2. The question of what ought to be done about climate change is a moral question first and a technical one after.

    First: what ought we to do?

    Then: how can that be accomplished.

    That said, comparing climate deniers to Holocaust deniers probably feeds the former’s persecution complex. “We are just like Galileo!” they claim.

  3. Matt,

    This post makes two key factual claims, both of which I think are true and defensible.

    1) There are behavioural and psychological similarities between climate change deniers, conspiracy theorists, and Holocaust deniers. They all make factual claims about the world for which there is little if any justifying evidence. They do so despite the fact that mainstream societal views differ from theirs. Often, they see themselves as a persecuted few who are in possession of the ‘real truth.’

    2) Climate change deniers are more dangerous than Holocaust deniers. At worst, Holocaust deniers cause a lot of emotional anguish to some people, and may somewhat increase the chances of future genocides. At worst, climate change deniers are helping to perpetuate an emissions pathway that will threaten human civilization, and could conceivably eliminate all life on Earth.

    As was pointed out above, there can be considerations aside from the truth or falsity of a claim that affect whether it is a wise thing to say. I recognize that anything connected to Nazis or the Holocaust risks being controversial (hence the whole Godwin’s law issue). That said, I think the claims above are defensible and not inappropriate.

    As for the general issue of climate change and morality, I do think the two are essentially bound together. It is our moral duties towards other human beings that are the major reason why we ought to stop climate change. This is a position that has been widely recognized and discussed at length by people including Al Gore, Simon Caney, and Henry Shue. A nihilist unconcerned with other people has no real reason to worry about greenhouse gases destabilizing the climate system.

  4. I had personally never made this connection before – but I think it’s apt. A fuller analogy would be with living in a state where holocaust denial was the position of many in the elite, and (until recently at least), a major media network.

  5. The Economist is another example. They have long claimed to ‘accept the science’ and have advocated a carbon tax. At the same time, they do not prioritize climate change as an issue. They sometimes make fun of those who take it seriously, and are pretty much always more concerned about economic growth and energy security than about greenhouse gas emissions.

    Other media outlets are certainly more critical, but they generally describe themselves as keeping an important ‘debate’ going. I don’t think even the National Post and Calgary Herald have formally adopted climate change denial as an editorial stance. Rather, they just let people like Tim Ball, Fred Singer, and Roy Spencer write articles saying misleading things about sea ice, climate models, etc.

  6. I didn’t say governments are still taking a position of denial – I said many in the elite remain unconvinced. Do you think Stephen Harper’s cabinet is made up mostly of people who accept the scientific consensus, or climate skeptics?

    Being a climate skeptic today is, in a certain sense, like being anti-choice or in favour of a patriarchal gender imbalance in wages. Many people, some leaders, might take these positions and act on the basis of these beliefs, while publicly claiming to believe the opposite.

  7. One of the strangest things about the original linked article is the precise claim this specific group of Holocaust deniers is making:

    [T]he first thing to know is that no one at that palm-filled hotel would deny that Hitler hated the Jews, that Hitler sent them to concentration camps, and that Hitler said, “I want to annihilate the Jews” as hundreds of thousands died in (as one denier called them) godforsaken hellholes like Auschwitz. It may surprise you, but no one at that hotel would deny that hundreds of thousands of Jews died of typhus, dysentery, starvation, and exhaustion at Auschwitz or that their corpses went to the constant flames of five crematoriums night and day. These deniers even call this the Holocaust. What they deny is that some of the Jews died of something other than natural causes, that some went to rooms that the Germans poured cyanide (or at four other camps, carbon monoxide) into. The Jews, say the Holocaust deniers, weren’t murdered, and the Germans didn’t deliberately murder them.

    To me, it seems bizarre to believe that pressing people into camps under such conditions that huge numbers die and must be burned is somehow far less morally culpable than killing them directly.

    Perhaps we pay too much attention to what people want their actions to accomplish, while not paying enough attention to consequences they can be reasonably sure will exist. That distinction exists, for instance, between allowing a terminally ill person to die by taking them off medication versus administering a lethal dose of drugs.

    The same distinction lies between people who produce greenhouse gas emissions in the course of staying warm, traveling, or running gadgets. They don’t intend to warm the planet but should, by this time, realize that they are. Obviously, there are huge differences in the scale of harm caused; what is common is the reality of choosing to take an action with predictable harmful consequences.

  8. The similarities you have pointed out here are sickening. Combined with Hansen’s “from the future” speculations on what discussions people will have looking back, who they will blame – the idea that people could make this comparisons – and fairly – chills me to the bone.

  9. Do you think it is ever appropriate to draw a distinction between inaction and action, when each produces the same result?

    To me, it does seem like there can be cause for doing so. Mostly, that seems to arise as a consequence of uncertainty. When presented with a situation in which it is uncertain what consequence an intervention will have, perhaps it is wisest and most admirable to act cautiously or not at all.

    That being said, as the level of uncertainty falls, the acceptability of inaction falls along with it.

    There is also the issue of the severity of different possible harms. If I see someone yakking on their phone, about to be hit by a bus, it may well be that the most ethical course of action is to violently yank them out of the way. Doing so might not work, or might harm them directly, but it is the sort of thing we would want a reasonable person to do. That said, standing by and allowing them to get hit doesn’t seem quite as bad as actually running them down with the bus would be.

    One case that deserves a bit of special consideration is one where you do have a particular outcome in mind as desirable, but could achieve it in more or less direct ways. For instance, you might want to kill a person and have the choice between knocking them over the head, depriving them of medication that they need, or starving them to death. Here, the choice of mechanism doesn’t seem very morally significant. This case pertains directly to the supposed moral distinction espoused by these Holocaust deniers.

    Another special case that deserves consideration is one where you know that an action you want to perform has predictable consequences that you do not desire, but you go forward with it anyhow. This clearly pertains to climate change, particularly when it comes to a sub-form of this case where most of these harmful predictable consequences are borne by other people. Here, it does seem reasonable to say that you have intentionally caused harm to these people, by choosing to undertake the original action.

  10. A further wrinkle accompanies collective actions.

    Is there any moral consequence that arises from the fact that any one person’s (or company’s, or state’s) emissions contribute only incrementally to global emissions.

    Is it meaningful to say to someone: “We may well see more than one metre of sea level rise by 2100. You are personally responsible for a small share of the total emissions between the Industrial Revolution and that date. As such, you have harmed everyone on Earth by some fraction of a milimetre of sea level rise.” ?

  11. “In Alberta, we’re already seeing the provincial government speaking out more forcefully on the need to deal with climate change — well, as forcefully as the Conservative government ever speaks out on environmental issues dealing with fossil fuels.

    “The issue of climate change and greenhouse gases is of fundamental importance to Albertans,” Premier Ed Stelmach said in a Calgary speech a few weeks ago. “Sticking one’s head in the sand and refusing to take action and blaming scientific scandals as an excuse for moving backward is not leadership.”

    Despite the rhetoric, the Alberta government is arguably not taking a leadership role when you consider the province will allow emissions of greenhouse gases to increase dramatically in the province for the next decade.

    But it looks like leadership compared to some of the comments being emitted by members of the Wildrose Alliance who, while trying to look like pragmatic environmentalists, sound suspiciously to me like climate-change deniers.”

  12. No event in human history has been studied more thoroughly and carefully than the Holocaust. Thousands of thesis and dissertations papers have poured over mountains of data, from physical evidence and anecdotal testimony to captured German war documents. Virtually everyone with a PhD in History will stake their career on the fact that millions of Jews were systematically exterminated by Nazi Germany. One can no more “revise” this fact than one can revise the existence of gravity. Wannsee Conference records prove that Nazis planned the extermination of Jews as, “The Final Solution.” German concentration camp records prove that it was carried out.

    Whenever we stand up to those who deny or minimize genocide we send a critical message to the world. As we continue to live in an age of genocide and ethnic cleansing, we must repel the broken ethics of our ancestors, or risk a dreadful repeat of past transgressions.

    Holocaust deniers ply their mendacious poison everywhere, especially with young people on the Internet. Deniers seek to distort the truth in a way that promotes antagonism against the object of their hatred, or to deny the culpability of their ancestors and heroes. If we ignore them, they will twist the minds of countless young people, creating a new generation of those who deny the facts of the worst episode of genocide in history. Freedom of speech and the press is a symbol of a healthy society. Yet, since no crime in history is as heinous as the Holocaust, its memory must be accurately preserved, to protect our children and grandchildren.

    Museums and mandatory public education are tools to dispel bigotry, especially racial and ethnic hatred. Books, plays, films and presentations can reinforce the veracity of past and present genocides. They help to tell the true story of the perpetrators of genocide; and they reveal the abject terror, humiliation and degradation resulting from blind prejudice. It is therefore essential that we disclose the factual brutality and horror of genocide, combating the deniers’ virulent, inaccurate historical revision. We must protect vulnerable future generations from making the same mistakes.

    A world that continues to allow genocide requires ethical remediation. We must insist that religious, racial, ethnic, gender and orientation persecution is wrong; and that tolerance is our progeny’s only hope. Only through such efforts can we reveal the true horror of genocide and promote the triumphant spirit of humankind.

    Charles Weinblatt
    Author, “Jacob’s Courage”

  13. ” We must insist that religious, racial, ethnic, gender and orientation persecution is wrong; and that tolerance is our progeny’s only hope.”

    Exactly right. In other words the common government practice of hiring employees based on their non-white skin, their non-male gender, their age or any other discriminatory criterion must come to an end. The so called visible minority or diversity hiring practices designed to right past wrongs supposedly, is outright racism. I could not agree more with Charles Weinblatt.

    What is the gutless Humans Rights Commissions position on this? Nothing but silence I’m sure.

  14. And who are the critics of Holocast deniers? By enlarge they are today’s Israel-first perpetual war advocates. And the Christian ones are sermon on the mount deniers. To me that is a lot more chilling.

  15. I found this article interesting. Making conspiracy theories illegal, or violently pursuing those who hold them, only gives them more credibility.

    To me the strangest thing about these holocaust deniers is that they admit that millions of Jews died of disease and malnutrition, but that somehow this does not constitute a planned extermination.

    In truth, we are all concentration-camp deniers, in the sense that we remain in general woefully ignorant of the Japanese concentration camps in Canada during WW2, and the Canadian “Residential school” concentration camps operated between the 1890s and the 1990s . The japanese “internment” camps used forcibly relocated japanese canadians as slave labour, while their property was expropriated and largely not returned after the end of the war. The “residential schools” persisted at various degrees of brutality – but even those which did not subject children to violence, forced infection of TB, and inhumane hours of manuel labour still constitute cultural genocide because of their role in destroying first nations communities.

    In the face of these local travesties, it seems quite useful for us to remain focussed on a genocide which happened very far away, and by a state structure which no longer exists.

  16. I agree that criminalizing the denial of genocides is generally inappropriate and counterproductive. That said, it is important that there are vigorous efforts made by the media, governments, and the academic community to undermine the bogus theories of those who deny events for which there is strong historical evidence.

    The same goes for climate change denial. It is counterproductive and wrong for the state to criminalize it, but it is very important that there be ongoing campaigns to counter disinformation.

  17. What’s interesting about these holocaust deniers is they seem to direct at those aspects of the event which lack what we would usually call “strong historical evidence”.

    It’s quite amazing that someone was fined thousands of dollars for making a true statement about a gas chamber being a replica. When “truth is no defence”, the lapse back into fascism has already begun.

  18. “But the past has none of the fixed and stable identity of a document. The past is an argument, and the function of truth commissions, like the function of honest historians, is simply to purify the argument, to narrow the range of permissible lies.”

    Ignatieff, Michael. The Warrior’s Honour. p.169 (paperback)

  19. Over on Climate Change Fraud – a blog for climate change deniers – I have been arguing with a number of regular contributors.

    One of them found my post on climate change and Holocaust deniers and accused me of proving Godwin’s Law (as Matt did previously).

    The denier argued that: “Then Godwin’s Law refers to your statements two fold Milan, as I do not deny the holocaust. I do not have to believe the holocaust happened, because I know it happened, it is a fact it happened, there is documented evidence it happened.”

    Actually, this makes me see an even stronger connection between Holocaust and climate change deniers, as I explained at greater length:

    There is a huge array of evidence that climate change is happening, caused by people, and dangerous. Climate change deniers just refuse to accept it, using similar psychological mechanisms to those of Holocaust deniers.

    For example, they say that evidence can be ignored because the people who produced it have some sort of hidden agenda, perhaps financial. Climate scientists are frequently accused in this way.

    Another example is an obsession with details, accompanied by an inability to see the big picture arising from all the evidence taken together. Holocaust deniers are obsessed with the issue of holes at Auschwitz, through which historians claim cyanide was released to kill people. Holocaust deniers point to how no such holes seem to be present now as evidence that the Holocaust didn’t happen at all, despite the mountains of historical evidence showing that it did.

    Similarly, climate change deniers have become obsessed with details that they think disprove climate change completely: the hockey stick graph and the IPCC error about Himalayan glaciers are both examples. Like the Auschwitz holes controversy, however, obsessing over these details usually means ignoring the mountain of evidence that shows how humans are changing the climate in dangerous ways. This evidence shows up in everything from ice core samples in sediments to observations of how plants and animals are relocating to satellite measurements to analysis of atmospheric composition in remote areas.

    In short, the evidence for climate change is there. Some people just choose to ignore it.


  20. I think climate deniers, as individuals, are irrelevant. What’s relevant is the power, media, and funding structures that give them a voice – and the underlying interests that benefit from them having a voice.

  21. But most climate change deniers find it repugnant to be compared with Holocaust deniers.

    If a comparison can be made in a way they find convincing, it might drive the climate deniers to re-examine their beliefs.

  22. Also, the power, media, and funding structures that exist today don’t tolerate Holocaust denial.

    If the people who run them become more aware of the similarities between Holocaust and climate change denial, the system could become more intolerant of the latter.

    It’s a bit like a reversal of how the analogy between political rights for black people and for homosexuals has strengthened the gay rights cause. When people see the movement for equal rights for gays as similar to the movement for equal rights for blacks, they see it as more of a moral imperative. They see the reason why changing the status quo is justified.

    In a similar way, strengthening the association between climate and Holocaust denial could weaken the climate denial movement.

  23. “If the people who run them become more aware of the similarities between Holocaust and climate change denial, the system could become more intolerant of the latter.”

    Sure – I am in complete agree with this. But this is not an argument in favour of convincing climate deniers that it is like holocaust denial, but rather, people in positions of power and influence.

    “It’s a bit like a reversal of how the analogy between political rights for black people and for homosexuals has strengthened the gay rights cause. ”

    Sure, and it’s similar to the way that the anti Israeli apartheid movement uses the success of the boycott against South African apartheid to mobilize a political-economic movement against the oppression of Arabs both in the state of Israel and in the illegally occupied territories.

    What I don’t agree with is this:

    “If a comparison can be made in a way they find convincing, it might drive the climate deniers to re-examine their beliefs.”

    This is about as likely as being able to convince a Zionist that the history of Israel is a history of genocidal nationalism. It’s true, but no amount of application of moral standards or definitions ever convinces anyone who has made their position part of their identity – and this is exactly how denial functions (i.e. “I’m not duped like everyone else, I’m a free thinker”).

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