The Darwin-Hitler claim as a form of Holocaust denial, revisited

Yesterday, I did a rather long post that used as its introduction an assertion by bioethicist Arthur Caplan in a review of the anti-evolution propaganda movie Expelled! that the claim that Darwinism led more or less directly to the Holocaust is a form of Holocaust denial. In my post, I concluded that I don’t agree with that assertion and that likening Ben Stein’s claims in the movie actually weakened his otherwise excellent article that appropriately pointed out the inherent immorality and dishonesty in the way the movie links Darwinism to the Holocaust. To my surprise, Dr. Caplan actually showed up in the comments and responded:

I stand by my claim that attributing the Holocaust to Darwinism is a gross and disgusting form of Holocaust denial. If you say that 6 million Jews died, not from racism and bigotry, but because of a plan to implement Darwinism, then you blur the ethical offense of the Holocaust and, in Stein’s case, deliberately so.

Holocaust denial is not just about did an event happen or not. It is crucial to know why the Holocaust happened. And we do know–racism. To imply, suggest or pronounce other causes is to deny what happened just as surely as to say no one was killed in the concentration camps. History encompasses both events and their causes.
Denial is to ignore both.

Expelled is a vicious form of Holocaust denial.

As much as I respect Dr. Caplan (indeed, I’ve cited him before approvingly on more than one occasion) and know that he’s written about the medical aspects of the Holocaust before (for example, When Medicine Went Mad: Bioethics And The Holocaust), thinking about his response actually led me to conclude that I really do disagree with his conclusion more strongly than I did when I wrote yesterday’s post. I don’t know how much about Holocaust denial he knows. In my experience, even Holocaust scholars often don’t know that much about Holocaust denial. Many find it so ridiculous that they consider it not worth their attention in much the same way that evolutionary biologists dismiss creationism and its bastard offspring “intelligent design” creationism as being beneath their notice and many physician advocates of science- and evidence-based medicine dismiss homeopathy as too ridiculous to pay any attention to. They’re too busy doing their work to concern themselves with what they rightly view as pseudoscience or pseudohistory. In any event, I can sympathize with Caplan’s disgust at Expelled!, but, although it causes me trepidation to disagree with as accomplished a bioethicist and scholar as Art Caplan, I just can’t agree with his characterizing Ben Stein’s intellectual dishonesty as a form of Holocaust denial.

Perhaps the best way to illustrate my point is to look at how those of us who take an interest in Holocaust denial actually define it. The definition is actually fairly specific and commonly accepted. Before I get to that definition, let me first point out what Holocaust denial is not. It is not Holocaust revisionism, as dearly as Holocaust deniers would like to argue that what they do is no different from what revisionist historians do and call themselves “revisionists.” To call Holocaust denial “revisionism” is an intentional misnomer used by deniers to try to claim an undeserved mantle of intellectual and academic respectibility. Holocaust History Project Board Member Gord McFee in his essay Why “revisionism” isn’t described well what legitimate historical revisionism entails:

On its basic level, revisionism is nothing more than than the advocacy of revision, which in itself is the act of revising, or modifying something that already exists. Applied to history, it means that historians challenge the accepted version of the causes or consequences of historical events. As such, it is an accepted and important part of historical endeavour for it serves the dual purpose of constantly re-examining the past while also improving our understanding of it. Indeed, if one accepts that history attempts to help us better understand today by better understanding how we got here, revisionism is essential.

In other words, historical revisionism is nothing more than examining new evidence or looking at historical events and putting the evidence together with new evidence in order to determine whether current understanding of historical events fits with the evidence. What distinguishes scholarly historical revisionism from Holocaust denial is that the conclusion is not foreordained. In Holocaust denial, as in all forms of denialism and many forms of crankery, the evidence is cherry-picked to support the desired conclusion. Again, McFee describes this well:

Revisionists” depart from the conclusion that the Holocaust did not occur and work backwards through the facts to adapt them to that preordained conclusion. Put another way, they reverse the proper methodology described above, thus turning the proper historical method of investigation and analysis on its head. That is not to say that historians never depart from a preconceived or desired result; they often do. But in adhering rigorously to the correct methodology, they accept that the result of their investigation may not be what they envisaged at the beginning. They are prepared to adapt their theories to that reality. Indeed, they are often required to revise their conclusions based on the facts. To put it tritely, “revisionists” revise the facts based on their conclusion.

Of course, in order to understand how Holocaust denial is defined, one must understand how the Holocaust is commonly defined. This is, as you might expect, not an easy task. However, there are three or four core elements of the group of related historical events that historians call the Holocaust. Although there may be some minor variations, Andrew E. Mathis, writing the chapter Holocaust Denial, A Definition in Conspiracy Theories in American History: An Encyclopedia, lists these generally accepted elements of the “Final Solution of the Jewish problem” that became the Holocaust:

  1. The Holocaust was the intentional murder of European Jews by the Nazi government of Germany during World War II as a matter of state policy
  2. This mass murder employed gas chambers, among other methods, as a method of killing
  3. The death toll of European Jews by the end of World War II was roughly 6 million.

Yad Vashem uses a similar definition, defining Holocaust denial as:

Claims that the mass extermination of the Jews by the Nazis never happened; that the number of Jewish losses has been greatly exaggerated; that the Holocaust was not systematic nor a result of an official policy; or simply that the Holocaust never took place.

Michael Shermer points out in Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Bogus Notions of Our Time also points out what Holocaust deniers do not deny:

Deniers do not deny that antisemitism was rampant in Nazi Germany or that Hitler and many of the Nazi leaders hated Jews. Nor do they deny that Jews were rounded up and forced into concentration camps where, in general, they were very harshly treated and made the victims of overcrowding, disease, and forced labor.

From having spent nearly a decade delving into the cesspit of Holocaust denier websites, blogs, and discussion boards, I can with some confidence tell you that the usual key claims made by Holocaust deniers include at least two (and usually all) of the following:

  1. There was no policy in Nazi Germany to exterminate European Jewry and other non-Jewish racial “undesirables.” There are many variants and subclaims related to this. One is that the “Final Solution” to the “Jewish question” was not extermination but rather expulsion. And, indeed, early in the war, that was the original plan before the invasion of the USSR, which placed millions of Jews into Nazi hands, far more than could be deported or transported to Madagascar (an early Nazi idea for getting rid of the Jews that was clearly impractical given British naval power) and the relative weakness of the German Navy. Another variant of this is that Hitler knew nothing about what was going on and his underlings in fact instigated mass killings of Jews without his knowledge. (This is one of David Irving’s favorite gambits.) Of course, there is a a debate among Holocaust historians over whether Hitler intended to exterminate the Jews from the beginning or whether the Holocaust evolved over time from persecution and repression to genocide in response to increasing radicalization (i.e., it took on a life of its own). This is known as the functionalism versus intentionalism debate. Not surprisingly, this debate is often hijacked by Holocaust deniers to sow doubt, just as debates among biologists over the mechanism of evolution are hijacked by creationists to attack evolution itself. However, what makes functionalism different from Holocaust denial is that the end result was still that, by 1942 the Nazis had a policy of intentional mass extermination of Jews in their territories, something Holocaust deniers deny.
  2. There were no homicidal gas chambers. This is a very frequent denier technique (warning: link leads to a truly vile and anti-Semitic site). Indeed, there is a Holocaust denier refrain that goes, “No gas chambers, no Holocaust.” This, too, is a favorite canard of David Irving. This, too has many variants. One is that the gas chambers were used for fumigation. Some were, but there were still homicidal gas chambers. Another variant is that the main causes of Jewish death were starvation and disease, caused primarily by Allied bombing of German supply lines and food shortages at the end of the war, a claim that also denies the intentionality of the Holocaust and allows deniers to blame the Allies for a large part of the death toll from the Holocaust. To Holocaust deniers, the reason that the existence of homicidal gas chambers must be denied, of course, that their existence is irrefutable evidence that there was intentionality in the mass murder of Jews during the Holocaust. Starvation, disease, shootings, and even hangings could be rationalized as not being part of an intentional campaign of mass murder, but large gas chambers used to kill large numbers of Jews at one time are pretty hard to explain in any other way other than an intentional government policy of industrialized mass murder. Another common corollary to this claim is that the crematoria were used because of so many deaths from disease or starvation, not because the activity of gas chambers made them necessary.
  3. Nowhere near six million Jews died. Usually, as creationists accept microevolution but not macroevolution, Holocaust deniers will “admit” that several hundred thousand Jews died but deny that it was anywhere near the accepted estimates of five to six million. In other words, they “accept” a small claim and deny the larger and accurate claim.

There are two other elements to Holocaust denial that must be pointed out because they are virtually always present. The first is conspiracy theories. Indeed, Holocaust denial, as Andrew Mathis points out, is nothing if it isn’t a huge conspiracy theory, the conspiracy theory to end all conspiracy theories, the mother of all conspiracy theories, if you will. If you have the stomach to delve into the websites and writings of Holocaust deniers, you will very rapidly discover this element. Indeed, this is the element behind the offensive term “Holohoax,” which is meant to imply that the Holocaust is nothing more than a massive hoax, designed to gain reparations, a Jewish homeland, or any other of the supposedly nefarious desires of the Jews. Moreover, a claim that often accompanies the “Holohoax” is that somehow the Jews have been able to fool historians into thinking that there was an intentional policy by Nazi Germany to exterminate European Jewry, even sometimes going so far as to claim that the documents used to convict Nazi leaders at Nuremberg were forged. I know, I know, it’s hard to believe, but it’s true, as Jamie McCarthy so gleefully mocks in his essay The “Hoax.” In fact, my favorite technique in the old days to tweak Holocaust deniers was to ask persistently and politely who, exactly, was behind this conspiracy and what the evidence was to support this contention. Again, Andrew Mathis describes the conspiracy-mongering aspect of Holocaust denial quite well:

It can thus be seen that Holocaust denial is a conspiracy theory that seeks to place Jews behind an international movement to promote a falsehood for monetary gain. In this way, Holocaust denial is no different than many other previous forms of antisemitism, which imputed to Jews monetary greed as well as a conspiratorial air. Besides the haphazard manner in which deniers have chosen to lump all Jews together, regardless of religious or political orientation, as perpetrators of this “hoax,” deniers also engage in efforts at pseudoscience to try to prove their point of view regarding the Holocaust. To date, none of their efforts has made any lasting impression on Holocaust historiography. While the rational observer will conclude that this is a testament to the truth of the history of the Holocaust, for the Holocaust deniers, it is merely one more piece of evidence of a conspiracy to quash what they believe to be the “real truth” about the fate of Jews during World War II.

The second element of Holocaust denial that is always present in Holocaust denial is anti-Semitism, often neo-Nazi sympathies and more than a little measure of admiration for Hitler. Why else would anyone want to deny the Holocaust? Indeed, years ago back in the old playground on Usenet known as alt.revisionism (or, more commonly called these days, the “cesspit” because only the dumbest Holocaust deniers seem to post there anymore) Allan Matthews illustrated this nicely with a question:

Gee, you’d think that after many months of posting this at least one revisionist who isn’t a neo-Nazi or anti-Semite would have come forward and said “Here I am!”

But, no. It appears that there just aren’t any such revisionists around.

Based on their past posting history, the few bozos who have bothered to claim that they aren’t neo-Nazis or anti-Semites were, upon examination of their claims, found to be clearly lying. Of course, given the general behavior of revisionists, this lack of honesty isn’t surprising in the least.

However, just in case some revisionist ‘scholars’ have missed my question to date, here it is again:

Where are the revisionists who aren’t neo-Nazis or anti-Semites?

It’s a fair question. After all, how can revisionists hope to be taken seriously if they all have such apparent biases, agendas and axes to grind?

So, then, if Holocaust revisionism is an intellectually honest endeavor, where are the revisionists who aren’t neo-Nazis or anti-Semites?

He never found any, and neither did I. Neither will you, either, if you look. Anti-Semitism and at least a tendency towards neo-Nazi sympathies are part and parcel of Holocaust denial. Indeed, Holocaust denial cannot be separated from them, and Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt was spot on correct when she pointed out that “the real purpose of Holocaust revisionism is to make National Socialism an acceptable political alternative again.”

As much as I respect Art Caplan for his work in bioethics, given the actual definition of Holocaust denial generally agreed upon by academics, I have conclude that he’s incorrect when he asserts that the vile lies in Expelled! are a form of Holocaust denial. I can fully understand why he might want to say that, but I can’t agree with it. As many lies about Darwin and the Holocaust as Ben Stein and Mark Mathis pack into the movie, they accept the basic historicity of the Holocaust and do not show any signs of the anti-Semitism that accompanies Holocaust denial. Thus, I must respectfully disagree that postulating a false explanation for why the Holocaust happened is the equivalent of denying that it did, in fact, happen as history tells us. Moreover, even though it is true that the claim that Darwinism leads necessarily and inevitably to an event like the Holocaust is a foul lie, it is true that Nazi eugenics policy was based in part on a misunderstanding of Darwin’s theory. I’m not sure I can go as far as saying that playing up that aspect to a ridiculous extreme and in the meantime failing to mention that it was a version of Darwin’s theory twisted by the mind of Hitler and Nazi physicians that led to the Holocaust, not Darwin’s theory itself, can be considered a form of Holocaust denial unless the definition of Holocaust denial is changed to accommodate it.

What’s really going on with Expelled! is something that’s gone on almost since the very end of World War II, when Soviet forces liberated Auschwitz from the East, and Allied forces liberated Dachau and other camps from the West: the intentional misuse of the Holocaust as a political weapon. The Expelled! producers are using the Holocaust as nothing more than a convenient weapon to advance their ideological and political agenda by linking their opponents, in this case Darwin and scientists who accept the theory of evolution, to the ideology that led the Nazis to perpetrate genocide. Not accepting the historicity and horror of the Holocaust would make it very difficult to use it as a cudgel with which to beat one’s opponents into submission. What is really happening is not Holocaust denial; rather, in making Expelled! and perpetuating the claim that Darwinism led inevitably to the Holocaust, what’s really happening is that Ben Stein and Mark Mathis are pissing on the mass graves of the millions of victims of the Holocaust in the name of their right wing political agenda, a particularly odious spectacle, given that Ben Stein is Jewish. They are not denying the Holocaust, nor are they exhibiting anti-Semitism or Hitler apologia. They are desecrating the memory of the dead.

Although I reluctantly must disagree with Dr. Caplan on whether the dishonest linking of Darwinism to the Holocaust constitutes a form of Holocaust denial, there is one thing that I certainly agree with him about. I agree that Ben Stein, Mark Mathis, David Klinghoffer, and the rest of the merry band of anti-evolutionists pushing the myth that the Holocaust is a direct consequence of Darwin’s theory are despicable liars of the first order who will say anything to smear their opponents. The reason, of course, is that they do not have facts or science on their side; so that’s all they have left.