Holocaust denial from the White House on International Holocaust Remembrance Day

Most of my regular readers probably haven’t been following this blog long enough to know it, but early in its history this blog was more of a general skeptical blog. True, it always had a heavy emphasis on medical science and pseudoscience, but I also used to write about evolution and other topics from a skeptic perspective. Back then, dating back to the very earliest days after I discovered blogging, Holocaust denial was a frequent topic on this blog because it was a big interest of mine. It still is, even though I haven’t had much opportunity to write about it over the last few years. It was just one of the topics that I drifted away from as this blog became more tightly focused on medicine.

That’s why I debated about whether I was going to write about this or not. I had a topic all lined up for today, but ultimately decided that it could wait for a day, as I simultaneously kicked myself for not cranking something out over the weekend, given what happened: The White House engaged in Holocaust denial, when it issued a statement on Holocaust Remembrance Day last Friday:

It is with a heavy heart and somber mind that we remember and honor the victims, survivors, heroes of the Holocaust. It is impossible to fully fathom the depravity and horror inflicted on innocent people by Nazi terror.

Yet, we know that in the darkest hours of humanity, light shines the brightest.‎ As we remember those who died, we are deeply grateful to those who risked their lives to save the innocent.

In the name of the perished, I pledge to do everything in my power throughout my Presidency, and my life, to ensure that the forces of evil never again defeat the powers of good. Together, we will make love and tolerance prevalent throughout the world.

Do you notice anything? Lots of people did, including someone with whom I seldom agree but who was correct in this case to label the above statement The White House Holocaust Horror. Others called it out for what it is, a form of Holocaust denial, because that’s what it is. Here’s Senator Tim Kaine, for example:

Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt, someone whom I admire a great deal and the subject of the recent film Denial, which portrays her legal battle with David Irving, who sued her for libel in the UK for correctly characterizing him as a Holocaust denier, characterized the “de-Judaization of the Holocaust, as exemplified by the White House statement” as “softcore Holocaust denial.”

Now, I’m sure that there will be readers out there who think this is hyperbole, that I’m exaggerating. I will also confess that at first I wasn’t sure if this was cluelessness or intentional. A reader reminded me of an example of an atheist organization doing just this sort of thing as part of a protest against the use of the Star of David in a then-proposed Holocaust memorial in Columbus, Ohio. That was cluelessness. At first, I thought the White House statement was cluelessness, but it wasn’t. I was quickly disabused of that notion by White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus showing up on Meet The Press to defend the White House statement. Administration spokesperson Hope Hicks also took to the air to lay down the obfuscation, saying that “despite what the media reports, we are an incredible inclusive group and we took into account all of those who suffered.” In other words, the omission of any mention of the Jews in the White House statement was intentional.

So why was this omission of the Jews a form of Holocaust denial? Prof. Lipstadt, who followed a similar trajectory as I did, at first thinking the statement a “rookie mistake,” begins the explanation:

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.

I will continue it.

So why the controversy? Why all the outrage? Surely it’s not wrong to “include” all the other groups targeted for extermination by the Nazis, such as the Roma, homosexuals, the mentally retarded, and people with mental illnesses, is it? It depends on what you mean by “wrong.” It’s not wrong in that it’s not a bad thing to be inclusive and not to forget the other victims of the Holocaust. On the other hand, intentionally leaving the Jews out of an official statement reveals an intent to provide a distorted view of what the Holocaust actually was. Jews were central to the Holocaust.

As Gord McFee put it:

Does the focus on the Jewishness of the Holocaust take away from or minimize the suffering of the millions of non-Jews who were persecuted? Do the Jews, unintentionally perhaps, try to keep all the suffering for themselves? No. On the other hand, does the Holocaust have a particularly crucial and central Jewish element, even though millions of others died? Simply put, the answer is yes. The Holocaust, from its conception to its implementation had a distinctly Jewish aspect to it and, arguably without this Jewish aspect, there would have been no Holocaust. Most of the non-Jewish people would not have been killed because the killing machinery would not have been put into operation.

Coincidentally, about a week before the statement, I had just finished reading part one of Volker Ullrich’s excellent new biography of Adolf Hitler, Hitler: The Ascent (1889-1939). Even though Part 1 ended just before the invasion of Poland, Ullrich included plenty of discussion of the antisemitism that animated the Nazi Party and Adolf Hitler dating back to at least 1920. Indeed, one of the most puzzling questions in considering Hitler is the origin of his extreme antisemitism. Even though information about his life before he joined the Nazi party is sketchy and sources contradictory, with some claiming Hitler was antisemitic as early as his time in Linz, others saying it originated during his time in Vienna, while still others thinking it originated later, after the defeat of Germany in World War I. Everyone agrees, however, that from 1919 through the early 1920s, Hitler demonstrated increasingly intense antisemitism expressed through increasingly violent and apocalyptic imagery.. Whatever the source of Hitler’s antisemitism, it was one of the animating forces of Nazi-ism, arguably the animating force. Indeed, Nazis regularly harassed and attacked Jews, while Hitler and other Nazis routinely referred to them as “our misfortune” in speeches and predicted a day of reckoning. Not suprirsingly, Jews were the first people targeted when Hitler came to power in 1933 and remained their target until Berlin burned in 1945.

Ever since Donald Trump became a candidate for President and support of the alt right (translation: white nationalists) coalesced around him, I’ve periodically remarked that, having drifted away from the topic, I never thought that all that knowledge of the Holocaust, Nazis, neo-Nazis, and white supremacists would ever come in handy again. To this I always add how sad I am that this knowledge has unexpectedly come in very handy all too many times in reent months. In any case, I knew immediately that it’s a common, long-standing Holocaust denial trope to deny the centrality of Jews to the Holocaust. Basically, Holocaust deniers will say something along the lines of, “The Nazis killed lots of people during the Holocaust, not just Jews. What makes the Jews so special? The Holocaust was about more than the Jews.” Sound familiar? That’s almost exactly what Trump administration flacks have been saying since Friday with its language about how Trump was trying to be “inclusive.” The part about “What makes the Jews so special?” was implied, but not missed, as we will see.

Let’s be clear, though. The central purpose of the Holocaust was to rid the Reich of its Jews, and the Jews were central to the Holocaust. It started with taking away their rights, then evolved to violence against them, both promoted and carried out by the government, then to forced expulsion, and then finally to mass extermination. Yes, the Holocaust later expanded to target lot of other groups that the Nazis didn’t like, but it started with the Jews. To deny this is to deny the essence of the Holocaust.

As Podhoretz puts it:

No, Hope Hicks, and no to whomever you are serving as a mouthpiece. The Nazis killed an astonishing number of people in monstrous ways and targeted certain groups—Gypsies, the mentally challenged, and open homosexuals, among others. But the Final Solution was aimed solely at the Jews. The Holocaust was about the Jews. There is no “proud” way to offer a remembrance of the Holocaust that does not reflect that simple, awful, world-historical fact. To universalize it to “all those who suffered” is to scrub the Holocaust of its meaning.

Gord McFee agrees:

To minimize or trivialize the “Jewishness” of the Final Solution is to seriously understate, if not, unintentionally perhaps, deny its essence. This does not mean that the suffering of other groups is to be ignored; on the contrary, it was terrible. But without the Holocaust, without the “Final Solution of the Jewish Question”, the others live. The term “holocaust” was coined to describe the uniquely Jewish aspect of the Final Solution. It does not seek to negate the suffering of the other victims.

As does John Scalzi, who points out how stupid the whole act was:

Bannon’s reflexive racism and anti-semitism makes the Trump administration do stupid things, a fine example being it offering up a release on Holocaust Remembrance Day that somehow didn’t manage to mention the Jews, i.e., the principal targets of the Holocaust and the reason the Nazi’s built out the entire apparatus of the Holocaust. When called on it, the White House offered the same rhetorical line — “well, others suffered in the Holocaust, too” — that Holocaust deniers use to minimize the extent of the atrocity done to the Jews. Bannon’s fingerprints are all over this, and it’s appalling both that the White House put out a release like this, and that it either didn’t realize that everyone would see the dog whistle to America’s home-grown Nazis… or it didn’t care whether everyone saw it or not. Either, to me, is all Bannon; neither is especially smart.

Prof. Lipstadt elaborates:

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.

I cant’ help but note here that those who seek to minimize the centrality of the Jews to the Holocaust sometimes like to point out that Communists were also targeted, but such an argument conveniently neglects the way that Hitler conflated Jews and Communism, believing Communism to be a product of Jews and frequently invoking “Judeo-Bolshevism” as the enemy of the Germany people. This is a common conspiracy theory that views Communism as a Jewish conspiracy, positing that Jews dominate and control worldwide Communist movements.

Prof. Lipstadt further observes:

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?”

A lot of people don’t understand that, just as there are gradations of antivaccine views (for example), there are gradations of Holocaust denial. Relatively few deniers outright deny that millions of Jews died during the Holocaust. There is just too much evidence that they did for even the most antisemitic of Nazis to outright deny it. There are some, of course, who claim that millions of Jews didn’t die, that there were no gas chambers, and that the Holocaust is all a big Jewish conspiracy, the “Holohoax,” as some call it. They’re the equivalent gradation of Holocaust denier as antivaxers who deny that vaccines work at all and claim they are dangerous or cause disease instead of preventing it are among vaccine denialists. (No, I’m not saying antivaccinationists are the equivalent of Holocaust deniers, just that the two denialism systems exist along their own spectrums of denialist beliefs, not as a yes/no clearcut dichotomy.) Then there are the “softcore” Holocaust deniers, as Prof. Lipstadt terms them. They range from conceding that millions of Jews were killed during World War II and denying that there was a systematic plan (the “World War II was horrible and millions of civilians died” gambit) to those who concede that millions of Jews were targeted and killed but, as the White House statement did, “de-Judaize” it by pointing to the other groups targeted by Nazis. (The “Nazis were horrible and targeted lots of groups” gambit.) In levels of denial, the equivalent would be the “too many too soon” antivaccine activists, who concede that vaccines prevent disease but promote “concerns” that somehow the current vaccine schedule is too much of a good thing that “overwhelms” a baby’s immune system.

Of course, one way to tell if this is Holocaust denial is to look at how real Holocaust deniers reacted to it, for example, Chemi Shalev:

A Trump supporter responded:

And:

You get the idea.

The Daily Stormer is, of course, a vile, white supremacist, neo-Nazi site. The article linked to above was written by Erik Striker and characterizes “organized Jewry” as “frothing at the mouth” over Trump’s statement. It also includes gems like:

The political “misstep”? Equating the suffering of all innocent people in World War II with the sufferink of Jews, which we all are supposed to know is different because Jews are a superior race.

This is the first time in history the President of the United States has made no mention of Jews, anti-Semitism, or the science fiction Zionist folklore about ovens and gas chambers so prominent in (((Hollywood))) narratives.

The Six Million meme Jews require their agents to constantly repeat through amplifiers in order to make the lie stick was also avoided. Without constant repetition, the myth and meme begins to decompose.

The writers at The Daily Stormer are hardcore Holocaust deniers, hence the reference to the “Six Million meme” and “myth.” Either way a real Holocaust denier of the “Holohoax” variety, is happy that Trump is “exceeding expectations in pushing back against Jewish supremacy.” Elsewhere, Andrew Anglin gloats, “Do you get it now, Jews? The jig is up.”

Of course, none of this should be surprising. As Mark Hoofnagle points out, candidate Trump played footsie with white nationalists, who in turn adore him, and has been “hiring white nationalists, including Steve Bannon (also an alleged anti-Semite), and repeating propaganda from white supremacists (eg whitegenocide) and neo-nazis repeatedly during the campaign (anyone remember the “Sheriff’s Star”?),” summing it all up:

To summarize, this is classic Holocaust denial from an administration that (1) has been documented courting racists and neo-Nazis, (2) has a known white nationalist as a political advisor to the president, (3) has admitted the exclusion of the Jews from the statement was purposeful, (4) has expressed no regret about excluding Jews from the statement, and (5) received acclaim from neo-Nazis for the use of this language.

Exactly. Also, one more time, accepting that the Final Solution was, first and foremost, targeted at the Jews in no way minimizes or trivializes the suffering of other targeted groups. It merely acknowledges that the Holocaust grew from its primary focus on the Jews to target those other groups. As Prof. Lipstadt put it, those groups might also have been exterminated had Germany won, but the only group the Germans couldn’t wait until the end of the war to kill was the Jews.

Sadly, I'm beginning to wonder if this is the reading list at the White House.

Sadly, I’m beginning to wonder if this is the reading list at the White House.

The bottom line is disturbing. Not only do we have a science-denying administration in power, as evidenced by the appointment of anthropogenic global climate change denialists in positions of power, meeting with antivaccinationists like Andrew Wakefield and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., appointing a member of a crank medical organization as Secretary of Health and Human Services, and considering for the position of FDA commissioner technolibertarian cranks who think that online rating systems can replace science, but this administration openly spouts “softcore” Holocaust denial on Holocaust Remembrance Day, the same day Trump instituted a ban on refugees and immigrants from seven Middle Eastern countries that he linked to terrorism. I used to say that I feared for medical science under Donald Trump, but now I fear that that’s the least of my worries for the next four years.

I also keep saying that nothing Donald Trump does surprises me any more, but fear that he’ll prove me wrong.