Everyone should have a pet

Martin Cothran takes a break from defending Pat Buchanan’s anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial to pick a fight over the definition of the Holocaust. All you need to know is that the definition employed by Yad Vashem, the Anti-Defamation League, historians at the Holocaust History Project, and Wikipedia (for what it’s worth) all use is now my “pet definition of the Holocaust.”

Apparently he also thinks I “sa[id] that Focus on the Family defends Holocaust denial,” which I never did (a typo in an earlier post could have been misinterpreted to indicate that, so I’ve clarified that post). I did say that Cothran defends Holocaust denial, and he continues to do so here. Pat Buchanan is a Holocaust denier, and Cothran is not only defending Buchanan in the abstract, he’s defending various aspects of Buchanan’s Holocaust denial.

Cothran complains:

in Rosenau’s world, there is not to be the least dissent on the most minute aspect of the issue. The Holocaust, he says, resulted in the killing of 6 million Jews. Exactly. Now I’ve heard how the Germans were efficient, but to have gotten it to exactly that round number.

Yet the definition I’ve now offered three times says “the death toll of European Jews by the end of World War II was roughly 6 million.” Reading comprehension is not his strong suit, so I’ve put an important word in bold.

Lest you think I’m quibbling, that Cothran surely didn’t think “roughly six million” actually means “exactly 6,000,000,” consider his next paragraph:

And you better memorize it too, because if you make a mistake and, in a moment of indescretion, utter a figure like, say, 5,999,999, then, well, Rosenau will be in your face telling you you are a Holocaust denier. I wonder what happens if you think there were 6,000,001 Jews killed in the Holocaust. Do you get extra credit or something?

Do you get extra credit the more Jews you think got killed? No. Ick. If you can’t understand what a word like “roughly” means, I can’t give you much credit at all.

Cothran admits “It takes a rather juvenile mentality to prosecute arguments like this,” but plows ahead.

“It’s hard to believe,” he insists,

that the Jews killed in the Holocaust would really give a rip about the exact number of deaths or the exact methods of execution or the exact dates they occurred. Most of them are unknown anyway.

To think that this is the important aspect of the genocide committed by the Nazis is to trivialize the whole sorry thing and take all the wrong lessons from it. The inhumanity of what happened isn’t affected in the least by whether exactly 6 million Jews died or whether it was a million more or less. It was the fact that it happened.

This is incredibly stupid and offensive. I imagine that each Jew slaughtered by Nazis cared rather deeply about the nature and time of their deaths, and I think it matters a lot that we not ignore any of them.

The odd thing here is that my main issue was not the number killed. Buchanan is vague on that point, which I find suspicious, but he may acknowledge the full death toll. What he does not acknowledge are other definitional aspects of the Holocaust, i.e., the manner in which it was carried out, the intentionality of the mass murder, and that it was a result of official Nazi policy, planned long before it was carried out.

These points are well-corroborated by the historical record, and no reputable historian disputes them. Pat Buchanan does, denying definitional aspects of the Holocaust to excuse Hitler from moral accountability.

Cothran claims I’m quibbling, that Buchanan is omitting “just 3 or 4 months” of the Holocaust. But this is false. He claims, repeatedly, that the Holocaust (however he defines the term) did not begin until after the Wannsee conference of January 22, 1942. The killing did not begin “until Hitler had been halted in Russia, was at war with America and sensed doom was inevitable.”

In fact, the killing started well before. The “3 or 4 months” claim is innumerate at best. Einsatzgruppen invaded the Soviet Union right beside the regular army in June, 1941 with the express mission: “to murder Jews and deprive them of their property.” And they did so with stunning efficiency, killing roughly 1.5 million Jews. That genocidal campaign began 7 months before Buchanan acknowledges any genocidal intent in Germany, and 6 months before the events Buchanan insists drove Hitler to genocide.

But, one might object, so what? Who cares about a few months of genocide? And hey, Cothran may argue, even if Buchanan denied the existence of the Einsatzgruppen outright, it only alters the number of murdered Jews by a million or so. (Buchanan does, by the way, deny one of the Einsatzgruppen’s innovations: the use of diesel engines to asphyxiate Jews en masse).

Furthermore, planning for coordinated slaughter of Jews in concentration camps began before Wannsee, too. “One plan, drawn by a detainee as early as November 1941, when experiments in eliminating prisoners were already under way, had a gas chamber clearly labeled.”

Planning for mass slaughter clearly began well before the US entered the war, and before Buchanan’s claimed start date. His claim of causality, precariously dependent on a post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy as it was, cannot stand. Without that, his attempt to absolve Hitler of responsibility for planning the extermination of Europe’s Jews is simply untenable.

But what’s a month or two?, Cothran may object.

How about Kristalnacht? Buchanan dismisses the mass murder and property destruction as “an historic blunder,” but historians regard that 1938 pogrom as a precursor to the Holocaust, and have traced its origins to Nazi party planners in 1937. Britain entered the war in 1939, which event Buchanan blames for all of the Jewish deaths under Hitler’s rule. Are we to believe Hitler was psychic?

Hitler claimed a certain prescience in a speech from early 1939. Well before he kicked off World War II by invading Poland, Hitler issued a prediction dressed up as “prophecy,” if a “world war” started (due to “the international finance-Jewry,” naturally), “the outcome will not be the victory of Jewry, but rather the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe!” He repeated that “prophecy” frequently, including at the culmination of Fritz Hippler’s Leni Riefenstahl’s The Eternal Jew. Buchanan essentially ignores that warning of Hitler’s plans to eradicate Jews, which comes not four months before Wannsee, but four years earlier.

And that’s not all. In denying the first four years of the Holocaust’s planning and execution, Buchanan also omits Hitler’s program of medical killings, which began in 1939. Historian Robert Lifton observes that this program targeted Jews specifically:

Jewish children could be placed in the net simply because they were Jewish. At Heyer, one of the childrens’ institutions, a special department was established for ”minor Jewish-Aryan half-breeds.”

While the death toll from this program was fairly small compared to the Holocaust in its entirety, I cannot accept Cothran’s cavalier attitude and dismiss those deaths as insignificant.

Cothran raises a broader point:

To think that this [the number of people killed] is the important aspect of the genocide committed by the Nazis is to trivialize the whole sorry thing and take all the wrong lessons from it. The inhumanity of what happened isn’t affected in the least by whether exactly 6 million Jews died or whether it was a million more or less. It was the fact that it happened.

Indeed, the essence of this argument is about the lesson to be learned from the study of the Holocaust. One of the lessons we learn is that anti-Semitic rhetoric like Buchanan’s is a precursor to much worse things. Eternal vigilance is fully justified, and cannot properly be dismissed as paranoia (as Cothran has done to my claims), nor as political posturing. History matters. Hitler laid the groundwork for the Holocaust by laying the blame for World War I on the Jews. Buchanan blames the Jews and their influence on Churchill for World War II, as he blames the Jews for the Gulf War and the current war in Iraq.

More worrying, he brings discredited Holocaust denying claims into the mainstream. Historian Deborah Lipstadt notes that, propelled by deniers’ appealing rhetoric about fairness and hearing all sides, students are increasingly insistent on hearing the case for Holocaust denial.

High school teachers have complained to the United States Holocaust Memorial Council that when they teach the Holocaust in their classes, they increasingly find students who have heard about Holocaust denial and assume it must have some legitimacy. I have encountered high school and college students who feel that the deniers’ view should at least be mentioned as a “controversial” but somewhat valid view of the Holocaust. ? This unconscious incorporation of the deniers argument into students’ thinking is particularly troublesome. It is an indication of the deniers’ success in shaping the way coming generations will approach study of the Holocaust.

Holocaust denial, she notes, is part and parcel of an anti-Semitic, neo-fascistic agenda, and the political/educational advances of that movement cannot be separated from that anti-science/anti-history agenda.

The similarities to the tactics and rhetoric of (intelligent design) creationists are inescapable. I don’t mean to overinflate that parallel, though. There are unquestionable moral differences between denying the validity of a major scientific principle and denying the moral monstrosity of the Holocaust.

And that moral monstrosity is key not just to the definition of the Holocaust, but to why we must remember it. Buchanan (and Cothran) are advocating an understanding of the Holocaust that divorces it from the moral atrocity behind it. Buchanan calls it “a war crime,” rather than a crime against humanity. He treats it not as an extension of anti-Semitic (and generalizing, xenophobic/racist) ideology, preferring to treat it as an historical accident that was dependent on particular antecedents, not on Hitler’s ideology of a (fictive) Aryan race.

Allowing such dilution of the Holocaust’s lesson about such ideologies undercuts the great promise the world made after the Holocaust came to light: Never Again.

Applying Buchanan’s logic, that’s simply a promise that Britain and the US will never again intervene against a racist and expansionist regime pitted against an expansionist communist regime.

It reminds me of this Calvin and Hobbes cartoon (which I cannot find the image of), in which Calvin is asked the moral of his creation of zombie snow goons. ?Snow goons are bad news,” he tells Hobbes, who replies, “That lesson certainly ought to be inapplicable elsewhere in life.”

?I like maxims that don?t encourage behavior modification,? is Calvin’s reply, and apparently Buchanan’s as well. Where Cothran stands on such matters is entirely opaque.

Comments

  1. #1 bd
    May 8, 2009

    Wikipedia sets out the key claims of Holocaust denial this way:

    The key claims of Holocaust deniers are:
    * The Nazis had no official policy or intention of exterminating Jews.
    * Nazis did not use gas chambers to mass murder Jews.
    * The figure of 5 to 7 million Jewish deaths is a gross exaggeration, and the actual number is an order of magnitude lower.

    As far as I can see, Buchanan does not say that the Nazi’s had no official policy of exterminating the Jews, and even though he argues about the timeline, this does not amount to Holocaust denial.

    Nor does he say that gas chambers were not used.

    Nor does he deny (that I am aware of) that the number is between 5 and 7 million.

    So how is this Holocaust denial?

  2. #2 Turcano
    May 8, 2009

    One nitpick: The director of Der ewige Jude was Fritz Hippler, not Leni Riefenstahl.

  3. #3 Josh Rosenau
    May 8, 2009

    Thanks, fixed.

  4. #4 Larry Fafarman
    May 8, 2009

    Saying that all holocaust revisionism is anti-Semitic and that all criticisms of evolution are creationism are just unscrupulous attempts to shut down debate.

    My own position about the holocaust is that a “systematic” Jewish holocaust was impossible because the Nazis had no objective and reliable ways of identifying Jews and non-Jews.

  5. #5 Josh Rosenau
    May 8, 2009

    BD: It isn’t at all clear how many people Buchanan thinks died in the Holocaust. In the essays of his online, I simply find no reference to 6 million, or even to millions. That’s the prong I find weakest, but the silence is deafening.

    I find Buchanan’s denials of the Holocaust’s planning since the early days of the Nazi party to be a denial of the first prong you cite, in that it denies that the Holocaust represented an official policy. He considers the Holocaust a “war crime,” not something planned outside the context of war. He claims SS officers who died in battle are just as much victims as people killed in camps. That’s wrong, and denies a central part of the Holocaust’s horror.

    And in point of fact, he does deny the use of gas chambers. He blames the Soviets for Auschwitz and denies the existence of a major gassing system used by the Nazis (discussed extensively in previous posts).

    He meets at least two, and possibly all three, definitional traits of Holocaust denial, and meeting even one would suffice.