Cothran keeps defending Holocaust denial

I've been curious how close Disco. Inst. blogger and Focus on the Family stooge Martin Cothran would get to defending Holocaust denial in the abstract, rather than defending the Holocaust denial of Pat Buchanan specifically. In comments at his blog, Cothran inches closer. I observed that:

You say Buchanan "does not deny the Holocaust." I've offered the generally accepted definition of the Holocaust, and shown that Buchanan denies it. You've offered no definition of the Holocaust, and point only to the fact that Buchanan uses the word.

This is like the old joke:

Q:If you call a tail a leg, how many legs has a dog got?

A: Four.

Your defense of Buchanan requires that we answer that question: "Five."

Cothran replies:

I don't know where you have given your "generally accepted" definition of the Holocaust, but Merriam-Webster's seems fine to me: "the mass slaughter of European civilians and especially Jews by the Nazis during World War II."

If that's what it is, then your arguments amount to saying that Buchanan denies there was a mass slaughter of European civilians and especially Jews by the Nazis during World War II. Since he has explicitly affirmed that he does, it is a little ridiculous to say he doesn't.

Now, had Cothran paid even cursory attention to what I've been saying, he'd know that I cited an historian of the Holocaust giving this definition:

the Holocaust may be correctly defined as follows: (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; and (3) the death toll of European Jews by the end of World War II was roughly 6 million.

I used that same definition in a later post, expressing it in point form so he wouldn't miss it. Had he been paying attention to my posts, he wouldn't have to ask where I defined it. He did have to ask. Therefore…

I've shown, repeatedly, that Buchanan denies at least two of those elements of the definition, and is noncommittal on the death toll among Jews. He dismissed Donald Trump's comment that "Hitler killed six million Jews and millions of others," replying that Trump's comments display "an almost paralyzing ignorance of the history of World War II." Yourish has done a nice job demonstrating the historical illiteracy of other aspects of Buchanan's claims about the Holocaust, and one has to ask why Buchanan misconstrues history to be more favorable toward Hitler, and denies any murders of Jews in the first three years of the Holocaust.

But Cothran's definition of Holocaust denial is almost weirder than Buchanan's Holocaust denial. By that definition, David Irving wouldn't be a Holocaust denier. Irving, of course, admitted being a Holocaust denial in an Austrian court, and was found to be a Holocaust denier in a British libel trial.

The British Institute for Jewish Policy Research agrees with the outlines of my definition, writing:

At one end of the spectrum, the crudest Holocaust-denial material simply states that no genocide took place, and is likely to be linked to the most blatant form of antisemitism. …

At the other end of the spectrum is literature that incorporates relatively sophisticated argumentation. This material may not be overtly antisemitic, but frequently alludes to vested interests of Jews in perpetuating the ‘myth’ of the Holocaust. The ‘sophisticated’ Holocaust deniers adopt the idiom of scholarly debate, and generally refer to themselves as historical revisionists. An example of this kind of literature is The Leuchter Report, (London: Focal Point 1989), which argues that forensic evidence proves that Auschwitz could not have operated as a gassing facility.

Holocaust-denial publications vary not only in terms of their claims to academic respectability and the explicitness of their antisemitism, but also in terms of the arguments that are both put forward and emphasized. The kinds of assertions made in Holocaust-denial material include the following:

• Several hundred thousand rather than approximately six million Jews died during the war.

• Scientific evidence proves that gas chambers could not have been used to kill large numbers of people.

• The Nazi command had a policy of deporting Jews, not exterminating them.

• Some deliberate killings of Jews did occur, but were carried out by the peoples of Eastern Europe rather than the Nazis.

• Jews died in camps of various kinds, but did so as the result of hunger and disease. The Holocaust is a myth created by the Allies for propaganda purposes, and subsequently nurtured by the Jews for their own ends.

• Errors and inconsistencies in survivors’ testimonies point to their essential unreliability.

• Alleged documentary evidence of the Holocaust, from photographs of concentration camp victims to Anne Frank’s diary, is fabricated.

• The confessions of former Nazis to war crimes were extracted through torture.

The Anti-Defamation League hits similar points, emphasizing:

Among the untruths routinely promoted are the claims that no gas chambers existed at Auschwitz, that only 600,000 Jews were killed rather than six million, and that Hitler had no murderous intentions toward Jews or other groups persecuted by his government.

Yad Vashem, The Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority, defines the term in a way that encompasses the same spectrum:

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 and Alex Grobman, in Denying History: Who Says the Holocaust Never Happened and Why Do They Say It?, emphasize as one of the "foundations upon which Holocaust denial rests" "the claim that there was no intention on the part of the Nazis to exterminate European Jewry and that the Holocaust was nothing more than the unfortunate by-product of the vicissitudes of war." This, you'll recall, is the thesis of Buchanan's recent book Churchill, Hitler, and the Unnecessary War, and forms the root of his claim that "Had there been no war there would have been no Holocaust."

In claiming that Buchanan and admitted Holocaust denier David Irving are not Holocaust deniers, Cothran muddies the waters on behalf of a vicious sort of anti-Semitism. In particular, note that even deniers generally accept that roughly 600,000 Jews were killed by the Nazis, which surely qualifies as "mass slaughter," meaning that, by Cothran's "logic," Holocaust deniers aren't Holocaust deniers. Luckily, words mean things.

The definitions I offered, it's worth noting, capture a few other key traits of the "sophisticated" school of deniers. They "adopt the idiom of scholarly debate," Holocaust denial "often tries to disguise itself as something quite different" and give themselves a new name "in an attempt to claim legitimacy for their activities." "Many proponents of Holocaust denial," observes the ADL, "claim that their propaganda has been misrepresented, and that they are victims of yet another conspiracy… to suppress independent research." Holocaust deniers shift from denying any Jewish deaths at all to trivializing the extent of it.

In terms of tactics and rhetoric, this is the approach of creationists and climate change deniers, among various other denialist movements. Reject scientific consensus, craft a bogus scholarly patina, rename yourself when old labels get tainted ("intelligent design" creationism, etc.), and blame your lack of credibility on an evil conspiracy (Jews, atheists, socialists, and pharmaceutical companies seem to be popular choices). Little wonder then that Cothran should be so eager to defend Holocaust denial. While I'm confident Cothran is not a Holocaust denier, he's conditioned himself to accept certain styles of argument ("Expert consensus is wrong!") that are endemic to denialist fringe movements. he reflexively defends these styles of argument, even if it means defending Holocaust denial.

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Let's establish what it is we're talking about, to begin with, because pretending that a meaningless word standing for a free-form undefined concept is "true" makes no sense at all.

Look at it this way: we can always construe complex sets of events into "single historical facts" and maintain an epistemological validity to our discourse if a clear definition of our meaning exists. Historical narrative would be a desert of intractable minutiae if we didn't do just that. Thus, the Second World War may be called a fact, much like the fact that I entered a comment on this forum or any other simple empirical truth. This is because, in spite of the great complexity of the historical events, we establish definitions and understand them: a "war" is a state of belligerence between states, a "world war" is a war of global world significance, and "the Second World War" is the particular world war that took place between 1939 and 1945.

Similarly, if we are to take the "Holocaust" as an historical fact, rather than a vague set of religious-like beliefs, we should define our meaning. For instance, a biblical holocaust is simply a sacrifice consumed by fire, and "ill-will towards the Jews," "persecution of the Jews," "the shooting of one's Jewish grandfather in Russia" or "some mass killings of Jews" are not "the Holocaust," the one historians are talking about when they capitalize the noun. I presume you will agree that it is impossible to debate the supposedly historical "Holocaust" if -- alone among alleged historical facts -- it is allowed to remain an open concept devoid of meaning and form.

The "Holocaust" then is assumed to be a relatively precise set of events involving an attempted extermination of the Jews, resulting in approximately 6 million of them being murdered, mainly in the German supposedly homicidal gas chambers. I believe anyone who has been around for the last half century, living anywhere but in the deepest Amazonian jungle, is familiar with this.

In this sense then, we are perfectly entitled to claim the "Holocaust" is a fiction, since all the above claims are false: no extermination (real or attempted), no 6 million (not even approximately), and no homicidal gas chambers (not even in the supposed "extermination camp" of Auschwitz-Birkenau where by far the largest part of the presumed gassings is supposed to have taken place). To understand this, however, it is not enough to sit comfortably on your "acquired knowledge." You'll need to actively, and perhaps painfully, search for yourself.

Of course, if we choose to define the "Holocaust" in a different manner, say as a proto-religious teaching based on extreme but vague war propaganda, claiming that undefined, formless but terrible, events, many of them miraculous, happened to Jews in such a manner that they are collectively entitled to financial compensation, as well as the Jewish state of Israel exempted from the basic standards of civilized behaviour, then the "Holocaust" may indeed be considered "a fact" -- though hardly an appropriate subject for any historical debate.

Educate yourself. Try

Short introduction to the amazing gas chambers here:

By ASMarques (not verified) on 06 May 2009 #permalink

Holocaust denial is huge in America. Talking with creationists about the pseudodocumentary Win Ben Stein's Baloney, or Exposed, they teach the Holocaust was a natural event and the 6 million Jews were naturally selected out of the population. Then again, they are really ignorant so it isn't surprising.

Using the dictionary definition of a word that has a specialized meaning? Cothran's making mistakes that I don't tolerate from my Freshmen students. Sheesh.

Does the term "Holocaust" also cover the many gypsies, indigent, homeless, disabled that were murdered by Hitler? If not, why not? Either way, just how many of them were killed who were not Jews?

Opinions differ on whether the Holocaust is specific to the killing of ~6 million Jews, or if it applies to the total of roughly 12 million people killed (6 million Jews and a roughly equal number of people from other oppressed classes). The argument for restricting the term "Holocaust" to the Jewish deaths is that there was a much more organized program to eradicate Jews, while the murder of gypsies, Catholics, anarchists, etc. were not part of a "final solution" delineated or pursued with any comparable ardor by the Nazis. This does not diminish the horror of what was committed against those other groups, and I tend to prefer a more inclusive definition, but I don't seem to be winning that fight.