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Thursday, 23 June 2016 14:37

Downplaying and Denying the Holocaust

Although our knowledge of the Holocaust is based on historical evidence, in antisemitic speech, the mass murder is often downplayed and denied. 

Our Linguistic Self-Defence Guide Against Antisemitism teaches people how to spot and resist manipulation when they come across antisemitic speech. We use real-life examples, detected by Get the Trolls Out monitors, and reveal the subtle rhetorical tricks that are typically employed to brainwash the public into hating and discriminating against Jewish people.

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By Anna Szilagyi

Although our knowledge of the genocide of six million Jews by Nazi Germany and its collaborators is based on historical evidence, in antisemitic speech, the Holocaust is often downplayed and denied. Here we review the most common forms of manipulation that are used to minimise or deny the Holocaust1

1. Some speakers downplay the genocide of Jews by using an inappropriate, informal vocabulary when referring to it. In March 2016, for example, the British Labour Party expelled one of its members for publishing antisemitic articles on the internet. Among other things, the politician doubted whether the extermination of six million Jews should concern the public. He questioned the “guilt tripping over the Holocaust” . In this case the informal language also indicates that the speaker does not take the subject seriously but rather belittles it. “Guilt tripping” is an informal phrase that people normally use in connection with private issues. It is fine to talk about “guilt-tripping” if we forget to call a friend. However, talking about “guilt-tripping” in the context of a genocide, the systematic murder of millions of people, is highly inappropriate and abusive.

2. Referring to the Holocaust in the context of other genocides may improve the public understanding of a genocide, an act “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”. However, in some cases, speakers use such comparisons to pursue a very different goal – to downplay the mass murder of six million Jews. For example, in the UK, a phone-in caller in a radio programme said: “There have been many Holocausts…” By referring to the genocide of Jews in plural (“Holocausts”), the caller’s purpose was to belittle the mass murder.

3. Other times, a subtype of the victim-abuser reversal, what we can call genocide reversal is used to downplay the Holocaust. On such occasions, Jews who were actually victims of a genocide are falsely accused of mass murder. Nearly 50,000 Greek Jews were killed in Nazi death camps. Nevertheless, in January 2016, the Greek far-right newspaper Eleftheri Ora framed a historic event, the rebellion of diaspora Jews in the Roman empire that involved atrocities against Romans and Greeks, as a genocide. In a manipulative fashion, the newspaper talked about the “great massacre of Greeks by Jews” on its front page. 

4. Another typical form of victim-abuser reversal is when speakers argue that people are overwhelmed by the discussions on the Holocaust. The former Lord Mayor of Bradford, England, for example, retweeted an image that featured the words: “Your school system only tells you about Anne Frank and the 6 million Zionists that were killed by Hitler…” The tweet evoked antisemitic clichés of Jewish privilege and manipulation. This way, the tweet presented as victims the students who learn about the Holocaust in history classes rather than the six million Jewish people who were exterminated in death camps (and whom the tweet deceitfully identified as “Zionists”). This manipulative shift trivialised the Holocaust. 

5. When the performance of far-right, fascist, Nazi political figures of the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s is discussed in positive terms, without any reference to the Holocaust, this constitutes an implicit form of genocide relativisation. Although it is not directly expressed, in such cases the implication is that the mass murder of Jews has no — or only a little — significance. For example, member of the Hungarian far-right party Jobbik described Gyula Gömbös — leader of an extremist, antisemite Hungarian organisation in the 1920s and Prime Minister of Hungary between 1932 and 1936 — as a “statesman” in a Facebook post. Although Gyula Gömbös died in 1936, he played a crucial political role in spreading antisemitism in Hungary in the decades that preceded the Holocaust. By calling him a “statesman”, the politician ignored this background and therefore downplayed the genocide. 

If the instances above minimise the importance of the mass murder of Jews, there are also cases of people who deny the genocide. This is usually done through superlative, exaggerated statements, as the next two examples show:       

1. A Twitter user in the UK denied the Holocaust saying: “No one is able to show us at Auschwitz or anywhere else even one of these chemical slaughterhouses.” This person aimed to stress that the genocide of Jews is an absolute lie. In the tweet, the two indefinite pronouns (“no one” and “anywhere”) are tools of enhancement. The tweet denies the historical fact that the Nazis used gas chambers in the concentration camps to murder Jews. The pronouns reinforce this lie by falsely suggesting that no person has ever seen the gas chambers and that there is no place where they could be seen.

2. A political activist in Belgium referred to “hoax gas-chambers built in Hollywood in 1946 with Steven Spielberg’s approval stamp”. This statement denies the Holocaust four times. By referring to “hoax gas chambers”, the author suggests that the existence of the gas chambers is a lie fabricated to manipulate people. The date, “in 1946” implies that the gas chambers could not exist as they were built after World War Two. The references to “Hollywood” and “Steven Spielberg” suggest that the Holocaust is fiction and not fact. 

A diverse rhetorical arsenal can support the downplay or the denial of the genocide of six million Jews. All of these are tools of discursive abuse and contribute to the spread of disinformation and hatred. 

1“Because the original meaning of the word Holocaust is “sacrificial offering”, there are objections to its use. The murder of the Jews was not an offering. Therefore, both in Israel and Jewish circles outside of Israel, people usually prefer to speak of the Shoah. Derived from Hebrew, this word means “annihilation” or “annihilating whirlwind” and was already used during the war years to refer to the (annihilation) extermination of the Jewish people by the Nazis in Poland.” (Overcoming Antisemitism - Handbook for Educators - CEJI 2012).

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