Genocide denial is an ugly subject. I wrote a post about a recent variant a few months ago, relating to Ed Herman, one-time collaborator of Noam Chomsky. Herman has devoted himself in recent years to rubbishing the notion that 8,000 Bosniaks were massacred at Srebrenica. In an article last October entitled "Genocide Inflation is the Real Human Rights Threat: Yugoslavia and Rwanda", published in the far-left Z Magazine, he went one better, and insisted: "To an amazing degree, the Western media and NGOs swallowed the propaganda line and lies on Rwanda that turned things upside down."
I was reminded of this monstrous article and of Herman's fellow-travellers when reading this post on the Counterknowledge blog of Telegraph journalist Damian Thompson. It refers to one Robin Philpot, a Canadian journalist and a denier of the Rwandan genocide, whom I had mentioned as one of Herman's sources.
This is the first of two or three posts I shall write about recent instances of genocide denial. I do so to illustrate two points. First, the methods of genocide denial are consistent across time and place. The denial of the Srebrenica massacre really does employ the same methods as Holocaust denial. My second point is that genocide denial is politically heterogeneous. You find it on the Left as well as the far Right, though these tendencies have much in common with each other.
I first came across the phenomenon, in its most notorious and extreme form of Holocaust denial, in my teens. My languages teacher, who had been a child refugee from Nazism and whose parents had died in the camps, told me of an incident that happened when she had been introducing a travelling exhibition about Anne Frank. A prominent local member of the National Front (this was in Leicester, where the organisation received a substantial vote at that time) came up to her afterwards, introduced himself, and handed her a pamphlet. I can't remember it, but I'm certain this pamphlet would have been one called "Did Six Million Really Die?", under the pseudonymous authorship of a "Richard Harwood".
Harwood's real name was Richard Verrall. Verrall was editor of the National Front journal Spearhead. His was the first popular exposition published in English of the notion that the Holocaust was a hoax perpetrated by international Jewry. Over the years I've acquired Verrall's pamphlet and a small library of the main pseudo-scholarly works advocating this view (though if you visit my house, you will not find them on open shelves). These are all either in French or in English; for obvious reasons, this sort of material doesn't get disseminated in Germany.
I give no link, but Verrall's pamphlet is now also widely distributed on the Web on far-right and Islamist sites. Its concluding section begins:
"Without doubt the most important contribution to a truthful study of the extermination question has been the work of the French historian, Professor Paul Rassinier. The pre-eminent value of this work lies firstly in the fact that Rassinier actually experienced life in the German concentration camps, and also that, as a Socialist intellectual and anti-Nazi, nobody could be less inclined to defend Hitler and National Socialism. Yet, for the sake of justice and historical truth, Rassinier spent the remainder of his post-war years until his death in 1966 pursuing research which utterly refuted the Myth of the Six Million and the legend of Nazi diabolism."
Extraordinarily, in a polemic that sets a methodological standard for lying about history, this paragraph includes an important truth. It's not often realised that (as Paul Berman rightly notes in his Terror and Liberalism) Holocaust denial began on the French Left. The first person systematically to advance the proposition that the Holocaust was a hoax perpetrated by international Jewry was Paul Rassinier, a French Socialist and Resistance fighter who had indeed been imprisoned at Buchenwald. There is a fine biography of him by Nadine Fresco, Fabrication d'un antisémite, 1999. As the title implies, Rassinier became an embittered antisemitic crank. He died in 1967 (not 1966 as Verrall/Harwood claims), having acquired a handful of followers. Rassinier's principal disciple, Robert Faurisson, is very much with us.
Noam Chomsky famously provoked controversy by coming to Faurisson's defence in 1981 - ostensibly on grounds of free speech, but in fact with other remarks attached. During the controversy, Chomsky insisted to one critic (for sources, see here): "I see no hint of antisemitic implications in Faurisson's work." Chomsky is not a Holocaust denier, and no serious critic accuses him of being an antisemite. But Chomsky's defence of Faurisson is not the libertarian one, which I agree with, of the right to free speech for Holocaust deniers. He clearly defends the legitimacy of Faurisson's views though not their factual accuracy. If you doubt this, consider Chomsky's remark on the masthead of this site and similar sentiments about far greater men than I, such as Vaclav Havel and the late Abba Eban. In Chomsky's universe, "tacit acquiescence to horrendous crimes" is done by liberals and moderate left-wingers. Faurisson genuinely is a racist who does acquiesce in the greatest crime of our age, by denying it even took place. Yet you won't find Chomsky describing Faurisson in the terms he uses to describe, well, me.
The proponents of genocide denial are not a weighty force, and some of them are very trivial indeed. But there are reasons for refuting them.
First, while I don't wish to sound melodramatic, once you let go by default the arguments of Herman and others, you have in effect granted the legitimacy in debate of the equivalent methods of reasoning of Holocaust denial. Holocaust denial, pace Chomsky's frivolous and absurd remarks, necessarily has malevolent implications.
Secondly, it's surprising how some of the propositions of genocide deniers can insinuate themselves into respectable forums without their being recognised as such. I noted an example last year when the novelist Kurt Vonnegut died. In his best known work, Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut directly relies on the discredited claims of my reader David Irving concerning the death toll at Dresden. Portraying the Allies as war criminals while downplaying the crimes of the Nazis is one the techniques of Holocaust deniers such as Irving.
Thirdly, there is matter of honour. It is plainly not logically impossible that fewer than 8,000 men and boys were murdered by Bosnian Serbs at Srebrenica; but the means by which Herman and his followers advance that conclusion are a violation of the methods of critical inquiry. That's what is wrong with genocide denial - not that it's an offence to our feelings, but that it's an offence against historical truth.
Fourthly, while the proponents of genocide denial are on the fringes of Western intellectual life, this is not necessarily true elsewhere. Holocaust denial has gained ground in the Muslim world. In particular, it's espoused by the puppet-president of a state that seeks a nuclear capability and anticipates the extinction of the Jewish state.