Should Holocaust denier David Irving be permitted to conduct a “tour” of Auschwitz with a group of “revisionist” supporters, as he intends? As of now, the Auschwitz Museum (which controls the site) appears to be saying that Irving will not be stopped from entering the grounds, but that the museum staff will be “closely watching” his visit. “If his speech will have signs of Holocaust denial, we will take appropriate action,” said museum spokesman Bartosz Bartyzel. “We cannot allow for statements that defame the memory of the victims.”
I agree that to the extent that it is possible to do so, Irving should be prevented from making a public and highly offensive spectacle of himself at Auschwitz. And I understand that the Auschwitz Museum — an institution that administers and protects what is essentially the largest Jewish cemetery in history — would be exercised first and foremost by its mission to sustain and venerate the memory of the dead. But on a tactical level, I think that Irving should probably not be allowed onto the grounds at all. And defaming the memory of the dead should not be the principle that guides our reaction to Irving’s latest quest for publicity.
Tactics first. Posit that every step Irving takes on Auschwitz grounds is a desecration of the memory of the dead, and every moment his visit is followed by a news crew is a triumph for Holocaust denial. So let’s cut the spectacle short. Bar him from entering. He will strike a dramatic pose at the gates, mutter something about the “traditional enemies of free speech” and the “global vendetta” against him and, unless he is even crazier than I think he is, he will then turn around and leave. End of story. The Auschwitz Museum will have done its job of protecting the memory of the dead, Irving will get his latest ten minutes of fame, and (sigh) the whole sorry state of affairs will be repeated at Treblinka.
What is the alternative? To let Irving enter the grounds at the head of his merry band of Holocaust deniers, trailing camera crews, no doubt, with museum staff hovering to monitor his every word? What will they do when he says something objectionable? Enter into a debate with him? Forcibly eject him from the grounds? Either response prolongs the agony, gives Irving even greater media attention, and transforms the image of the museum from that of a noble custodian of the site’s sanctity and into a petty enforcer of historical orthodoxy and a censor of free speech. In this case, the high road is to just stop the whole thing from starting.
But I think there is a larger issue here: The big problem with Irving’s visit to Auschwitz is not merely that he will defame the memory of the dead, desecrate the grounds, or hurt and offend Holocaust survivors, their children, and all who fought to oppose the Nazis. (Yes, I realize how bizarre that last sentence sounds.) The problem is that Irving — and Holocaust denial in general — disseminates a malicious narrative about World War II and its aftermath that inflames anti-Jewish sentiment around the world and actually resurrects many of the anti-Semitic tropes that led to the Holocaust in the first place.
Holocaust denial is an immense anti-Jewish conspiracy theory. It posits that somehow, amid the chaos and destruction of World War II, opportunistic Jews decided to profit from the whole affair by creating a myth of some phony genocide. It then further posits that those Jews, by dint of their power to influence/control the media, Hollywood, academia, and world governments, successfully imposed this hoax on virtually the entire world. I have written more about this elsewhere, and one day I’ll do an extensive post showing in their own words how individual deniers make this claim. But for now let me just point out that these beliefs — the myth of the world Jewish conspiracy and the widespread belief that Jews cannot be trusted; that Jews lie and cheat to advance their own interests; that they pull the strings behind political and social movements that are antithetical to the interests of the non-Jewish population around them — all these are the same beliefs that attained widespread acceptance in the years leading up to Hitler’s “solution” to this problem.
I grant that this is not 1939, and that no Western government is now on the brink of implementing legislation that penalizes or discriminates against Jews based on this set of beliefs. But I think it’s fair to say that European Jews are in a more precarious situation now than they have been in decades. Anti-Semitic beliefs are at disturbing levels, street violence against Jews is up, and in the name of anti-Zionism, Jews are being demonized, often with these very same stereotypes. I think it’s also fair to say that these stereotypes about Jews and/or Zionists are already well-entrenched in Arab and Muslim societies. The dual loyalty charge, which is also a component of the Holocaust denier’s conspiracy theory, has also been resurrected and more openly promoted than it has in decades, especially in the United States.
Irving’s publicity, and any opportunity he has to hold forth on how Zionists and/or Jews have spun their web of deceit over the world, confirms and reinforces these pernicious stereotypes in the minds of all those susceptible to its influence. His pronouncements subtly — maybe even not so subtly — undermine the security and wellbeing of Jews everywhere.
It would be best if Irving had no platform at all. But we already know that the media will be following this closely. So again: Whether your concern is for the honor of dead Jews or (what appears to me more important) the safety and security of living ones, let’s cut this tour short. Irving should not be allowed into Auschwitz.