Anti-Semitism & Holocaust

The Evil of Banality

by Patrick D. O'Brien - August 25, 2004
Most of us know, and do not doubt, that during World War II approximately six million European Jews were subjected to inhuman conditions that ultimately ended in their deaths. We understand that this happened in the name of a warped and evil ideology that was the product of a sick man who somehow seized the power needed to carry out such an abominable deed. Most of us, Jew or gentile, would never dream of demeaning by one iota the heartrending suffering that befell innocent men, women and children because of their race. Thank goodness!

To most good people, it would defy all reason to do such a thing, and it would additionally defy all that is good in man. We are all aware that man is capable of base and inscrutable deeds, but the majority of us find such things to be repugnant. History is replete with many tales of slaughter, rapine and cruelty committed under all sorts of banners, from religion, to ethnicity, to nationality.

What is history, though? Is history something open to interpretation and revision? Is it malleable? Is it something that is amenable to application of the scientific method? Can science really aid in discerning the legitimacy and accuracy of what historians endeavor to recount and explain? I think history makes stops at all of these points as it proceeds from data and through the mind and pen of the historian. In the end, though, it ought to have at least a provisional sense of finality. That is, it should ultimately be presented as a finished product, supported by all possible known facts until, and if, new facts come to light. I believe that history can be a scientific enterprise, and indeed, that it should be.

Then there are Holocaust deniers, who have co-opted the innocuous sounding aegis of historical revisionism, which actually is a legitimate discipline. Holocaust deniers, for whatever reason (and what reason could there be?), look to deny that the Holocaust happened (or worse, that it was justified), or how it happened, or the degree to which it happened. Holocaust "revisionism" is nothing more than thinly veiled anti-Semitism.

Some, like Ernst Zündel, are trying to convince the world that the Holocaust never happened. His stated goal is "the rehabilitation of the German people." He has written lovely pieces like "The Hitler We Loved and Why" and has published his Power: Zündelists vs. Zionists. His bumper stickers feature cheerful slogans like: "Germans! Stop Apologizing For The Things You Did Not Do!" and "Tired Of The Holocaust? Now You Can Stop It! Help Ernst Zündel Win Against the Zionists!". The man, basically, speaks for himself and leaves little doubt concerning how he feels about Jews. The 65-year-old Zündel is currently in jail in Canada on charges of being a threat to national security; charges supported by his ties to white supremacist groups. He's a despicable character, but one is not at all unclear about where he stands. That counts for something, in my book, if only as a red flag among many white ones.

Others, such as Mark Weber, David Irving and Bradley Smith (all in some way affiliated with the Institute for Historical Review, or IHR), are more subtle, and therefore pernicious, in their Holocaust denial. They look to bedeck Holocaust denial, which is pseudo-science, in the respectable apparel of science (much like the case of the "science" of eugenics). By painting a veneer of scholarly pretense over their spurious or distorted claims, they hope to appeal to those who are not of a critical disposition. They poke at the weaker points in the great, overarching structure that comprises the entire Holocaust story. They call into question the viability of gassing and cremating mass numbers of human beings. They quibble over whether or not Ausrottung der Juden really meant the "extermination of the Jews" in SS memoranda. They look to minimize the exact number of Jews killed in the Final Solution (as if this will somehow vindicate the Nazis). In short, they look to make their anti-Semitic views look academic, in an almost pedestrian way.

In her famous coverage of Adolf Eichmann's trial in Jerusalem in 1961-62, Hannah Arendt remarked upon the "banality of evil" as she realized that she wasn't looking at the monstrous visage of pure evil she had expected to see. Instead, she saw a tired-looking old man who spoke blandly, matter-of-factly, of how he had overseen the extermination of millions of Jews. For him, the business of genocide was just like anyone else going to perform their job before going home at night. He actually appeared normal. The banality of evil.

I call what modern Holocaust deniers do the evil of banality, because through their efforts at breaking down the integrity of the huge mass of disparate facts that constitute the historical event of the Holocaust, they make it somehow mundane. They cheapen it with feigned authority and dull pedantry. They look to transform what is one of the most horrendous examples of man's capacity to do violence to man into a dry and clinical study, which, they assert, has been overblown by emotionalism. And by implication, they suggest that the Holocaust has been exploited by the people who have to live with such a fiendish legacy. I believe there is evil in this banality.

At the end of the day, there's really only one way to do history right. We must eventually have done with speculation, personal bias and logical errors. And then what? The most effective and powerful methodology available to discern whether or not anything has happened in history is what is called a convergence of primary source evidence. It was also called a "consilience of inductions" by nineteenth-century philosopher of science, William Whewell.

This is why we can't call much of what we find in the Bible history. Or why two guys claiming to have seen a UFO should not compel one to automatically suspend one's disbelief. Or, for that matter, why a preponderance of evidence is the best way to prove one's case in a court of law. The more firsthand sources one can consult concerning any event, the higher is the likelihood that this event occurred. And one will be better able to establish the details of how and why it happened.

When it comes to the Holocaust, there are mountains of evidentiary data that show unequivocally that during World War II, six million Jews were killed in concentration camps, by the Einsatzgruppen death squads, on death marches, or in other horrible ways. We know who did it and why they did it.

Holocaust deniers (whether they deny that it occurred, or that Jews were gassed, or that the numbers are accurate, etc.) do not do history. They seize upon any item they feel will convince others that the entire enterprise should be disbelieved, or at least minimized. You cannot bring down the whole edifice by removing one brick. Or two, or three, or four. Convergence of evidence. One could shoot great holes in the story of what happened to all those innocent human beings and the same tragic story remains. But in the interests of fairness and reason, I'll touch briefly on the numbers of the Holocaust.

Of the reputable historians I've come across, the lowest figure I've found of Jews killed in cold blood for the crime of being Jewish is Gerald Reitlinger's estimate of 4,578,800 (The Final Solution, New York: Beechhurst Press, 1953 [1978]). The highest I've encountered is the figure of 6,269,097 from Wolfgang Benz (Dimension des Volkermords: Die Zahl der Jüdishen Opfer des Nationalsocialismus, Munich: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1991). Most historians find the data and corresponding estimates of Benz - along with Yisrael Gutman and Robert Rozett, who came up with the figure of 5,859,622 (from "Estimated Jewish Losses in the Holocaust", Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, vol. 4, edited by Yisrael Gutman, New York: Macmillan,1990) - to be the most accurate. And if we average out the lowest and highest estimates, we arrive at the number 5,423,948. The estimate of six million is a reasonable one. And if it's any less - so what? Can we not agree that this is a monumental tragedy?

IHR's Mark Weber is an intelligent and outwardly affable man, but he's ultimately a hack because his Holocaust denial reveals his agenda. I don't care how many friends of yours are "Jews, but" or if you claim to be "just trying to get the truth out there in the open." When you sacrifice sound reasoning and objective methodology in the cause of racial ideology, your work becomes suspect, and you shouldn't expect to be taken very seriously outside of groups whose views are consonant with your own. There should be science in history, and that means that you must provide hard data that may be verified - or disproved - by independent parties.

Science is simply not done by taking a preconceived notion and then fabricating, excluding or embellishing evidence to support it. That's why creation "science" is bunk. It is absurd, as well as malicious, to decide that Jews are inflating claims about the Holocaust, and then try to prove this with selective facts, half-truths and lies. People are often drawn to ideologies simply because they are psychologically and emotionally gratifying, though. I personally feel that teaching our children, perhaps in high school, the merits of critical thinking would be a great idea.

Finally, you've got a lot of nerve - anyone - to try to pull just one dead Jew off that colossal mound of human suffering and death, no matter how you justify it. To deny one degree of the ghastly madness that resulted in the loss of 1/3 of the world's Jews within a few years is not only criminal, in my view, but it is also to kill them again. The people I've loved who are now dead may be gone, but no one denies that they were there in my life (a part of my very heart!), and then died. I wouldn't dream of denying the death of anyone. That's just base. To deny, in any way, the sheer magnitude of the dimensions that make the Holocaust the nightmarish hell that it was is almost to invite it back.

It saddens me to contemplate any human suffering - whether it be in Rwanda, Dresden, Cambodia or the Sudan - minimized for the sake of a hateful and dishonest agenda. It's one of the most ignoble and ugly sides of humanity there is. Man does awful and hurtful things to his fellow man. It's a sad reality that reminds us that civilization is sometimes only skin-deep. I like to think that we are slowly evolving together toward a time when things like the Jewish Holocaust will seem like an unbelievable, hellish hallucination (and it was Hitler's diabolical dream, no doubt). The point I look to make here, though, is that while such horrible deeds are committed, it is nothing short of obscene to deny to those who saw it and lived it and know it, that it happened.

I know that some Jews feel that to address the shameful claims of Holocaust deniers is to lend them a legitimacy they surely do not deserve. I do not like to step into these foul waters. However, I feel it is important to challenge these miscreants, if for no other reason, than to help prevent new generations from being misled about what happened to six million innocent people sixty short years ago. Aside from the legality of which Israel was reborn, aside from the blood, sweat and tears that Jews have shed in building a thriving democratic state, and aside from the three millennia of connection that Jews have to Eretz Yisrael - it must be known that in addition to these points, there are six million reasons why Israel exists.

Holocaust deniers want us to believe that there are "two sides" to the story. They want to lull us into an unthinking languor with their endless harping on minutiae. There are "two sides" here: those of us who are reasonable, just and compassionate - we who believe that the murder of one man based upon the vile precepts of racism is unacceptable; and then there are those who are so far gone in their abject phantasm of hatred and misery that such a prospect is banal.

As an epilogue: On September 4, 2003, three Israeli Air Force F-15 fighter planes, piloted by the offspring of Holocaust survivors, flew over Auschwitz-Birkenau to commemorate the victims' courage and to promise to be the "shield of the Jewish People in Israel."

"We got here sixty years too late," said Brigadier General Amir Eshel. The Holocaust is a story whose last chapter was written long ago. It is a book that I suppose every Jew must pick up and weigh in his or her hands from time to time. It is not a work in progress, open to bigots who are looking to write another people's history for them.


1. The author would like to cite the excellent Denying History: Who Says the Holocaust Never Happened and Why Do They Say It?, by Michael Shermer & Alex Grobman and to thank the authors for their superlative work in demolishing the myriad efforts of small and mean men who would deprive the Jewish people of their right to grieve, to heal and to flourish again. This work is an inspiration and invaluable resource.

2. Also, for anyone interested in reading an accurate, and superb, example of historical revisionism, try Iris Chang's The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II. It's a superb, and painful read.

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