Confronting Genocide Denial
Confronting Genocide Denial responds to recent examples of genocide denial as they relate to historical memory, media literacy, freedom of speech and genocide prevention.
Denial of genocide is the final stage of genocide. It is what Elie Wiesel has called a "double killing." Denial murders the dignity of the survivors and seeks to destroy remembrance of the crime. In a century plagued by genocide, we affirm the moral necessity of remembering.
-Statement by Concerned Scholars and Writers in commemoration of the Armenian Genocide of 1915
Holocaust survivor and Nobel Prize winning author of Night, Elie Wiesel emphasizes the personal, political and moral consequences of genocide denial. Thus, recent incidents of genocide denial raise serious concern. In November 2006, Sudan's president, Lt-Gen Omar al-Bashir, rejected claims that hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians have been killed in Darfur. One month later, Iran's president, Mahmud Ahmadinejad, who has referred to the Holocaust as a "myth," sponsored a conference for Holocaust deniers. Then, in January 2007, Hrant Dink, a Turkish-Armenian journalist, was assassinated, in part, for speaking openly about the Armenian Genocide.
How do people respond to incidents of genocide denial? Scholars, artists, and elected officials answer this question using the tools at their disposal. For example, Iranian scholars, including Azar Nafisi, published a letter condemning their government's decision to sponsor a conference for Holocaust deniers. Artists, from novelist Elif Shafak to the punk rock band System of a Down, discuss the Armenian Genocide in their work and speak about the consequences of its denial. Recently, elected officials have attempted to curtail genocide denial by making it illegal. In October 2006, the French Parliament passed a law making it a crime to deny the Armenian Genocide. In January 2007, Germany proposed that the European Union should pass a law that would incarcerate deniers of the Holocaust. (Currently, nine EU member states - Germany, Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, France, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Slovakia- have laws against Holocaust denial.) And, on January 26, 2007, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted a resolution condemning any denial of the Holocaust.
Despite the overwhelming breadth and depth of evidence documenting past genocides, most notably the Armenian Genocide and the Holocaust, recent events demonstrate that groups, individuals and nations will continue in their efforts to convince others that these atrocities were not genocidal in nature. Israel Charney and other scholars have noted that it seems as if people who deny genocide seem to use the same arguments. In December 2006, just as the German government finally opened an archive holding approximately fifty million Nazi documents, the president of Iran was sponsoring a widely publicized conference for "scholars" who deny the Holocaust ever happened. How might we come to understand this juxtaposition of a warehouse of evidence on the one hand and people, such as former Louisiana state representative and KKK Imperial Wizard David Duke, who say that gas chambers were never used to kill Jews? How might we respond when we come into contact with genocide deniers? What are the implications of allowing comments that distort or falsify history to go unchecked? Once we recognize the "moral necessity" of challenging genocide denial, what strategies might be used to prevent this "double killing"?
Finally, while genocide denial raises universal issues of prejudice, propaganda, morality, and freedom of speech, it is also a deeply personal issue for those touched by genocide. As Professor Henry Theriault, a descendant of Armenian genocide survivors, explains:
- Deniers operate as agents of the original perpetrators [of the genocide], pursuing and hounding victims through time. Through these agents, the perpetrators reach once again into the lives of the victims long after their escape from the perpetrators' physical grasp.
How might we begin to imagine the personal consequences of genocide denial? How do we help students understand how genocide deniers challenge all of our humanity? The resources provided here help students understand the personal, political and moral consequences of genocide denial in order to highlight how individuals, groups and nations are responsible for preserving the historical memory of past genocides as well as raising public recognition of ongoing genocides.
1. Henry C. Theriault, "Denial and Free Speech: The Case of the Armenian Genocide," in Richard Hovannisian ed. Looking Forward, Moving Backward: Confronting the Armenian Genocide (New Brunswick, Transaction Pub., 2003) pp. 231-262.
Confronting Genocide Denial: Connections
An exploration of genocide denial introduces questions related to motivation, historical and media literacy and the law. The connections questions included here are organized according to these themes.
1.What is the purpose of denial? Despite an overwhelming amount of evidence, why might individuals and groups claim a genocide did not happen?
- Educators might begin an exploration of genocide denial by having students reflect on the question, "Have you ever denied something even though there was plenty of evidence to the contrary? If so, why?" Starting with students' own experiences provides a segue for students to consider the purpose of denial. For psychologists, "denial" is an unconscious defense mechanism individuals use to protect themselves from painful memories or feelings. In legal terms, "denial" is a statement made by the defense in opposition to an allegation by the prosecution. Historians and philosophers might say that "denial" is the refusal to grant the truth of a statement. After considering the purpose of denial, in general, students can then think about why individuals, groups or governments might deny a history (i.e. the Holocaust, the Armenian genocide, etc) that is overwhelmingly supported by evidence? How is denial of something as morally atrocious as genocide different than the denial of other events? This could be an appropriate time for students to discuss the following statement by Concerned Scholars and Writers in commemoration of the Armenian Genocide of 1915:Denial of genocide is the final stage of genocide. It is what Elie Wiesel has called a "double killing." Denial murders the dignity of the survivors and seeks to destroy remembrance of the crime. In a century plagued by genocide, we affirm the moral necessity of remembering.
- Israel Charney, editor of the Encyclopedia of Genocide, identifies many common arguments used by genocide deniers as well motivations for individuals, groups or states to deny genocide. For example, he writes, "denying that a case of mass killing constitutes genocide is to avoid responsibility for doing something about it."1 Antisemitism and other discriminatory beliefs often provide a foundation for genocide denial. Moreover, political interests can fuel genocide denial. A nation might not recognize an event as genocide in order to avert responsibility for taking action to stop it. [Indeed, most United Nation's members have signed the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, a treaty which holds signatories responsible for acting to prevent and stop acts of genocide.] Scholars have even been known to deny genocides in order to gain notoriety and advance their own careers. To be sure, Charney points out that some individuals, perhaps more than we expect, might be "innocent" in their denial of a genocide - in the sense that "the denier truly does not know the facts of the genocide."2 According to a recent poll in Great Britain, 28% of 18- to 29-year-olds responded that they did not know if the Holocaust was a "myth" or if the statement "six million Jews had been killed" might be exaggerated. To help students recognize the different arguments and motivations that fuel genocide deniers, you might have them read Israel Charney's 12 commonly used arguments by genocide deniers from "Twelve Ways to Deny A Genocide" and compare the arguments his discusses to the following articles about recent examples of genocide denial:"Twelve Ways To Deny A Genocide
"No genocide or famine in Darfur, insists Sudan president"
"Iran defends Holocaust conference
"Outspoken Editor Is Slain in Turkey"
After reading one or more of these articles, ask students to find evidence in the text that answers questions such as, "Who is denying genocide? What do you know about this individual or group? What do you think is motivating these acts of genocide denial? What might genocide denial accomplish in these cases?" An extension activity might have students research which countries refer to events in Darfur as genocide and which countries do not. Then they might discuss what might motivate some countries to use the term genocide to describe the killing of hundreds of thousands of Darfur residents while other countries avoid using the term genocide when describing events in Darfur?
2. What is the difference between history and propaganda? What is the difference between historical revisionism and genocide denial? What is the role of media literacy in preventing individuals from becoming what Israel Charney refers to as "innocent deniers?"
- Understanding the motivations behind genocide denial helps us recognize the work of genocide deniers as propaganda masquerading as history. While history is the use of evidence to help explain events of the past, propaganda is a type of message that uses specific tools and techniques to manipulate its audience. Responsible historians provide information that is credible, reliable, and valid. Propagandists intentionally distort facts and provide misleading information in order to suit their aims. In a letter to the Prime Minister of Turkey , the International Associate of Genocide Scholars, label the denial of the Armenian Genocide as "propaganda" as opposed to "scholarship:"
- We note that there may be differing interpretations of genocide-how and why the Armenian Genocide happened, but to deny its factual and moral reality as genocide is not to engage in scholarship but in propaganda and efforts to absolve the perpetrator, blame the victims, and erase the ethical meaning of this history.
-Open Letter to the Prime Minister of Turkey
You might ask students to discuss the difference between propaganda and history. To be responsible consumers of information, what do we need to know about a source in order to determine if it is trustworthy? Given that anyone can post information on the Internet, it is especially important for students to know how to ask questions about the origins of sources before taking information at its face value. If you have access to a computer lab, you might have students surf the web for sites about the Holocaust, the Armenian Genocide or Darfur. Ask students to gather information from these sites about the publishers or authors. What can they find out about the bias of a website? How might they determine if they can trust the information on this site? Can they identify any propaganda techniques used on any of these websites? To help students learn about propaganda techniques and source evaluation, refer to these websites.
- Holocaust deniers often refer to themselves as "historical revisionists." Ask students what they think it means to "revise" history. How might this be done in a legitimate matter? What is the line between "historical revisionism" and genocide denial? Rabbi and historican Steven Jacobs answers this question as follows:
- Historical revisionism is the legitimate understanding of historical research that mandates rethinking and rewriting our understanding of specific historical events as more material and interpretation become available... Holocaust revisionism... is instead an attempt...to raise doubts and questions in the unsuspecting and unaware minds of the naïve...Scholars will continue to debate various points regarding the facts and interpretations of many specific events associated with the Second World War and the Holocaust...But no credible scholar of the Second World War will deny that part of the overall agenda of Hitler...was the destruction of European Jewry.
After sharing this quotation with students, you might ask them to consider why it is important to make judgment and recognize that not all historical accounts are equally valid. This discussion might lead into a brainstorming session about the strategies historians use to distinguish between conflicting versions of the same historical event.
3. Should genocide denial be illegal? Where is the line between protecting free speech and banning genocide denial? What is the role of government in curtailing genocide denial?
- When speaking in support for the United Nations resolution condemning Holocaust denial, United States Ambassador Alejandro D. Wolff said, "Some will cloak their hatred and hidden agenda by invoking the right to free speech and academic freedom. There is a categorical difference between free speech and speech which willfully and maliciously ignores recognized historical facts in order to advance an ulterior agenda." This quotation contains provocative ideas that can be unpacked by students. First, you might ask them to rewrite the quotation in their own words. Like Ambassador Wolff, many people consider Holocaust denial to be a form of hate speech, and, as a result, think it should be illegal. For example, Brigitte Zypries, Germany's justice minister, argues, "There are limits to freedom of expression. It must not be possible in Europe to consider the Holocaust a myth and say that six million Jews were never killed." Recent efforts to criminalize Holocaust denial raise serious questions for any liberal democracy about free speech and the limits of historical debate. To what extent can and should societies use law to combat denial? Can forbidding genocide denial be justified in the context of freedom of speech and anti-discrimination laws? Where is the line between freedom of speech and outlawing hate speech? Should genocide denial be against the law? What are the costs and benefits associated with making genocide denial an illegal act? These questions might be addressed through a barometer activity . To prepare for this activity, you might have students read the suggested articles by Timothy Garton Ash and Dan Bilesfsky, which provide different perspectives on banning Holocaust denial.
- The internet allows genocide deniers to spread misinformation to a global audience. What responsibility, if any, do search engines have to filter websites that disseminate harmful lies about genocide? If you were an executive at a search engine, how might you respond to someone who asked you to remove genocide denier websites from your search engine? Ultimately, who do you think has a responsibility to challenge genocide deniers?
- Consider these two events:
- In the fall of 2000, the House Foreign Relations Committee approved a resolution acknowledging the Armenian Genocide and sent it to the full House for a vote. The State Department and the Clinton Administration prevented the resolution from coming to a vote in the face of threatened military and economic retaliation from the Turkish government, and this was repeated in the administration of George W. Bush.
- In 1994, while hundreds of thousands of people were being slaughtered in Rwanda, the US government, under the leadership of President Clinton, refused to use the label "genocide" to describe these mass murders. In 2004, President Bill Clinton apologized to the people of Rwanda for his failure to "fully appreciate the depth and speed [of] this unimaginable terror." In her book, The Problem from Hell, genocide scholar Samantha Power suggests that Clinton, in addition to other world leaders, were reluctant to use the word "genocide" when describing events in Rwanda because then they would be compelled to take action in accordance with the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.
In these examples, was the decision to formally recognize the genocide a moral or a political decision? Should it be a moral or political decision? Does it make a difference if you are talking about a past genocide or an ongoing genocide? Is deciding not to formally recognize genocide a form of genocide denial? Why or why not?
Confronting Genocide Denial: Related News Articles
"A blanket ban on Holocaust denial would be a serious mistake"
Timothy Garton Ash, The Guardian, January 18, 2007
Columnist Timothy Garton Ash argues that Holocaust denials should be combated in schools, not through banning free speech. Following his editorial are reader comments. To help students appreciate different perspectives on the matter of criminalizing genocide denial, you might want to excerpt sections of Ash's article along with several comments from readers who agree and disagree with his opinion. BBC Europe editor Mark Mardell also writes about Germany's proposed law to ban Holocaust denial in Europe in his "Europe diary: Denying war crimes", where you can read background information on this issue and then scroll down for readers' comments.
"Germans push Europe on Holocaust"
Dan Bilefsky, New York Times, January 14, 2007
This short article describes Germany's rationale for proposing that the European Union should ban Holocaust denial.
"UK Holocaust survey causes concern"
Jeremy Last, European Jewish Press January 27, 2007
This article describes a survey "illustrating British attitudes to the Holocaust has shown that nearly a third of UK youngsters are not sure if the Holocaust was a myth."
"United Nations Condemns Denial of the Holocaust"
Judy Aita, United States Department of State International Information Programs, January 26, 2007
This article discusses the UN's resolution condemning Holocaust denial in the context of the gathering of Holocaust deniers that took place in Iran in December 2006, thereby illuminating the politics of genocide denial.
"Iran defends Holocaust conference"
BBC News, December 11, 2006
This article not only describes the "Holocaust conference" in Iran, but it also provides audio and video footage of conference participants.
Confronting Genocide Denial: Facing History Resources
Lesson plans and activities
The Armenian Genocide: Denial, Free Speech, and Hate Speech
Explores the long history of the denial of the Armenian Genocide, and asks students to consider the whether such denials can be considered hate speech.
Evaluating Internet Resources
This activity helps students utilize resources available on the internet, while also helping to improve their ability to assess the validity of Internet resources.
The Search for the Evidence of the Holocaust
Martin Gilbert, professor of Holocaust studies at the University of London, describes the various forms of written and oral evidence that historians can use in studying the Holocaust. This lecture is part of the Elements of Time series.
Crimes Against Humanity and Civilization: The Genocide of the Armenians, chapter 6, including the following readings:
- Rewriting History
- Remembrance and Denial
- Denial, Free Speech and Hate Speech
Holocaust and Human Behavior, Chapter 10, including the following readings:
- Denial and the Holocaust
- The First Amendment and Denial
- The Politics of Denial
Confronting Genocide Denial: Additional Web Resources
A website produced by students at Boston Latin School who take a year-long Facing History course. Examples of readings and lesson ideas on this site include "Thinking about History," "Thinking about Revisionism" and "Denying the Holocaust."
The Nizkor Project
Provides information to refute and "monitor the falsehoods, half-truths, and misinformation...that dishonestly and/or flagrantly reject established historical fact about the Nazi Holocaust,"
Holocaust Denial: An Online Guide to Exposing and Combating Anti-Semitic Propaganda
A guide written by the Anti-Defamation League
Combating Holocaust Denial: Holocaust Deniers and Public Misinformation
The United States Holocaust Museum and Memorial's reading on holocaust denial. Additional resources from the museum
Revisiting the Horrors of the Holocaust: Nazi Archive Made Public
CBS News produced a 60 minutes segment about the opening of a Nazi archive which holds millions of documents detailing the horrors of the Holocaust. This page includes a link to the clip where three survivors discuss what the opening of this archive means to them. After watching this clip, students might discuss Elie Wiesel's statement that genocide denial is a "double killing." This clip also raises questions about the motivations of genocide deniers. Would genocide deniers still exist even if ten million documents were found detailing Nazi atrocities? What is the relationship between genocide deniers and historical evidence?
Armenian genocide denial
Twelve Ways To Deny A Genocide
Frequently Asked Questions about the Armenian Genocide
Published by The Armenian National Institute, these faq's can be used to counter denials of this tragic event.
Letter in response to Turkey's denial of the Armenian Genocide
Written by genocide scholars
Media literacy, evaluating sources and propaganda
Critically Analyzing Information Sources
Cornell University Library provides suggested questions students might ask when evaluating a range of sources.
The Library of Congress Learning Page
Includes resources to help students analyze primary sources as well as a suggested lesson plan for teachers.
National Archives document analytis worksheets
Helps students evaluate and interpret written documents, photographs, cartoons, posters, maps, artifacts, film and sound recordings.
Critical evaluation information
Kathy Schrock's Guide for Educators provides many resources related to critically evaluating internet sources.