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Germany steps up the fight against Holocaust denial

August 1, 2020

The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) wants to strengthen the memory of the Holocaust as the number of survivors dwindles. Germany has a strong interest in combating historical revisionism.

Yellow star on sleeve with "not vaccinated" written on it
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/B. Roessler

A man saying the Holocaust never happened, then attempting to shoot his way into a synagogue is a clear case of Holocaust denial and anti-Jewish hate. But not every case of anti-Semitism is as obvious as the attack in the eastern German city of Halle in October 2019.Most offenders usually don't deny the Holocaust outright, they relativize it — by questioning the number of Jews murdered during the Second World War, 6 million, or by denying its historical significance.

This latter form of anti-Semitism is on the rise.

Read more: Anti-semitism on the rise in Germany despite remembrance culture

To the point - Remembering Auschwitz: Could It Happen Again?

The co-founder of the climate change protest movement Extinction Rebellion, offered a famous example last November. Roger Hallam told German weekly Die Zeit that the Holocaust was "just another f***kery in human history."  Hallam, who later apologized, was heavily criticized for those comments.

There are other ways of trivializing the Holocaust: Blaming the Jews themselves for the genocide, or questioning the true death toll, or diverting blame from Germany for planning and carrying out of the mass murder.

Read more: Auschwitz's harrowing history

Michaela Küchler
Michaela Küchler is currently IHRA chairwomanImage: picture-alliance/dpa/J. Kalaene

Fighting denial

For more than 20 years, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) has been fighting these kinds of false claims, establishing a standard definition of Holocaust denial. Germany took over the chairmanship of the 31-country organization this year, focussing its ambition on combating lies, trivialization, and twisting facts both off- and online. A task force of about a dozen global experts has been established for this purpose.

"International exchange and cooperation is essential," IHRA chairwoman Michaela Küchler told DW.

Germany needed decades to begin coming to terms with its culpability. A reckoning began in earnest thanks in part to the 1978 US miniseries "Holocaust," starring Meryl Streep, which told the story of a Jewish family trying to survive. When that drama was broadcast in Germany, Holocaust remembrance became part of Germans' "collective memory," a term coined by cultural anthropologist Aleida Assmann.

Read more:'Auschwitz did not begin in Auschwitz'

Associated with collective memory is the recognition that the Holocaust is "unprecedented" and marked a "collapse of civilization" — both terms that frame the industrial slaughter of millions of people as something humanity had never before witnessed.

"The urge to annihilate went as far as to eliminate the perpetrators' sense of self-preservation," Jan Gerber, a research assistant at the Dubnow Institute, told DW. In other words, Nazi Germany always found trains available to transport Jews to Auschwitz, even when there weren't enough to ship supplies to the war front.

Demonstrator in Cologne dressed as concentration camp inmate
Some anti-coronavirus demonstrators drew parallels to Nazi slogans in their protest against the waring of facemasksImage: picture-alliance/dpa/D. Young

Yellow stars as coronavirus protest

The unprecedented aspect of the Holocaust stands at the center of Germany's remembrance culture, a culture that some demonstrators, ostensibly protesting about government measures to restrict the coronavirus, have called into question. Thousands of people have taken to the streets across Germanyto protest government measures, among them some keen to trivialize the Holocaust.

They wore self-made yellow stars, like the ones the Nazis forced Jews to wear, except instead of a patch marked "Jew," it was marked with "unvaccinated" in protest of an anticipated, legal requirement for everybody to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

Munich banned wearing such stars during pandemic protests.

"This is a stunning relativization of the Holocaust, harmful and disrespectful to Holocaust victims, survivors and their descendants," Germany's Anti-Semitism Commissioner Felix Klein told DW.

"The suffering of survivors still among us was ridiculed. That is unacceptable," Küchler said.

Achille Mbembe
Historian Achnille Mbembe from Cameroon is one of the most prominent post colonialistsImage: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Bockwoldt

Debating postcolonial theory

But such responses are not unanimous when the Holocaust is not so clearly trivialized. This was the case with the bitter debate over postcolonial theory, which dealt with the history of exploitation and conquest, especially from political theorist Achille Mbembe.

He described Israel's occupation of Palestinian territory as worse than Apartheid in South Africa, driven by a "fanatical policy of destruction" turning Palestinian life into a "heap of rubble." Israeli actions amounted to "ethnic cleansing," he said. In another text, he said Israel "assumes the place of the murderers."

Such theories, critics say, show a blind spot for anti-Semitism and view it as no more than a subset of racism. Mbembe himself rejects accusations of playing down the Holocaust.His supporters say he has been unjustly vilified.

Where denial begins

When does Holocaust denial begin? Are accusations of denial used to suppress opinion? How much comparison can be drawn to an unparalleled crime? Aleida Assmann was herself accused of anti-Semitism when she came to Mbembe's defense.

She told DW that people need comparisons to be able to understand an event. "If you now assume that anyone who draws comparisons also wants to relativize, you have joined the club of censorship, which limits freedom of expression and, above all, freedom of thought," she said. "This makes any debate over this crime superficial and empty."

Klein, though often publicly critical of Mbembe, agrees in part. "It's certainly no relativization of the Holocaust if you also want to bring other crimes more clearly into focus. That can also evoke empathy for the exclusionary experiences of genocides through to today," he said.

Aleida Assmann
Author Aleida Assmann has been researching Germany's 'memory culture' for many yearsImage: picture-alliance/dpa

First among equals

The problem is not comparisons, said Gerber, but making all things equal. "The specifics of the Holocaust is no longer recognized," he said. "The Holocaust is basically considered one crime among many."

Gerber also argues that the Holocaust has started to drift from the center of Germans' collective memory, and that postcolonial reasoning has become a bigger threat to understanding the unprecedented scale of the Holocaust than attacks coming from the far right.

Assmann, a major contributor to the understanding of remembrance culture, disagrees. She said Holocaust remembrance is strongly anchored at both the institutional and legal levels, which no comparison can budge. Mbembe's critics, she said, are simply using the accusation of Holocaust denial as a "rhetorical prop" while the real threat still comes from the far-right.

Battle lines have been drawn: Klein was called on to resign, while Assmann has been painted by some as a Holocaust denier. Meanwhile, 75 years after the end of the Second World War, the memory of the Holocaust is losing its first-hand witnesses.

The IHRA taskforce under its German leadership is searching for new ideas to fight Holocaust denial, and they're looking for inspiration in museums and on the internet. By the end of 2020 they aim to have developed concrete proposals for further action.