on the holocaust and self-deception.

The BBC flew a drone over the Auschwitz concentration camp, and the footage is, as you might expect, profoundly haunting.

Of all the conspiracy theorists, Holocaust deniers piss me off the most, because they blithely try to minimize or outright eradicate from history the industrialized extermination of eleven million people–men, women, children, infants, the infirm. And I’ve often asked myself how people can completely close their minds to reality and cold, hard evidence. I mean, we have footage of the camps. We have survivor testimonies and admissions of guilt from the perpetrators. We have overwhelming physical evidence: hundreds of thousands of clothing items, eyeglasses, dentures, suitcases, just from Auschwitz alone. We have dozens of tons of human hair. And we have official records, because Germans are fastidious record keepers. They tallied all the victims, and they catalogued everything they kept, down to the last gold filling. We have order forms and receipts for the many tons of Zyklon B pesticide they used. Those who survived the war admitted to the scope of the atrocities and their part in them after the war. So there’s a mountain of solid historical evidence that a.) the Holocaust really happened, and b.) Nazi Germany really did kill millions of people in purpose-built extermination camps.

So how can an otherwise functional intellect close itself to all this irrefutable evidence and claim that the Holocaust was either a hoax or nowhere near as large in scope as claimed?

The answer, of course, lies in the nearly unlimited human capacity for self-deception. We are really, really good at both rationalizing our own preferences, and “explaining away” evidence that points to something we don’t want to be true. Denying Auschwitz is a piece of cake for someone with conviction when you consider that people can deny, on the spot, the reality of things that happen right then and there. That’s how you can have 9/11 truthers. That’s how you can have people claiming that the Charlie Hebdo attacks were a false flag operation perpetrated by a sinister race of “magical Jews” who can shape-shift. That’s why it doesn’t even matter if police officers wear body cameras–because you can videotape the most justified shooting of an armed perpetrator, and there will still be people who will watch the video and claim that the police officer executed someone in cold blood for no reason.

It’s because when you are invested in an ideology, you have to make reality subordinate to that ideology. And when the physical evidence points to the possibility that your ideology doesn’t match reality, then you have to deny that reality, or face the possibility that you ideology is wrong. It’s much easier to dismiss historical records or claim that a video was doctored than to examine your beliefs and concede that everything you believe is wrong.

But reality doesn’t go away when you deny it. Those buildings and crematoriums at Auschwitz still stand, and every time someone denies what they were used for, they deny the humanity of all the people who died there. And just as importantly, they deny the human ability to commit such atrocities, which in turn paves the way for a repeat of those atrocities. To borrow my friend Kathy’s words, there’s a world of difference between “Never Again” and “It can’t happen here.”

Because if a society of civilized, educated people, the nation of Goethe and Schiller and Beethoven, can build and staff a place like Auschwitz and systematically murder millions of people in just a few years–if orderly, fastidious Germans can go from bookkeeping to putting on a uniform and herding women and children into gas chambers at gunpoint because they perceive the approval of society and enjoy the power they are given–then it can happen anywhere, at any time.

Auschwitz happened. Auschwitz is real. And we must constantly be on guard to make sure it doesn’t happen again. We must make sure others don’t fall into the same cycle of denial and self-justifiying savagery, but it’s equally important–and maybe even more so–that we don’t fall into it ourselves willingly. And every time someone blithely suggests that we just wipe out all the members of a religion or ethnic group for the actions of a few of its members, I know that there will always be people willing to put on a uniform and man a guard tower if they perceive the approval of their peers, and if they convince themselves they’re acting for the good of their own people. And I will not stand for it or tolerate it, not now, not ever. Because if you don’t speak up when it isn’t dangerous, you may not get a chance to do so later, and your silence when you could have spoken up is a form of consent.

37 thoughts on “on the holocaust and self-deception.

  1. Very well spoken. I thought the same thing about the Eric Garner homicide–there’s video of a guy choking another man to death with no provocation and a half-dozen cops standing around. Body cameras for cops may statistically improve brutality claims (according to preliminary eviidence), but the deeper problem that people will excuse what they want to excuse, regardless of evidence, remains.

    • “–there’s video of a guy choking another man to death”

      Thank you for your illustration, inadvertent as it may have been.

    • Ryan:

      In case you missed Tam’s point…

      …you’re doing it, too.

      He didn’t choke him to death. The physical exertion from the fight caused heart failure.

      It also wasn’t “unprovoked “. Now, I will absolutely take part in a discussion of whether the police response to that provocation was measured and justifiable, but it most certainly was not “unprovoked”.

      So. .

      …yeah. Sort of proving Markos point that we don’t even realize when we’re doing it…

      • Reality is complicated. We usually have to simplify it to understand it at all. The danger is that we sometimes go beyond simplifying to substituting an ideological narrative, which then becomes impervious to the underlying reality.

      • It also wasn’t “unprovoked “.

        Some men think a woman with her face uncovered in public is sufficient “provocation” to beat her.

        Some men think a man selling “loosies” in public is sufficient “provocation” to arrest him (and too bad for him if he dies in the process).

        And some men think that *neither* of those actions is a “provocation” and that those who act on such “provocation” have committed a crime.

        And what only *seems* like a non-sequitur: the fish don’t notice the water.

      • Thanks, Goober (and Tam), I figured that was what she meant. By “without provocation” I meant that he did not escalate the situation in any way that would justify the use of deadly force; the police introduced that. It just wasn’t a careful word choice on my part. It sounds like you share my concern about the appropriateness of the police response, so I’d just say that I think a lot of police incidents we’re hearing about would be non-events if the police (particularly in training and policy–in a crisis you sink to the level of your training) were serious about de-escalating confrontations with measured responses. Especially considering the offense is “selling single cigarettes”–I would by no measure let the people off the hook who think that requires the involvement of (armed!) law enforcement, and unfortunately those people are getting even more of a pass that the officer who choked him.

        • ” Especially considering the offense is “selling single cigarettes””

          The reason he was tackled was for resisting arrest, not for selling single cigarettes. The reason he was being arrested was for selling single cigarettes. If you are doing something that has made the po-po decide that it’s time for you to go to jail, you’re not going to talk your way out of it on the side of the road. You’re certainly not going to wrassle your way out of it.

          • Like I said in my correction to Goober, my primary concern with this particular incident is the unnecessary escalation to deadly force (provoke was a poor word choice), and my broader concern is that 1) there is enforcement by armed state agents 2) making pretextual arrests 3) over a law against selling loose cigarettes (and god knows how many other laws of similar grave import–maybe in five years this story could be for selling 32oz fountain drinks). The only reason I even mentioned this on this particular post was that there is a camera that records these events clearly but you and I are viewing the meaning of those images through different value judgments–you seem to see “he should have just done what the cops said even if the ‘arrest’ is bullshit”, and I see “an alarming and unaccountable exercise of state power over a pretextual arrest” (and I read your blog, so I’m kind of surprised at that difference, and worried that I am missing the /sarcasm tag or something), and then we are drawing pretty disparate conclusions about the incident as a result. This disagreement by people who are similar enough to both be reading and commenting on Marko’s blog (and I, yours) underlines in my opinion why police body camera video records won’t be the “Magic Eternal Factual Record Totem” that they’re being sold as (to bring this full circle to my original comment), since despite the same visual record it sounds like we each think we’re the clear-eyed realist while the other is deceiving themselves–“can’t you see he was resisting arrest? etc.” vs. “these guys used deadly force on a pretext etc.”. And I’m sure that you are just as convinced as I am that each other’s view is what leads people down the slippery road into such reality-hostile ideas as 9/11 Truthers, Holocaust deniers, or (perhaps mildly less delusional) support of “common sense gun control”. I’m not sure I have any conclusions or grand theories of how to reconcile our viewpoints, though, but I posted because it seemed an appropriate elaboration to Marko’s essay. (And if he’s tired of us playing on his lawn, I’ll cheerfully GTFO.)

          • ““he should have just done what the cops said even if the ‘arrest’ is bullshit”, and I see “an alarming and unaccountable exercise of state power over a pretextual arrest””

            Those are not mutually-contradictory opinions.

  2. People want to believe it was beings of unsurpassed evil who did those things. They want to think it’s some twisted psyche that visits horrific deeds upon humanity. Because then it means they can’t do it. They’re too good.

    Fact is, the Holocaust and every other horrific evil in history was carried out by people who had families, hopes, dreams, and so on. The guys shoving people from boxcars into “showers” were probably thinking of how they’d advance up the ladder and maybe buy a new Mercedes after the war. The people hacking others to death with machetes in Africa were probably, earlier that day, thinking how they might like to take their wives or families out for an enjoyable weekend sometime soon.

    There’s not one evil act that can’t be done by somebody who is punching a time clock, living in the suburbs, and just doing whatever it is a normal person does when off work.

    But we convince ourselves otherwise because then we might be forced to confront what’s lurking off in the dark corners of our own psyches. The little beastly things that, if given the appropriate opening, will jump up and grab the levers and switches of control and change us into walking monsters. People don’t want to believe they’re capable of that. But we all are.

  3. “Of all the conspiracy theorists, Holocaust deniers piss me off the most, because they blithely try to minimize or outright eradicate from history the industrialized extermination of six million people–men, women, children, infants, the infirm.”

    This is the part that pisses me off: ELEVEN million people. SIX million were Jews. The rest were gypsies, homosexuals, etc. It bothers me when those other 5-6 million victims are forgotten because they weren’t Jewish.

      • I don’t think you did it deliberately, Marko (you’re far from alone), but the fact that 5-6 million people get UNCONSCIOUSLY left out of the Holocaust just strikes me as WEIRD.

        • You’re right, it is weird. I can’t remember the last time I heard the correct 11 million statistic, although I definitely knew the death camps were aimed at the other groups you mentioned.

  4. The amazing thing to me is that is was so recently done. My parents generation was the one that dealt with that era. And now, we travel to Europe, we travel to Japan, we see the battlegrounds, we see the camps that remain and it makes me wonder how far away it really was. Which is to say not very far away at all.

    Ask a recent high school grad when WW2 took place, and you’ll likely get a blank stare in return. Much of what was destroyed has been rebuilt, and Germans and Japanese are our allies and trading partners, we can travel freely throughout Europe, and it was such a short time ago.

    When we were in high school we watched a documentary called “Night and Fog” which was frightening and graphic. How any rational person could see such a thing and not be moved is beyond me. And Marko, I think that expression “night and fog” in German has a special meaning for this very subject when discussing the war, and how it is discussed.

    Anyway, an excellent and thoughtful post Marko.

  5. I am not in any way trying to distract from the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

    But… We have an entire NATION of holocaust deniers in Japan. Their GOVERNMENT denies the deliberate murder of 20 MILLION Chinese, pretends that the war with the USA was the result of an oil embargo and to this day continues to deny the FACT that thousands of Korean and Chinese women were forced into sexual slavery for their troops.

    Holocaust denial is pretty disgusting. But for the most part it’s a bunch of fringe loonies.

    When the entire GOVERNMENT of Japan, our supposed “ally” is denying the horror that my father, great-grandfather, grand-uncle and other relatives lived through, it should be FAR MORE disturbing. And we hear not a word about it from ANYONE except the Chinese, who are promptly ignored by everyone.

    My father’s earliest memory as a child was being dragged from his home and marched at bayonet-point to wave a flag for the conquering Japanese in Shanghai. We were not at war with the Japanese at the time, mind you.

    I could recount countless atrocities witnessed by by grand-uncle, who was a prisoner at Bagio concentration camp for the entire war, as a civilian. (And Bagio was one of the better camps).

    What we did to the Germans after ww2 was VASTLY more real and vastly more serious than what we did to the Japanese, thanks to Macarthur. No Japanese citizens were forces to unearth the bodies of American flyers who were vivisected in Japanese medical experiements, just for instance.

    The Difference is telling. In Germany we have one of the most accepting, open and liberal societies in the world. In Japan, we have one of the most openly racist and unapologetic.

    In the three years I spent in Germany, the most insulting thing you could do to a German civilian was insinuate that he was a Nazi. There is a deep national shame over what happened. Not in Japan. Not even a little bit.

    Hiroshima? FU. Ask the Germans about Dresden. You can speak to Germany 1000 times more elequently than I can Marko, But seriously, could we mention Japan now and then?

    • The bit about the oil embargo is correct. FDR shut off our oil sales to the Japanese. We supplied virtually all of their oil, that ran their country, and military forces. He was pissed off that the Japanese were impacting our trade with the Chinese, due to their war/invasion. He was stupid enough to think that would force the Japanese to stop. He was warned otherwise by our military. His ego trumped all outside influence.
      The Japanese had 18 months stock of oil on hand when the embargo was initiated. They had the choice of total collapse or war, from their perspective. They saw no other options. They attacked the US (and British forces), as they saw us as the only real force that could keep them from obtaining the oil and other commodities they would require.
      The Japanese expected that eventually they would end up at war with us, over their expansion into the Pacific area, but that was not planned to happen for some years later. We forced them to jump the gun much sooner than they wanted. MacArthur was nearly as big an ass as FDR was. Both were totally incompetent, but very good at politics.

  6. I think everything you said is right… but I think there’s one thing more to it, and it’s an important one thing.

    How many Holocaust deniers (or those of us who believe the truth) have visited the camps? How many have read the records with their own eyes?

    Everything we “know” is preceded by a long chain of trust. We trust the historians, the editors, the scientific publications. We trust our school system that taught us these things. We trust that people making documentaries are using real footage and pictures and not a movie set.

    There are good reasons for that trust. Occam’s razor among them, when the volume of evidence is so high as in this case that fabricating would require more competence and collaboration than nearly any successful human endeavour.

    But think about the cracks in the chain. We should know our grade school telling of Columbus discovering the earth is round is a myth, and that Galileo wasn’t sent to jail for his science. We know that a large majority of medical and social science studies can’t be replicated, and that for years eugenicist scientists were “proving” the superiority of various races. We know that governments lie… constantly.

    It takes elements of truth and believability to make a lie like this stick in the first place. But more importantly, it means that you can’t change someone’s mind on that lie by appealing to the very authorities they find untrustworthy.

    No anti-gunner is going to find the NRA’s research on guns compelling, no climate change skeptic is going to be believe a scientific report commissioned by the EPA. No one whose worldview is based on the West’s Zionist Imperialism and racism toward Muslims is going to believe our historians’ accounts and pictures of the holocaust.

    Self-image and the refusal to be that wrong prevent people from seeing the facts — but which authority they trust determines which statements they even give a chance to be factual in the first place.

  7. To imply and/or infer that there is any connection between the (attempted) extermination of people for what they are, as opposed to the desire to eliminate from our midst people for what they do and/or believe is specious, wrong, and dangerous.

    • I guarantee you that most Nazis and their SS enforcers were motivated by the desire to eliminate people from their midst for what they did and/or believed, and that those people were an imminent danger to society. Everyone’s a good guy in their own mind.

      But I know, it’s different for YOU. You really are a good guy, and that Muslim thing is totally different besides.

      Also: God, think about what you just said: “…eliminate people for what they do and/or believe.” You think it’s acceptable to eliminate people for what they believe. All it takes is some promised social status and the perceived approval of society, and you’re wearing snazzy black boots and making sure the raghead Untermenschen don’t get away with their shit.

      Go away, and don’t ever bother me again. You’re not welcome.

  8. Well said. If I may, there is on-line a WW II-era essay, “Who Goes Nazi?”* It nauseates me that ANYBODY, especially an American, could. But I know damned well that there are plenty of my fellow citizens who would toss babies into ovens, who would be nazis under the right circumstances. Is it possible to prevent such a thing? Is it possible to stamp out the patterns of thought that make a person into a monster?

    And the worst thought of all: is it in ME?


    (*) http://harpers.org/archive/1941/08/who-goes-nazi/

  9. Back when I first read ‘The Man-Kzin War’, the stories were good but the bits of current news Niven put at the top of some of them were scary as hell. Borrowing two:
    “One of Japan’s ubiquitous television crews took to the streets last week to find out what people thought about the forthcoming fiftieth anniversary of Pearl Harbor…. Such has been the rewriting of history in Japan that many teenagers had not even heard of Pearl Harbor and several expressed amazement Japan had fought a war with the United States.”
    “One of the largest of all British local council libraries, at Brent, lately destroyed approximately 66,000 of its 100,000 books. The explanation which the council gave for this destruction was that the offending books were “books on war, history books and other books irrelevant to the community.”

    This is people intentionally getting rid of inconvenient knowledge and history. Makes you wonder why the people behind this really want that knowledge gone. It does take it from self-deception to ‘taught lies’; if someone was deliberately kept from that knowledge all their school years, makes it harder for them to accept that the Official Version isn’t true.