Holocaust Denial in Germany

The phenomenon of Holocaust denial comes in several forms, the most primitive of which is outright denial, insistence that it never happened.

Despite the overwhelming factual evidence of the Holocaust — from vast official archives to survivor testimonies — the approach has had its demonic appeal. It is not so hard to understand. In places where educational levels are low or non-existent, and anti-Semitism entrenched, a receptive mass audience awaits the purveyor of denial.

In recent years, conspiracy theory has entered the scene to provide the willing disbeliever with elaborate explanations which enable him to disengage from the obvious, central facts while focusing on hidden plots and esoteric details. Thus, in the Moslem world, the September 11 attack was immediately recast as an American or Israeli cabal to vilify the Moslem world. The Holocaust, similarly, has been made out to be a Zionist hoax.

In a farewell ceremony just this Sunday, outgoing Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad congratulated himself on publicizing Holocaust denial as a major achievement of his presidency. (Though the comment appeared on the Fars news site, the Holocaust-related part of his speech was not translated into English.)

Indeed, there is no escaping that his malicious ravings found an audience. For example, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood leader, Mohammed Mahdi Akef, has denounced what he called “the myth of the Holocaust” in defending Ahmadinejad against his Western antagonists.

But for many, absolute refusal to accept the facts is nothing short of preposterous, and the outright denier is liable to be dismissed as the vile crackpot he is. A more sophisticated approach is needed. That comes in the form of acknowledgment that the Holocaust did occur — but that it was greatly exaggerated. Statistics about the Six Million are disputed, documentation manipulated or falsified, and all in a pose of serious, academic pursuit of historical truth. Sometimes the denial arguments are so sophisticated that it takes a professional historian to unravel the deceptions and prove the actual anti-Semitic intent.

In recent days, yet another approach to Holocaust denial has come to public attention in Germany. The magazine Der Landser, published by Bauer Media Group, the country’s biggest publisher, regularly presents material glorifying members of the SS and other war criminals.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center has protested to the German authorities, citing the law against denying or glorifying the Holocaust, and officials say they are taking the matter “very seriously,” and are investigating.

But legal experts are skeptical about whether the publishers can be prosecuted. That’s because the magazine does not deny the crimes of the Holocaust as such. Instead, it sanitizes the perpetrators by depicting them as ordinary soldiers, no different than their counterparts in the American or British armies during World War II (albeit on different sides).

In one recent issue, members of the Waffen-SS were presented as just a bunch of good-natured guys welcomed by the Greek villagers who were happy to have them as guests in their country.

“We conquered them, and they’re still a friendly folk,” remarked one member of the squad, a unit that served as Hitler’s personal bodyguard.

Moreover, the magazine bears a disclaimer that the stories include fictional elements; it does not indulge in overt anti-Semitism, and the word “Nazi” is carefully avoided.

The companies that print and distribute Der Landser say they will not desist, noting that previous legal challenges had failed to find them guilty of violating German law. Like many other Holocaust deniers, they deny that they are deniers and claim the right of free speech.

Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Wiesenthal Center succinctly puts Der Landser in context, writing that it “offers succor to neo-Nazis, skinheads, and jihadists avoiding the uncomfortable truth that there was no honor or nobility ever attached to the Third Reich other than the simple fact that Nazism and her supporters were the apex of evil and the enemies of mankind.”

Some argue that attempts to shut down Der Landser by legal means will fail, as they have in the past. On the other hand, if legal action should succeed, it could have a counterproductive effect, driving it underground and perhaps even helping it to gain more readers. They say it would be more useful to promote public knowledge of the issues raised by the magazine’s version of history.

But it’s not an either/or proposition. A court case will automatically ventilate the issues; and if the Bauer Media Group’s lawyers are able to fend off the charges of Holocaust denial, then a vigorous campaign to shame the company and inform people of the truth can be pursued.