Ben Charlson: Rewriting history

Monday, March 12, 2018 - 6:01pm

Now approaching nearly 80 years since the Holocaust, this time period remains a sensitive and poignant topic for millions of Jews, Slavs and other marginalized groups who were subject to the repressive, violent racial ideology of the Nazis.

As Holocaust remembrance and education have risen to the forefront of conversation about genocide prevention, so too has historiography and discussion on how the writing and telling of Holocaust histories has shaped perceptions about a genocide that may have taken over 20 million lives.

On Feb. 1, the conversation over Holocaust historiography was once again sparked after the Polish Senate passed a new bill prohibiting any citizens from blaming the country for any crimes they committed during the Holocaust.

This bill came as a shock to countries like the United States and Israel, two strong allies of Poland, and whose relations to the country may be weakened as a result of this controversial legislation. However, more important than the geopolitical implications of this bill, is the basis on which the law rests — the idea that history can be manipulated and rewritten for political purposes, even in the presence of explicit factual evidence. In the era of “fake news,” this bill sets a dangerous new precedent in the realm of Holocaust denial and should be condemned by the United States, among other world powers, before its toxic ideology can spread.

Holocaust denial has been present since the end of World War II and the beginning of the liberation of concentration camps by the Allies. The earliest instance of Holocaust denial took place by the Nazi perpetrators themselves, who destroyed murder evidence at the extermination camps of Belzec and Treblinka during the early 1940s in an attempt to rewrite history before the ink had even dried.

Later, various theories of Holocaust denial spread throughout the United States beginning in the 1950s and continuing through the 21st century, largely centered on the idea that six million Jews were not killed in the Holocaust, but rather that they emigrated to the United States in a Zionist conspiracy to incriminate the Nazis and Axis powers during World War II.

Unsurprisingly, these theories have been proven time and again to be false. Publicly taking a stand against this distortion of history, many countries have criminalized denial of the Holocaust, the first being Germany in 1985. This sparked an increase in Holocaust denial legislation — Israel criminalized Holocaust denial in 1986, the Czech Republic in 2001, Slovakia in 2001 and Romania in 2002, all culminating in a United Nations condemnation of Holocaust denial in 2007.

However, the effects of this toxic ideology still remain. To say Poland was not complicit in any acts of the Holocaust would be an outright lie — Polish police forces and individual Poles were indeed accomplices in the ghettoization and deportation of Jews to Nazi death camps throughout the duration of the Holocaust.

Now, the use of the phrase “Polish Death Camps” can result in three years in prison — the minimum sentence given to those “acting with an intent to destroy in full or in part, any ethnic, racial, political or religious group,” or in other words, someone attempting to commit the very genocide that the Polish government is trying to cover up.

Falsifying information through something as powerful as government legislation presents a danger to Holocaust education and the future of genocide prevention across the world. As a history major, I have learned that what may be considered “the truth” is often subjective. For every event, there will always be two sides of the story, and often the use of language and tone is enough to distinguish between two perspectives.

For example, the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict illustrates the controversial nature of “truth” from a historical perspective. In a debate that has become relevant to our own campus through the Central Student Government vote over divestment in Israel, both the Israeli and Palestinian sides see the other party as the aggressor in the two countries’ violent history. In this sense, both sides may be “true” depending on perspective.

But some facts are not up for interpretation.

The Holocaust is a historical truth (quotations omitted), and it should be regarded accordingly by all countries, especially in the public image. Though the United States has failed to pass its own legislation regarding the criminalization of Holocaust denial, likely due to the vocal contingent of First Amendment supporters across the country, this is an opportunity for the Trump administration to take a stand.

After a recent meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu regarding the creation of a new U.S Embassy in Jerusalem, President Trump announced, “Israel is very special to me.” For a president who has received nothing but criticism and backlash for his own distortion of facts, this would be an ideal opportunity to speak on the dangers of rewriting history while at the same time support his ally, Israel.

But the war against Holocaust denial cannot only be waged from above. It starts in places like elementary schools and continues through high school and college. While historians guide the discussion, students are the malleable generation whose ideology can still be molded by factual education.

Ultimately, a collective effort emphasizing the crucial role of historiography in Holocaust education will be integral in preventing the spread of these toxic ideas into our own politics and society, in turn protecting future generations from becoming victims of another genocide.

Ben Charlson can be reached at