I have always been the type of person willing to explore unusual and counter-intuitive ideas – if something is truly wrong, we should be able to prove it through calm and thoughtful analysis. When I first started wondering what was going on with holocaust denial, I attempted to explore it in conventional ways, finding and watching or reading debates between deniers and defenders of the mainstream viewpoint.
I found this unsatisfactory after a while for a few reasons. The first is that I didn’t find any of the deniers’ arguments interesting or convincing. Their usual pattern is to find a fact in the mainstream narrative that they think they can dispute, lock onto it, and insist that their supposed disproving of one fact destroys the whole narrative. That’s how it works in American criminal law, but not in history. To disprove a narrative, one fact isn’t enough; you need to come up with a new narrative that fits the known facts better than the one you’re trying to replace. None of them come within a mile of that – try getting them to explain where all of those Jews went.
When I thought about it further, I realized that there was a bigger reason. Why does the mainstream attempt to fight denial by seeking out articulate deniers to have debates with? The reason is, their model of how the world works is very conventional – they think that denial ideas originate with a caste of smart deniers who persuaded a bunch of followers through logical and articulate arguments. I don’t believe that’s the case here. Popular history spreads through memes, short and simple statements and images, not from some caste of smart historians, either conventional or renegade, logically explaining things and persuading people. This is the mechanism that matters, not long essays and lectures.
Memeification Of History
Let’s try and put together a short and simple statement that encompasses the popular understanding of the Holocaust. My best attempt is:
There you go, one sentence, one line, covering pretty much everything that has ever been said in popular culture about the Holocaust. What more could any comedian, musician, speechwriter, etc want? There’s only one problem – it’s not technically true.
It’s not that it’s false, though, more oversimplified to the point of being misleading. Auschwitz was indeed a camp where mass murder was carried out, but only about 865,000 Jews were killed there with Zyklon B, plus an additional 95,000 worked to death. The total estimated Jewish deaths during the war is 6 million, but Auschwitz is only a portion of them. The “Operation Reinhard” camps, Bełżec, Sobibór and Treblinka, killed another 1.5 million with exhaust fumes from stationary diesel engines. The Einsatzgruppen killed another 1.3 million by shooting them and throwing them into ditches. You’ll note that this does not add up to 6 million. The war was a big and complex thing, and lots of people were killed in a variety of ways, not all precisely recorded. That number is based on estimates of how many Jews were in the areas of interest before versus after the war, and we know that not every death was precisely accounted for.
I fear the above paragraph might have bored half of however many readers I have to death. This section is supposed to be about the memeification of history – how complex events tend to get boiled down into simple, memorable, easily shared statements, where being strictly true is not a priority. The more you study history, the more you realize that everything is weird and complex. Studying mass communication and persuasion, on the other hand, tells you that you have to simplify everything to the maximum extent, sacrificing truth if needed, to get people to remember things.
Indeed, much of our history is like this. You might be surprised to learn how much complexity and weirdness there is to common subjects we thought we knew, from the American Revolution, Civil War, Cold War, and everything in between. We mostly get by just fine knowing only the most basic outlines of these events. So really, what’s the harm?
The trouble with a memeified version of history that’s not quite exactly true is that it makes it easy to create counter-memes that attack the holes. You may have seen some of these arguments around: “They couldn’t have killed 6 million at Auschwitz because XYZ” – well yeah, nobody actually said they did. “I just doubt the numbers, it might not have been that big, why can’t you question it” – The real numbers actually are a little fuzzy and you are allowed to ask questions about them, but you have to bring actual research and engage with the existing data, not just make random guesses.
Those ideas spread not because they are good, but because they are good memes that dunk on the original meme. All memes, whether we think they’re good or bad, spread a lot faster than any reality.
What’s To Be Done?
If you’ve read this far and think there might be some merit to this line of thought, the next question is clearly, what should we do about this? If you really understand what I’m saying, you’ll know that education is hopeless, since lecturing people on big complex subjects doesn’t work at large scales. I actually think all of this is a consequence of trying to spread knowledge about the Holocaust too far.
This feeds into some of my other thoughts – it isn’t helpful for Jews, especially American Jews, to base our identities so heavily on the Holocaust. It feeds into the toxic obsession with victimization permeating so many facets of our society. While we should not forget the suffering of our ancestors, we should also move past it and focus on all of the good thing that we have done and the success that we have had in this great land we call America.