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The Ironic Virtue of Holocaust Denial


I just wrote a column about Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. I originally planned the piece to be about Holocaust denial, but I changed in midstream. But there’s one point I thought I’d throw out there.

I read a little bit of Paul Tillich for my book. Interesting stuff, but not really my bag (existential Christian theology tends not to have enough car chases to hold my attention). But he makes one argument that’s stuck with me, even if I don’t totally buy it. He argues that skepticism about God’s existence creates the belief in God. In The Protestant Era, he writes, “There is faith in every serious doubt; namely, the faith in the truth as such. . . . So the paradox got hold of me that he who seriously denies God, affirms Him.” Peter Berkowitz makes what seems to me a similar argument about Nietzsche. Even as Nietzsche tried to smash concepts of truth, what emerges from the process are external standards of hierarchy and value. Or something like that.

Anyway, even if I have all that wrong, it seems like something similar is at work with Holocaust denial. The need to deny the Holocaust establishes the importance of the Holocaust. Ahmadinejad and his ilk need to call it a myth because if such a horrror actually happened the moral consequences would be too enormous to ignore. Why else say it’s a myth? Denying the historical reality of the Holocaust concedes the moral arguments which flow from it. In much the same way hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue, Holocaust denial is the homage evil men pay to absolute standards of good and evil.

The deniers in the Arab world often tacitly acknowledge this by adding the contradictory argument that if it happened then Israel should set up shop in Austria or Germany.

Of course, all of this doesn’t take place in a vacuum. There are other arguments for why Israel should be where it is and there are other reasons why people deny the Holocaust. But a more logically consistent anti-Israel stance would simply accept that the Holocaust happened and, well, so what? But they understand they can’t make that argument, at least not on the world stage. We all know that for internal consumption, the Nazis still get a lot of applause in the Middle East.

Anyway, just something to noodle.


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