Home > Uncategorized > Holocaust ignorance and denial open the gateway to authoritarianism – posted 4/13/2021

Holocaust ignorance and denial open the gateway to authoritarianism – posted 4/13/2021

April 8 was Holocaust Remembrance Day but we, as a society, seem to be doing a poor job remembering. Possibly readers saw the results of that survey that showed two-thirds of young Americans are unaware that six million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust. More than one in ten believed Jews caused the Holocaust.

The survey from the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany had other shocking findings. 12% of survey respondents did not recognize the term “holocaust”. Only 44% were familiar with Auschwitz. 36% believed two million or fewer Jews were killed in the Holocaust.

And I think this ignorance is not limited to young Americans. According to Pew Research Center data from 2020, older adults display only slightly higher levels of Holocaust knowledge.

Internationally, the news is also bad. Surveys in France, Austria and Canada also showed major gaps in awareness of historical facts and knowledge of the Holocaust.

This ignorance is not just some abstract evil. Fascism and authoritarianism thrive on destruction of historical memory. After 1945, the news of Hitler’s gas chambers and his extermination camps created a massive obstacle in the path of fascist resurrection. The horrors were so awful that no one in their right mind would go down that road and want such hideous results again.

The fascist project requires burying the past, obscuring and dimming memory. Academic holocaust deniers had very limited success as few paid attention. The passage of time and alt-right propaganda on the internet are what currently assist Holocaust denial. The decline of historical awareness about the Holocaust has meant less neo-fascist compulsion to explain away the unparalleled 1940’s atrocities. The Holocaust is more likely to be dismissed as ancient history rather than something that must be refuted.

Now 76 years later, with forgetting gaining ground on remembering, the question arises: how many people would recognize fascism in their own society if they lack knowledge of its historical legacy? Considering the spread of authoritarian regimes around the world, the question has international relevance.

Fascists and authoritarians may call themselves something else inoffensive and euphemistic. They may weaken and decimate human rights without waving swastika flags.

For countries transforming from democracy to authoritarianism, there is a process of change that occurs. Nazi Germany did not begin with the industrialization of mass death. That only came after years of dehumanization and demonization of the Jews.

In 1920, in its program, the German Nazi Party proposed revoking citizenship rights of Jews. They also proposed removal of Jews from positions in public employment and deportation of those Jews who had entered Germany after the outbreak of World War One.

Hitler unsuccessfully tried to overthrow the German government in 1923. His putsch, carried out in Munich, failed. After a trial for treason, he spent a year in jail where he began work on Mein Kampf.

The fortunes of Hitler and the Nazis dramatically changed with the coming of the Great Depression. The Weimar government failed to respond to the massive unemployment, homelessness, and starvation in Germany. Speaking to the misery, Hitler became known all over the country because of his mass rallies. Radio, then a new medium, greatly contributed to his rise. Hitler’s speeches were broadcast live to dozens of countries.

For Hitler, the Jews were Germany’s principal adversary. He falsely claimed Germany was defeated in World War One because of a secret coalition between Jews and leftists. The stab-in-the-back legend was promoted by the German military high command that wanted to shift blame away from themselves. Hitler and the Nazis carried it farther with the wilder lie that there was an international Jewish conspiracy that intended to exterminate the Aryan race.

After he became chancellor in 1933, the Nazi Party organized a boycott of Jewish stores and Jewish judges were dragged out of court. Hitler demanded the removal of all Jewish civil servants and disbarment of all Jewish lawyers. Two years later, he followed with the drafting of a law depriving Jews of citizenship and another law barring intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews.

All these steps happened a few years before Kristallnacht and years more before the implementation of the Final Solution. Each fascist step prepared the way for the next.

America now has its own authoritarianism problem. In the balance between democracy and authoritarianism, former President Trump tipped the scales toward authoritarianism. He had been shattering democratic norms for four years as he abused public power for private gain. The January 6 insurrection was the culmination of his anti-democratic efforts to overturn a fair election and install himself as dictator.

The authoritarian narrative is wrapped in delusion. Republicans were allegedly the victim of voter fraud. Trump had the election stolen from him by that fraud. Because of the Big Lie of voter fraud, we need new laws to restrict voting to protect the integrity of elections. So we need new laws to protect against something that never happened.

In this narrative, undocumented immigrants, Black Lives Matter and Antifa play the adversary role the Jews played in Germany. Hate is also stirred up against Asian-Americans and easy-to-pick-on minorities like transgender youth.

Just as happened in Germany, our authoritarians see the past as a burden that must be shed. Instead of historical honesty, we must have patriotic education with no 1619 project. Genocide against Native Americans and slavery and its legacy must be minimized and airbrushed away. Republicans prohibit the study of critical race theory without understanding what it is. They want to protect students from learning about the ways racism persists in America.

Fortunately, we do not have to presently deal with any genocidal regime like the Nazis. In saying this, I do not belittle Trump’s crimes like family separation and putting children in cages. It is not however in the league of the Nazis. Still, we have learned the fragility of our democracy.

I believe Holocaust education should be mandated in all states as a part of civics education. A number of states including New Hampshire have done that. These states require all school districts to teach their students about the Holocaust and genocide. That can only help the cause of democracy.

It remains to be seen whether Trump’s loss last year will be like the Hitler putsch, a temporary reversal on the road to authoritarianism.


Categories: Uncategorized
  1. April 14, 2021 at 3:41 am

    I wrote a post some time ago about fading memories regarding the Holocaust. I agree that Holocaust education should be a part of curriculums. Actually, I think that a number of genocides (throwing the Rwandan genocide, which also seems to be lacking in knowledge) should be taught in school.

    • April 14, 2021 at 1:10 pm

      I agree with you. The knowledge of other genocides is no doubt equally bad.

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