Imagine that a company or some other kind of organization with a history of believing that the world is flat appoints a new CEO who is more open to alternative beliefs about the shape of the world. “The world is not flat,” he says. But he doesn’t then say: “In fact, the world is a globe with a circumference of 24,901 miles.” He says: “I don’t know whether it is a globe. Maybe it is. Or maybe it is curved. Maybe it is jagged, like one of its many mountain ranges. Maybe it dips, like a crater. Maybe it is a series of steps hurtling through the cosmos. I am not qualified to judge.”
Would you say that this person has come to hold the mainstream view on the shape of the world? Of course not—especially since, in this case, there isn’t a “mainstream view,” there’s a fact. The world is a globe with a circumference of 24,901 miles. Beyond rounding up to 25,000, you really don’t get to deviate from this belief and not be thought completely insane.
Newly elected Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is in town for the United Nations General Assembly, and is making a splash for doing much better than his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. To call Ahmadinejad a Holocaust denier is to do him a disservice. Holocaust denial was his greatest accomplishment: Calling the Holocaust a “fairy tale,” he told Iran’s state-run Fars news agency that denying it “was a taboo topic that no one in the West allowed to be heard.” Making it acceptable, he added, “Broke the spine of the Western capitalist regime.”
Rouhani condemned Ahmadinejad at the time, and this week, has, it's been reported, moved toward acknowledging the Holocaust. This has prompted much praise. “The Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, has put an end to eight years of Holocaust denial,” reported The Guardian. “Rouhani appears to acknowledge Holocaust,” went part of the New York Daily News headline.
It is worth looking in full at the quote he gave CNN, which is what all of this is based on:
I’ve said before that I am not a historian and that when it comes to speaking of the dimensions of the Holocaust, it is the historians that should reflect on it. But in general I can tell you that any crime that happens in history against humanity, including the crime that Nazis committed towards the Jews as well as non-Jews is reprehensible and condemnable. Whatever criminality they committed against the Jews, we condemn, the taking of human life is contemptible, it makes no difference whether that life is Jewish life, Christian or Muslim, for us it is the same, but taking the human life is something our religion rejects but this doesn’t mean that on the other hand you can say Nazis committed crime against a group now therefore, they must usurp the land of another group and occupy it. This too is an act that should be condemned. There should be an even-handed discussion.
(The semi-official Fars disputed this translation, saying that Rouhani did not use the word “Holocaust.” But I don’t know that this discrepancy is germane, except insofar as it is evidence that Fars’ Revolutionary Guard backers want to make sure it is not reported that the Iranian president used the word “Holocaust.” If you acknowledge something and then proceed to question what it really was, then that is not acknowledging it.)
This is “better” than Ahmadinejad. But let’s be clear. This is not Holocaust acknowledgment. It is Holocaust denial. The Holocaust is a specific set of historically verifiable—indeed, historically verified—events. It involved the Nazi murder of somewhere between 5.5 million and 6 million Jews, because they were Jews, as part of an effort whose eventual goal was to exterminate all of Europe’s Jews. Much of it took place in camps organized explicitly to kill people on an industrial scale; at the extreme end, Auschwitz could incinerate almost 5,000 corpses per day. To say that it remains a question for historians is dishonest. To speak of it as continuous with the “crime” the Nazis committed toward non-Jews is disingenuous, and suggests a desire to rob the Holocaust of its central feature, which was its mission, increasingly accepted and then finally codified in January 1942, to kill all of Europe’s Jews.
“His comment, ‘Let the historians decide’—the historians have decided,” said Deborah Lipstadt, an Emory professor and Holocaust expert. “There’s been a consensus. No respectable historian raises any objections. Does he say that about World War Two? About the Battle of the Bulge?”
Lipstadt, who successfully defended herself from a libel suit in Britain after proving that she had been correct in calling historian David Irving a Holocaust denier, described two types of denial in a brief phone interview today. “I've often talked about hardcore denial and softcore denial,” she said. “Hardcore denial is what David Irving said—there were no gas chambers, there was no plan to kill the Jews.” She continued: “What you have now is softcore denial, which is, ‘I’m going to let the historians decide.’” She also pointed to his “false parallelism” between what happened to European Jews and what happened (and is happening) to Palestinians as more of this: “You can think they're completely wrong and unjustified,” she said, describing Israeli policies toward Palestinians. “You can talk about suffering and discrimination. But genocide?”
Although it is not as bad as straight saying nothing really happened, it is still extremely worrisome, she added: “I find softcore denial much more insidious and invidious than hardcore denial, because it’s kind of subtle. He’s getting all these kudos for not denying the Holocaust."
Rouhani is the president of the country whose main, stated foe is also the only country that identifies as Jewish. Maybe Rouhani does say the same things about the Battle of the Bulge and other historic events—that he can’t really speak with detail and anyway we should let the historians decide first—in which case we would be right to question his judgment and basic sanity. But if, as I suspect, he wouldn’t say the same thing about the Battle of the Bulge, then it is fair to infer that his refusal to acknowledge a central Jewish tragedy suggests a broader aversion to Jews. And if he does not really believe this but feels he needs to say it for the sake of his constituents back home, well, that is arguably an even bigger problem!
The Holocaust is a thing that happened—just like Barack Obama getting re-elected as president last year, the Baltimore Ravens winning the Super Bowl earlier this year, and me eating chicken fingers for lunch a couple hours ago are things that happened. This is only hard if you want it to be. Has it ever occurred to people that if Rouhani wanted to acknowledge the Holocaust, he would just, you know, acknowledge the Holocaust?