Academic journal article ETC.: A Review of General Semantics

General Semantics and Holocaust Denial

Academic journal article ETC.: A Review of General Semantics

General Semantics and Holocaust Denial

Article excerpt


CERTAIN GROUPS claim the Holocaust never happened. Almost from the beginning of the discovery of this widespread destruction of European Jewry before and during World War II, Nazi apologists, anti-Semites, and self-styled "skeptics" have tried to discredit the accepted history of this period. Deborah Lipstadt of Emory University has termed this phenomenon "Holocaust denial." While originally an obscure movement, since the rise of the internet in the mid-1990s, Holocaust denial has grown significantly, and new adherents continue to set up web sites dedicated to "debunking the myth."

The upside to the growing awareness of Holocaust denial is that organizations and individuals have taken up the task of preserving the basic truths of the Holocaust, while exposing this period to continuing historiographical scrutiny, thus promoting a better and more complete understanding of the Holocaust.

Do the arguments of the Holocaust deniers have any credibility? Here is an opportunity for us to use the principles of general semantics to put such claims to the test.

The challenges that the deniers apply to the generally accepted history vary widely in size and scope. For instance, they dispute the death toll at Auschwitz-Birkenau, resurrect early allegations about the Holocaust and Nazi atrocities that are now known to be untrue, e.g., soap production from human fat, and they claim that the Nuremberg trials were a sham and a perversion of justice. Furthermore, they pore over documents from the Nazi era, and, disregarding any document that would further incriminate the Nazis, they find what might be an exculpatory document and seize on it as if its existence destroys the entire house of cards. The so-called Luther memorandum is a prime example here.

Looking at such Holocaust-denial tactics through the lens of general semantics, we can find at least three main shortcomings:

1. Over- and Under-Defining the Holocaust. The use of "the Holocaust" as an over/under-defined term, allowing for the "disproof" of victim numbers and atrocity stories.

2. Extending the Definition over Time. The inability (or refusal) of the deniers to accept multiple time-based definitions of the Holocaust, as seen in their reading of the Luther memo.

3. The Two-Valued Orientation. The overwhelming use of the two-valued orientation in presenting the so-called revisionist version of the Holocaust, for example, in their allegations about Nuremberg.

A strong working definition of the Holocaust with consideration of its development over time, along with the exposure of two-valued orientations wherever they are used, can enable us to see the faulty logic on which Holocaust denial is built.

1. Over- and Under-Defining the Holocaust

In the 1941 Introduction of the second edition of Science and Sanity, Alfred Korzybski introduces the idea of over/under-definition as follows: "[M]ost terms are 'over/under-defined.' They are over-defined (over-limited) by intension, or verbal definition, because of our belief in the definition; and are hopelessly under-defined by extension or facts, when generalizations become merely hypothetical" (p.xxxvii, emphasis in original). We can see how over/under-definition applies to common understanding of the Holocaust using a simple approach. Were we to approach a random person on the street who happened not to have any specific knowledge of Holocaust history, and were we to ask that person to define "the Holocaust," that person might reply, "Hitler gassed six million Jews to death." This is a massive oversimplification of the events that encompassed the Holocaust. Furthermore, it is factually incorrect.

First, in dealing with the normative history, according to Holocaust historian Raul Hilberg, roughly half of all Jewish deaths in the Holocaust took place entirely outside the concentration camps. Even all of the deaths that did take place in the camps were not the result of the use of poison gas. …

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