Fred Schlomka on Holocaust Remembrance Day

I’m taking the liberty of copying and pasting this (public) Facebook post by Fred Schlomka, the founder and director of Green Olive Tours in Israel/Palestine. I’ve gone on maybe five or six of Green Olive’s tours over the past few years, and have made lifelong friends on them while learning things I would never otherwise have figured out about Israel and Palestine. I’m profoundly grateful to Schlomka as well as his staff and guides for enriching the experiences I’ve had there, and admire his willingness to speak his mind on topics that so often elicit silence and evasion. 

Here is his comment on Holocaust Remembrance Day:

Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day. My father, Michael Schlomka, was an early survivor, and escaped from a Nazi camp in 1936, eventually making his way to Mandate Palestine. He had been tortured and abused by the German regime, contributing to an early death in the 1950s when I was just a child.

Remembering him is painful.

Michael Schlomka was a socialist and an activist in the political opposition against the Nazis in Germany, which was why he was among the first to be taken. May his memory be a blessing.

My father was was shocked after his arrival in Palestine, at the excesses of the terrorist pre-state Jewish militias. His imagined Zionist-socialist utopia melted in front of him, even as it was emerging into a state, strident and authoritarian from the beginning.

I can only imagine what he might have thought of today’s scenario in Israel/Palestine – the religious court system imposed on all Jews – the colonisation of the West Bank – the encapsulation and blockade of Gaza – the dehumanisation of human life – the wanton killing of Arabs – the degeneration of Zionism into a twisted effigy of the founders’ dreams.

What have we become? Have we learned nothing from the Holocaust? Does ‘Never Again’ really mean that in order to be strong we have to degrade all non-Jews? The soul of Jewish life in Israel is slipping away and being replaced by an ugly and deformed parody of the Zionist Dream.

Worst of all, the nation can’t see it. The Jewish people in Israel are so bedazzled by their ‘Start-up Nation’ status and Neo-riche lifestyles, that they have come to accept the daily atrocities as somehow a normal and necessary part of our development as a state – Much like the European immigrants to the colonial regimes of the Americas accepted the genocide of the native population.

I cried last night after watching ‘Shindlers List’. Not for the 6 million who perished. Their tragedy is over. Enough tears have been shed in their memory. My tears were for us, the descendants of the survivors, who have normalised the barbaric attitudes and behaviours that are defining the state of Israel.

Make no mistake my fellow Jews. We are all responsible. Turn your backs if you like. Put your head in the sand. Justify all you want. But when the tally is taken at the end of the road, we will all be found wanting, and you may be asked by your children or grandchildren, – “What did you do?”. How will you answer?

Dedicated to the memory of the six million. May they rest in peace.

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9 thoughts on “Fred Schlomka on Holocaust Remembrance Day

  1. A day after I posted this, I got this comment:

    卐 Aryan Kameraden
    reichrevision.wordpress.comx

    Without the holohoax lie, the jews have nothing to hide behind. It will be very interesting to see how this will unfold…
    http://www.renegadetribune.com/jews-lies-tell-holohoax/

    Well. On the one hand, I’m not about to approve a vacuous comment by a fake-named Nazi commentator: I hate to sound like Mark Zuckerberg, but I’m afraid that comments of the preceding sort violate PoT’s terms of service.

    On the other hand, I don’t believe in deleting comments unless there’s some pressing need to do so, and there isn’t in this case. In fact, there’s some value to reading this one, since it links back to a Nazi publication I’d never heard of, and there’s no better way to understand how Nazis think than to read them.

    What you’ll encounter there is a brand of journalism influenced by what I think of as a Procrustean-Ptolemaic sort of coherentism: assume that the world conforms to some set of propositions, P (e.g., race science); then cherry pick evidence that appears to confirm the claims of P; then add epicycle and after epicycle to plug the inevitable gaps in the P-World View; then insist that the method you follow is the method that everyone follows and can’t help following, except that your particular application of it, unlike theirs, proceeds from The One True Truth about the World, namely P.

    I wish I knew a good epistemological discussion of this pattern of thought. Offhand, the only one that comes to mind is Jonathan Adler’s Belief’s Own Ethics, but Adler only discusses Procrustean-Ptolemaic coherentism in passing, and not, to my mind, very persuasively.

    We can, Adler argues, ignore denials of “standardly reported” versions of “well established” background beliefs, whether or not we are ourselves in possession of the evidence to rebut them. “[T]he thundering testimony of absent evidence, which we all share, constitutes more than adequate refutation” (p. 108). In other words, faced with a Holocaust denier, Adler thinks that you’re to appeal to the fact that someone else has established the truth of the Holocaust, whether or not you have access to that knowledge (or know anything, or justifiably believe anything, about the reliability of their discovery procedures); their having (what everyone takes to be) knowledge becomes your having knowledge, simply by believing it, even if you have no idea what you’re talking about.

    There’s more to it than that, but at the end of the day, I don’t see how Adler distinguishes his procedure from dogmatism or question-begging. Take a look for yourself, if you’re so inclined.

    Adler relies heavily in his discussion on “what we all conventionally believe” about the Holocaust. This article is relevant to the quoted idea in more ways than one (ht: Carmi Lecker):

    Thirty-one percent of Americans, and 41 percent of millennials, believe that two million or fewer Jews were killed in the Holocaust; the actual number is around six million. Forty-one percent of Americans, and 66 percent of millennials, cannot say what Auschwitz was. And 52 percent of Americans wrongly think Hitler came to power through force.

    Can “we all” conventionally believe something if “we” cease to believe it?

    In any case, a question: Hitler didn’t come to power through force? Taken literally, it’s a ridiculous claim, almost as ridiculous as Holocaust denial itself, and proof that ignorance isn’t any more edifying when it comes from liberals than when it comes from Nazis.

    Isn’t it obvious that Hitler came to power by force in Czechoslovakia, Poland, Norway, Belgium, Holland, Denmark, and France? If so, where is the wrongness in thinking that he “came to power by force”?

    Though the annexation of Austria is often described as having been voluntarily accepted by a plebiscite, the plebiscite was preceded by a Nazi campaign of assassination and terrorism, by a Nazi ultimatum enforced by a military invasion, and by mass imprisonment (by the Nazis) of 70,000 Austrian political dissidents. How is that not “coming to power through force”?

    If the claim is that Hitler didn’t come to power through force in Germany–in the sense of not having assumed the Chancellorship of Germany in January 1933 by using force in that very act–that’s true, but it’s not, alas, what the article actually says. And pedantic as it sounds, exact wording matters here. “Hitler didn’t come to power by force” is not even close to the same thing as saying “Hitler’s assuming the Chancellorship was a matter of peaceful, behind-the-scenes wheeling and dealing.”

    To belabor the obvious: prior to Hitler’s becoming Chancellor in 1933, the Nazis were essentially a terrorist organization. If we take the period 1924-1933 as the period of the Nazis’ campaign to assume power, it’s an undeniable fact that they did so through a systematic campaign of violence that began with the Beer Hall Putsch (1923), continued through Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor (1933), and ended with the military defeat of the regime itself (1945). The Nazis’ use of force throughout 1923-1932 was instrumental to their assuming power in 1933.

    Yes, it’s true that Hitler assumed the Chancellorship peacefully, by wrangling it out of Papen and Hindenberg in the wake of the 1932 German elections. But there was more to Hitler’s coming to power than the Nazis’ performance in that election, or of the political maneuvering involved in his assuming the Chancellorship. Bottom line: plenty of force was involved in Hitler’s coming to power.

    There’s something exasperating about being on the receiving end of liberal sanctimoniousness about historical knowledge that’s this far off the mark. But there’s also something about it that explains why fascist-style Holocaust denial finds traction. If liberals feel free to play fast and loose with the facts, they don’t exactly have standing to call bullshit on the fascist version of the same thing. Check out Renegade Tribune for the results.

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    • I think the most you’ve shown here is that “Hitler came to power through force” is by itself ambiguous and that on certain interpretations it isn’t true. I don’t think that amounts to much, though, since it seems pretty clear that in the relevant context “Hitler came to power by force” means that Hitler acquired his position of authority in Germany only by using violence to depose his predecessors in a coup or something near enough — i.e. that Hitler didn’t become Chancellor (and Führer) through a series of government acts recognized as legitimate by that government, but only by forcibly dissolving existing laws, policies, and institutions. That’s false, as you know; Hitler was no Lenin or even a Louis Napoleon. No doubt the vagueness and ambiguity of the expression diminishes the value of any survey research that makes use of it, but I’m having a hard time seeing how your interpretation of “came to power through force” is the natural one; in any case, I can’t see that the claims here — that Hitler didn’t come to power through force, but that many Americans falsely believe that he did — are so “far off the mark” as to merit your suggestion of moral or journalistic equivalence between The New York Times and the Renegade Tribune (if that is what it appears to be).

      I haven’t read Adler, and I’m not going to, so I’ll just take your report of his views for granted. I’m then left wondering why you would select such an obviously weak and poorly framed account of the epistemology of testimony and epistemic authority when less apparently absurd alternatives are available to justify dismissing holocaust deniers by appeal to epistemic authority. If you’re objecting to reliance on standard opinions, why isn’t something like the following enough for our purposes? 1. The beliefs of a large majority of qualified experts in a field have defeasible epistemic authority for those of us who are non-experts; 2. If someone has epistemic authority for me in a domain, then their believing P, where P is in the relevant domain, gives me a defeasible but otherwise sufficient reason to believe P. 3. The majority of qualified historians — qualification here measured by credentialed academic training and good standing in the field — believe that the Holocaust occurred. 4. Therefore I have a defeasible but otherwise sufficient reason to believe that the Holocaust occurred. The belief is defeasible, of course, so it’s possible not only that it’s false but that some evidence could be produced sufficient to show that it’s false. So perhaps some holocaust deniers could show that it really was a hoax, after all. But even without considering any of their arguments myself, why should I not regard myself and others like me as suitably justified in believing the majority of qualified experts? I cannot show that the holocaust occurred by reasoning on the basis of evidence independent of appeals to the work of historians; but why should I have to? Granted that in some cases an issue might become sufficiently controversial in general public discourse that I really need to take some time to familiarize myself with the details (though even that will typically involve lots of reliance on epistemic authority and expert testimony), why suppose that reliance on epistemic authority is always or usually insufficient for justified belief? And why suppose it in the case of holocaust deniers?

      Perhaps I’m misunderstanding you and you don’t mean to be rejecting all coherentist or quasi-coherentist appeals to expert testimony (since, after all, such appeals can be integrated more or less happily into a broadly foundationalist epistemology — though not, I think, into all of its varieties). But in either case I’m puzzled about why exactly you discuss Adler at all, because if Adler isn’t supposed to be a representative of some broader approach, then I don’t know why you discuss his view at all; sure, it sounds worthy of criticism, but how do those criticisms fit into the larger topic here? Adler’s is the only discussion that comes to mind of what you call ‘Procrustean-Ptolemaic’ coherentism — but is his view supposed to be an unsuccessful critique of it, or an instance of it (or both?)? And if you’re looking for a critique of it, why focus on Adler? The flaws of the approach are fairly clear in your own description of it, and it doesn’t seem like we need anything more sophisticated than an intro-level ‘critical thinking’ textbook to diagnose them. I, at least, wouldn’t want to use any such book that didn’t discuss in one way or another the problems with ignoring relevant evidence or embracing explanatory hypotheses solely on the grounds that they support some antecedently held proposition and without consideration of competing hypotheses.

      So I’m confused about just what you’re up to here.

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      • On the first issue:

        If “Hitler came to power through force” is ambiguous, I’d expect someone describing the “wrongness” of people’s views on the subject to mention that fact, especially if there are some views on which “Hitler came to power through force” is true. But the article doesn’t do that. It describes as “wrong” any view that says that Hitler came to power through force.

        I don’t think that amounts to much, though, since it seems pretty clear that in the relevant context “Hitler came to power by force” means that Hitler acquired his position of authority in Germany only by using violence to depose his predecessors in a coup or something near enough — i.e. that Hitler didn’t become Chancellor (and Führer) through a series of government acts recognized as legitimate by that government, but only by forcibly dissolving existing laws, policies, and institutions. That’s false, as you know; Hitler was no Lenin or even a Louis Napoleon.

        Why does that seem “pretty clear”? I don’t think it’s clear at all. In other words, why is it clear that “came to power by force” means that he acquired his position of authority in Germany “only by using violence to depose his predecessors in a coup or something near enough”? Even if he didn’t use force in that precise way, it would follow that he didn’t use force. And if he did use force in some other way, he’d still have “come to power through force.”

        First of all, as you implicitly recognize, “Hitler came to power” is itself highly ambiguous–ambiguous enough that it’s not appropriate to discuss people’s ignorance of history while failing to note the ambiguity. It’s ambiguous as between:

        (1) Late 1932, when he won the election that entitled him to take power.
        (2) January 1933, when he became Chancellor.
        (3) March 1933, the so-called “last election.”
        (4) August 1934, when he became Reich Chancellor.

        “Hitler came to power” is often identified with (2), but it’s not obvious it should be. When Hitler became Chancellor, he was still subordinate to the President, and at the time, the Nazis controlled only three of eleven ministries. You could, going by (2), as legitimately say that Hitler and the Nazis came to power as say that Hindenburg and the conservatives did. The clearer case is (4) not (2), but it’s obvious (I hope) that the move from (2) to (4) was achieved “through force.”

        But the moves to (1) and (2) were achieved “through force” as well. You’ve often accused me of going on too long to make a point, so I’ll make this point briefly, and add material to substantiate it, if necessary. The “material” comes from William Shirer’s Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, S. William Halperin’s Germany Tried Democracy, and most recently, Benjamin Hett Carter’s The Death of Democracy: Hitler’s Rise to Power and the Downfall of the Weimar Republic. The first two books are old classics, but the third makes the point more clearly and explicitly than the other two. That said, they all agree on the following:

        Hitler commanded the SA. The SA was a paramilitary/terrorist organization. Hitler used the SA to foment enough violence to create a state of emergency, threatened to intensify that violence to the point of a civil war (thereby actually creating a state of emergency), then threatened the government with impeachment or prosecution if they were to violate the Constitution and/or declare a state of emergency. Having won the 1932 elections and become Chancellor by that means (i.e., by the use of force), Hitler then used force to consolidate his powers as Chancellor throughout 1933 (by force), destroyed the SA (by force), and then used the opportunity of Hindenburg’s death to continue that process (by force). Besides creating a state of emergency, the SA’s use of violence served both to neutralize and discredit the left (meaning the Communists and Social Democrats). It neutralized them by killing some, and intimidating others. It discredited them by blaming them for violence that the SA had itself instigated. The use of force was crucial at every stage of the process, whether prior to 1932 or after. There is no credible interpretation of the Nazis’ rise to power that denies any of the sentences in this paragraph.

        If Donald Trump had won the 2016 election by spending 2016 deploying a paramilitary organization like the SA (with millions of armed members), periodically terrorizing Democratic voting districts (killing a couple dozen here and there), and credibly threatening to impeach or prosecute those officials who mobilized against his SA, no one would have trouble inferring that he’d come to power “through force,” even if he won the election by otherwise legal means.

        If someone uses force, and the force is both intended to secure an outcome, and does in fact secure the outcome, and demonstrably does so because the agent’s intentions were realized, the outcome was produced “through force.” To accuse people of ignorance while ignoring the fact that the Nazis came to power “through force” in just that way really is on par with Holocaust denial. It ignores an obvious, crucial, relevant fact while accepting something close to the Nazis’ version of the relevant history. It was Hitler who insisted that the Nazis came to power by “legal” means, by which he meant, without reliance on force. He was lying, and the Times’s article accepts the lie at face value while accusing others of ignorance. I don’t see why that isn’t on par with Holocaust denial, except for the fact that it happens to have shown up in a respectable, mainstream publication. To discuss Hitler’s rise to power while ignoring the role of the SA is like talking about the Nazis’ prosecution of the war while denying the Holocaust. It’s sad that we live in a milieu in which the latter is considered a terrible offense, but the former isn’t. They both are.

        I’m happy to belabor this at greater length if you like.

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        • A much belated reply, but for what it’s worth, I didn’t mean to suggest that you go on too long to make points or that you should be brief. I am just amused by your expansive conception of brevity. If I had my way, I’d make sure you had enough free time to write more.

          As for Hitler coming to power by force, you won’t get any objections from me to the claim that surveys and popular journalism ought to be less vague and imprecise. My initial thought was just that, without qualification, “Hitler came to power by force” treats Hitler’s acquisition of power on the model of, say, Lenin’s. But the claim is sufficiently ambiguous that we can’t really draw any reliable conclusions from survey responses that deny it.

          As for teaching history, I am in the odd position of teaching history to high schoolers and not really knowing a whole lot about how history is taught in this country. Especially because I’ve never taught modern European history before and have not read much about it aside from intellectual history since I was an undergraduate, I mostly have to follow the textbook, occasionally supplemented with other fairly basic sources. I approach teaching history on the basis of the book in broadly the same way I approach teaching every other subject: part of what I am trying to do is to lead students to acquire a certain amount of information that will enable them to make sense of what they read and hear elsewhere, much of what I am trying to do is to help students acquire and develop broad intellectual skills, particularly in reading, interpreting, and synthesizing, and part of what I am trying to do is to help students work toward understanding of the subject-matter, in this case the general political, economic, social, and cultural developments in Europe and its environs from the Renaissance to 1919. I don’t think I’ve failed spectacularly in this endeavor, but I certainly haven’t done it nearly so well as it could be done, and only in part because idiosyncracies of our curriculum make it difficult to find enough time to do it all well. A stronger command of the material and more experience teaching students at the high school level would make a big difference.

          That said, your description of how history is usually taught does not seem to apply very well to what I — mainly following a textbook — am at least trying to do. We didn’t cover WWII, but it was on their minds increasingly as we got closer, and no student who paid attention and remembers the gist of what we talked about will think of the Holocaust as a sui generis event that just happened because some Germans were especially evil. Our textbook — Understanding Western Society — does a reasonably good job documenting the emergence of racist and nationalist ideas, and it highlights the plight of Jews in Europe. It also didn’t hurt that one of our literary texts is The Merchant of Venice. Minimally, a student who doesn’t forget everything from my class will approach the Holocaust knowing that Jews had frequently been persecuted and treated as outsiders in most of Europe for many centuries before the Holocaust, that late 19th century Germany was actually one of the least difficult places to be Jewish, and that Nazi ideology did not come out of nowhere, but was one variation of widely held nationalist ideas that took support from purportedly scientific ideas about biological race that had also played a key role in justifying the exploitation and oppression of various non-European people in colonial contexts. At least I’d expect that most of my students would recognize those facts and readily appreciate their relevance to understanding the Holocaust.

          I don’t think I’ve done an especially good job with the historical part of my class this year, but what I’ve done seems to be more than what you’re describing as the common way of teaching history. But one could, at least in principle, do more, and do it better, than I’ve done. Is even the degree of contextualization that I managed significantly less than what you understand to be normal?

          When I think back to what I learned before high school — my high school education was not academically serious at all, particularly not in history — it more closely fits what you describe, but even then I’m not sure it’s very close. I certainly read Anne Frank and I was certainly taught that the Holocaust was a moral horror perpetrated by unspeakably evil people, and though I don’t remember clearly enough to be willing to judge it very harshly, what I do remember leads me to think that we were misleadingly presented with the kind of cartoon villain version of the Nazis that one often gets in popular culture. But much of what I remember from history classes in middle school was about terrible things done to people by others who saw them as different and even inhuman — Columbus and Cortez, the Trail of Tears and the general phenomenon of U.S. treatment of natives, American slavery and Jim Crow. There was no shortage of moral condemnation there, but I definitely came away with the impression that it was far easier for people to do terrible things to each other than I would otherwise have thought possible, and though I don’t really remember the terms in which I thought about it at the time, I don’t think I saw the Holocaust as a sui generis event so much as yet another, if especially extreme, case of systematized human brutality to other human beings deemed less than fully human. I didn’t take away historical details, but I did take away that.

          I’m not simply assuming that my education was just what most Americans in decent schools got, and I’m not even questioning whether you’re right about this — your IR class, if nothing else, has given you a better opportunity to know how high school history is taught than I got teaching classics and philosophy — I’m just surprised that it’s really so and wondering to what extent it’s a product of what teachers are trying (or, perhaps, not trying) to do rather than just what actually ends up happening.

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  2. A comment I posted on Facebook, responding to the NYT article above:

    Irfan Khawaja Isn’t the Holocaust’s fading from memory just a consequence of history’s fading from memory? A hypothesis: you can’t expect anyone to understand the Holocaust if you try to teach it in abstraction from the broader history of the two World Wars. But it’s now become standard in K-12 education in the US to try to teach “the Holocaust” as though it was a sui generis event disconnected from the political context that preceded it. Maybe the Holocaust is fading from memory because basics like Verdun, the Somme, Versailles, the Weimar Constitution, etc. were never part of students’ memory in the first place, and there is no way to grasp what the Holocaust was unless you grasp what they were. If so, there’s no point wringing our hands at the loss of the Holocaust per se. The real underlying problem here (in the US) is the devaluation of world history, and its hostage-like status to local constituencies.

    The right hand column of Chart 1 in this paper tells the essential tale.

    https://www.nagb.gov/content/nagb/assets/documents/publications/reports-papers/assessment-design/world-history-assessment-issues.pdf

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    • I’m skeptical of this hypothesis. I’ve spent much of the past year trying to get 10th graders to care about European history from the Renaissance to WWI, and I don’t think I’ve been very successful. Certainly neither I nor any of their previous teachers have given them a knowledge of “basics like Verdun, the Somme, Versailles, the Weimar Constitution” (I haven’t given them that because I don’t teach that period; but they’ve covered the period in middle school history, and have clearly forgotten anything they learned about the Weimar Republic or German history prior to WWII). My students are not only without exception aware of the holocaust; it is one of a few historical events that I can rely on them to be interested in and to approach with moral seriousness. Hence when I can find a way to hook whatever I’m teaching up to Hitler, it makes them more interested, at least as far as I can assess interest by the number of questions and attentive faces. It’s safe to say that the average level of historical literacy and interest is higher in my school than in many others, but the point is that these students don’t currently have any discernible knowledge of the context of the holocaust or much discernible interest in history in general, and yet they certainly aren’t disposed to forget it or not care about it. On the contrary, when in 11th grade they cover the world wars in detail, I’m confident that most of them will be more interested than they usually are in history precisely because that material will be helping them to understand the holocaust and Nazism more generally.

      Just impressionistic anecdote, of course, but for what that’s worth, it leads me to doubt the hypothesis, at least if the hypothesis is supposed to explain why people’s memory of the holocaust is fading. Of course, if the hypothesis is just that people don’t have a satisfactory historical understanding of the holocaust because they haven’t been taught about it in a way that adequately situates it in its context, then it’s perfectly plausible, especially given the demanding conception of ‘understanding’ you’re working with (though here, too, my experience leads me to wonder whether they really haven’t been taught about it in this way or, instead, just didn’t care enough about history to learn it or retain what they learned long after the exam). But I take it that there’s quite a lot of room between lacking an adequate historical understanding of something and more or less forgetting about it. If people are really forgetting about it, then I don’t know that insufficiently contextual history teaching is to blame.

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      • There are probably lots of reasons for why students forget history, but one reason is that it’s taught in a way that fails to convey understanding. Yes, an unmotivated student will forget history however it’s taught, but a better student is apt to see a more specific problem with the way the Holocaust is taught–as part of a moral catechism, or worse, as political propaganda. Students are often taught the Holocaust as though it was a unique, sui generis exemplification of pure evil that happened more or less out of the blue: nothing preceded it, and nothing like it has ever taken place. It just happened to happen once upon a time in Germany, and that’s all there is to it. Moral of the story: we have to make sure it never happens again–not that anything like it has ever happened since.

        That’s an anti-historical way of teaching history. What it says, in effect, is that as far as the Holocaust is concerned, you need learn only one lesson: the Holocaust was perpetrated by Hitler and the Nazis against 6 million Jews (precisely 6 million; no more and no less), and was very, very evil. At best, students are induced to get a qualitative, phenomenological sense of what “very, very evil” means by reading say, Elie Wiesel’s Night or Anne Frank’s Diary, or by hearing from a local resident who survived the Holocaust. Most students do learn that one lesson. Often, it’s the only “historical” lesson they ever learn. But they learn it, not as history, but as morality. The implicit lesson is that a moral person dogmatically believes these things about the Holocaust as an article of faith. Being an article of faith, questions about it are best left unasked. Since one of the articles of faith is that the Holocaust was unprecedented, sui generis, and contextless, there seems something vaguely taboo about situating it in a prior historical context. And there seems something outright alarming about asking, “So why would the Germans and others have thought it plausible to do such a thing?”

        So set aside the sort of anti-intellectual student totally indifferent to history. My point is, the preceding dynamic sets up a kind of problematic tension even for the best students we get: it pits their desire for historical understanding against their sense of what morality requires of them. Morality, they’re led to believe, requires fideism. But historical understanding involves a desire to ask questions that seem taboo. Once you paint someone into a corner of that sort, you can’t expect them to want to study or remember history. You’ve set up the conditions that would induce them to flee the subject altogether.

        I teach a 300-level international relations course–have been since 2014–but I teach it historically rather than by the case study approach standard to standard-issue IR pedagogy. I start with World War I, work through World War II, then work through the Cold War, sometimes stopping with Vietnam, and sometimes stopping with the war on terrorism.

        Some anecdotal impressions:

        1. World War I is hard to teach because it seems senseless and lacks narrative structure.
        2. World War II is easier because it can more easily be given an overall narrative structure. Likewise Vietnam.
        3. The basic obstacle to teaching World War II is the need to demystify the Holocaust. Students have trouble integrating the Holocaust into “ordinary” military history, and a little bit of trouble escaping the imperative to moralize about it. But once you cross that particular pedagogical Rubicon, things “click” for them, and they finally “get” World War II in a way that they hadn’t.
        4. Twentieth century history “sticks” once you see how much of it relates to the aftermath of World Wars I and II. Otherwise, most of it seems like senseless chaos, and becomes hard to comprehend.

        Of course, none of this sticks unless you insist on its importance over and over until you’re blue in the face.

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  3. I haven’t read Adler, and I’m not going to, so I’ll just take your report of his views for granted. I’m then left wondering why you would select such an obviously weak and poorly framed account of the epistemology of testimony and epistemic authority when less apparently absurd alternatives are available to justify dismissing holocaust deniers by appeal to epistemic authority.

    You don’t have to be “left wondering.” I explained my reason for selecting Adler in the comment itself: I discussed it because I happened, offhand, to know it. I didn’t claim that it was a great example. I merely claimed that it was a clear and convenient one (for me). I selected it to demonstrate the weaknesses of a weak account, in the hopes of getting someone who knew the literature better to mention a better account. (By “weak account” I primarily meant: weak critique of Procrustean-Ptolemaic coherentism. Arguably, Adler’s view exemplifies P-P coherentism as well, but that wasn’t my point.) Procrustean-Ptolemaic coherentism was not intended to be representative of coherentism, but representative of pro-Nazi revisionist polemics.

    If you’re objecting to reliance on standard opinions, why isn’t something like the following enough for our purposes?

    If “our purpose” is to challenge pro-Nazi Holocaust denial, the method you adduce will get you nowhere: it pursues, and knocks down, a strawman.

    I said that there’s no better way to understand how Nazis think than to read them. The particular Nazi who wrote to PoT is a very, very unsophisticated specimen. The standard Nazi move is not to deny the existence of the Holocaust in the way he did, but to chip away at more ambiguous claims, and then, by accumulation of such criticisms, accuse the field of Holocaust studies of bad faith.

    David Irving was as much a “qualified expert” as anyone was. Confronted with your (4), he’d point out that you’d admitted the defeasibility of your beliefs; he’d then point out that his knowledge of the subject was ten times better than yours, and embroil you in nit-picking disputes about matters of detail in which it’s unlikely you’d prevail. Having scored maybe a dozen points in this way, he’d say, “So much for your knowledge of the Holocaust,” and walk away triumphant.

    Granted that in some cases an issue might become sufficiently controversial in general public discourse that I really need to take some time to familiarize myself with the details (though even that will typically involve lots of reliance on epistemic authority and expert testimony), why suppose that reliance on epistemic authority is always or usually insufficient for justified belief? And why suppose it in the case of holocaust deniers?

    I take myself to have just explained why. “Holocaust denial” doesn’t just cover the crude case of the person who regards the whole thing as a hoax. It covers the Irving-like case of the person who asks, “How do you know that 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust, and were all killed as part of a deliberate plan inaugurated by Hitler? What if the figure was 5.5 million? Or 5.1? If it was all part of a deliberate plan, where is the documentary evidence of this plan, signed by Hitler? Hitler wasn’t even present at the Wannsee Conference…” Etc. Irving was regarded as a legitimate historian until pretty late in the game: Michael Walzer was citing him as a respectable source on the bombing of Dresden as late as 1971. If “Holocaust denial” refers not just to “crude, outright denial” but “clever, incrementalist, ambiguity-exploiting denial,” then one needs to know the details, and reliance on conventional opinion won’t be enough.

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    • Well, here’s the position I myself am in: I possess nothing like expertise in the historical period or even the ability to acquire it quickly (my weak German is one of my perpetual failures). Why exactly am I not epistemically justified in dismissing claims that the Holocaust didn’t happen or wasn’t part of a deliberate plan to dispose of Jews on racial or quasi-racial grounds solely by appeal to the epistemic authority of expert consensus? I do in fact reject those claims on exactly those grounds. Why do I need to do anything more to be justified in doing so?

      One answer might be: well, because some people with real historical expertise produce clever, incrementalist, ambiguity-exploiting denials of it. But I don’t see why that should pose any problem for me. Some of your formulations suggest that what you’re really concerned with here isn’t justified belief, but dialectical or rhetorical victory. But I don’t need to be able to ‘win’ arguments with people in order to be justified in rejecting their views when those views contradict substantial expert consensus. Even if dialectical victory is the point, though, I don’t see anything illegitimate in the following dialectical move: “well, look, I have nothing approaching expertise in this subject, and you do, so I can’t really address your arguments head-on, but there’s no reason why I should accept your account against strong consensus among experts who otherwise disagree on a variety of topics; what you need to do is go convince a number of experts, preferably ones who aren’t already wedded to some ideology for which the falsity of your alternative would be problematic, and then I’ll have reason to take your view seriously; until then, I don’t.”

      I can of course imagine no end of bickering about this maneuver from a proponent of a radically anti-mainstream historical view, and I don’t imagine that it would be rhetorically effective in persuading any such person of anything. But if persuasion is the issue here, then my concerns here and in my previous comment are at best tangentially relevant. If the question is what I’m justified in believing and on what grounds, reliance on epistemic authority seems sufficient in this case and many others.

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