OPINION: Safeguarding history in an era of fake news

OPINION: Safeguarding history in an era of fake news

With the threat of both 'hardcore' and 'softcore' denial, Dr Toby Simpson of the Wiener Library reflects on the need to uphold the truth

Dr Toby Simpson
Dr Toby Simpson Credit: Adam Soller Photography)
Dr Toby Simpson Credit: Adam Soller Photography)

One of the world’s most respected voices on the subject of Holocaust denial, Professor Deborah Lipstadt, has warned that the passing of the survivor generation will remove a vital barrier against deniers. Lipstadt argues that while ‘hardcore’ denial remains subdued, ‘softcore’ denial – where the facts of the Holocaust are not falsified, but downplayed or overlooked – is on the rise.

Although even ‘softcore’ denial remains relatively rare in mainstream discourse, the outer reaches of the web provide fertile ground for false narratives, conspiracy theories and outright lies.

In these virtual spaces, ‘hardcore’ Holocaust denial can emerge, for example, in the fantasies of murderous extremists such as the Halle synagogue attacker. Despite, or perhaps because of deniers’ callous lack of regard for the truth, upholding the historical record remains critical, with or without the help of survivors.

The greatest danger posed by extremists is arguably the repercussions of their actions on mainstream society. In April 2000, reporting on the Irving-Lipstadt trial, Jonathan Freedland wrote: ‘Holocaust revisionism is an assault not only on Jews but on history itself – the very business of understanding the past’. Against Irving’s distortions, history emerged triumphant in court.

The foundation on which that verdict rests is not the testimony of survivors, but the painstaking research of professional historians.

Three-quarters of a century after the liberation of Auschwitz, historical knowledge about the Holocaust is more extensive than ever.

The tens of thousands of volumes in The Wiener Holocaust Library represent an extraordinary collective achievement of scholarship. Many leading historians of the Holocaust were themselves survivors and refugees from Nazism. We cannot take their legacy for granted.

This week brought the terrible news that the YIVO institute, the world’s biggest Yiddish research centre, has been forced to lay off its library staff due to lack of funds. In the years to come, we must defend the historical record, and this means funding the libraries and archives that are its guardians.

If we do not, we will emerge not only bereft of the survivors, but also without the best defence against denial won within their lifetimes:
the evidence.

  • Dr Toby Simpson is director of the Wiener Holocaust Library
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