After Ye (aka Kanye West) went on an antisemitic rant earlier this month in an interview with conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, Elon Musk suspended him from Twitter, saying Ye went too far by declaring his love of Hitler and claiming “The Holocaust is not what happened.”
But Musk’s ban will be counterproductive if its purpose is to discourage Nazism and antisemitism. History demonstrates the importance of publicity and exposure, rather than censorship and cancellation, in defeating Holocaust deniers and antisemites.
When the U.S. military liberated Europe’s concentration camps in April of 1945, it discovered Nazi atrocities too ghastly to be believed. To confirm the accounts, which General Dwight D. Eisenhower knew of “only generally or through secondary sources,” he decided to visit Ohrdruf, one of the first camps the Americans liberated, in person.
“I visited every nook and cranny of the camp because I felt it my duty to be in a position from then on to testify at first hand about these things in case there ever grew up at home the belief or the assumption that the stories of Nazi brutality were just propaganda,” he recounted, anticipating the holocaust denial to come. To publicize the Nazi evils as widely as possible, and in fora that had traditions of debate, Eisenhower immediately “sent communications to both Washington and London, urging the two governments to send instantly to Germany a random group of newspaper editors and representative groups from the national legislatures. I felt that the evidence should be immediately placed before the American and British publics in a fashion to leave no room for cynical doubt.”
Cynical doubt, of course, did emerge, despite overwhelming documentary evidence.
Eisenhower, who himself wanted first-hand confirmation of the Nazi horrors, understood that many would inevitably question the veracity of horror stories more implausible than any filmmaker could conjure. Even European Jews in the midst of World War II refused to believe the accounts, even when the accounts came from Jewish escapees from the death camps. That honourable people, Jewish or not, would doubt the scale and scope of the Nazi machinery, and the incomprehensible complicity of millions of citizens in civilized societies such as Germany’s, should surprise no one.
In the decades following World War II, knowledge of the Holocaust was scant in the West and Holocaust denial thrived, showing the limited utility of documentary evidence alone, which antisemites could dismiss as staged or exaggerated. Eventually, thanks to the public debates that occurred after Holocaust deniers spread their views in the pages of newspapers, on talk shows and in public fora of all kinds, the public did come to understand the nature of Naziism and the veracity of the Holocaust.
One of the most celebrated cases occurred in 1978, when the American Civil Liberties Union supported the right of neo-Nazis to march through Skokie, Illinois, a community inhabited by many Holocaust survivors. Other high profile pro-Nazi events followed in the 1980s and 1990s, among them public disputes over the rights of Holocaust deniers in Canada, the UK, and Germany, and public rallies in support of the Holocaust deniers. The upshot of a clear-eyed exposure to the views of antisemites, and to the rebuttals, was a well-educated public and a near-total rejection of Holocaust denial.
“Committed or consistent deniers of the Holocaust make up only a small segment of the population, about 2 percent or less,” Dr. Tom W. Smith of the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center told the New York Times in 1994, explaining a just-released Roper poll that buttressed other surveys he monitored. Apart from the trivial number of committed deniers, who presumably would not be educable, Smith noted another subset: “There is an additional group of a few percent— under 10 percent — who express some doubts or uncertainty, but do so mainly from lack of information.”
The success by the mid-1990s at countering Holocaust denial would sour, however, as the media and public institutions increasingly made its discussion a taboo. In Germany, France and many other European countries Holocaust denial was criminalized; in other countries the mainstream media exercised voluntary bans, thinking that denying antisemites a platform would eradicate antisemitism.
The opposite happened. Antisemitism and holocaust denial were driven underground, where they would thrive unchallenged. Surveys in recent years found alarming levels of ignorance about the Holocaust among millennials and Gen Z. In a 2020 poll of Americans, almost one quarter (23%) said they believed the Holocaust was a myth, had been exaggerated or they weren’t sure. More worrying, antisemitic incidents have reached post-war highs on both sides of the Atlantic and are climbing.
We should not fear an airing of antisemitic views, many of which stem more from ignorance than animus, and all of which can be countered to the satisfaction of most. Ye’s antisemitic rant would have persuaded few to embrace Nazis, and many to want to distance themselves from such talk. Alex Jones himself took on Ye, characterizing Ye’s admiration for Hitler as a fetish and letting his millions of adherents know that, on Hitler and Holocaust denial, he parted company with Ye.
Nothing discredits antisemites more than their own rhetoric and falsification of history. Elon Musk should let antisemites and their rebutters thrash it out on Twitter, to bring the debate out of the shadows. Sunlight is the best disinfectant.
Lawrence Solomon is an Epoch Times columnist, a former National Post and Globe and Mail columnist, and the executive director of Toronto-based Energy Probe and Consumer Policy Institute. He is the author of 7 books, including “The Deniers,” a #1 environmental best-seller in both the United States and Canada. He can be reached at LS@lawrencesolomon.ca.