Teaching 'opposing views' of the Holocaust is the latest effort to rewrite history

Teaching 'opposing views' of the Holocaust is the latest effort to rewrite history
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A Texas school district has written a new chapter in the ugly history of Holocaust denial. 

An administrator at Caroll Independent School District in South Lake told teachers to include books that present “opposing views” of the Holocaust. “Make sure that if you have a book on the Holocaust, that you have one that has opposing, that has other perspectives," executive director of curriculum and instruction Gina Peddy told a group of disbelieving educators. 

The only other “perspective” on the Holocaust is denial. The demand to include it as a legitimate point of view is part of a larger effort to rewrite history to please those who fear the growing diversity of the United States.

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Holocaust denial is nothing new. It began as soon as the camps were liberated. General Dwight Eisenhower, supreme commander of Allied Forces in Europe, anticipated such denial might occur. 

“I made the visit [to a concentration camp] deliberately, in order to be in a position to give first-hand evidence . . .if ever in future there develops a tendency to charge these allegations merely to propaganda,” he explained. His fears were soon realized. Deniers claim either that the genocide never happened or that the numbers killed were grossly exaggerated. 

The Texas episode adds a new insidious twist to this old lie. Rather than openly denying the murder of 6 million people, it labels the genocide as a subject for debate rather than an established fact. The call for opposing points of view sounds reasonable. Why not expose students to different interpretations? That argument works for genuinely disputed issues but not verified events. Historians continue to debate the causes of WWI, but no legitimate scholar questions what the Nazis did to the Jews. Not every issue has two sides deserving of equal time.

The Holocaust is not the only genocide being denied. The Turkish government still refuses to acknowledge the Armenian genocide of 1915. Bosnian Serbs nationalists deny that the 1995 massacre of approximately 8,000 Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica by Bosnian Serb and Serbian paramilitary forces was genocide. The government of Myanmar makes the same claim about the slaughter and forced expulsion of Rohingya in 2016-17 and the government of Sudan has denied the genocide in Darfur (2003-present). 

Holocaust denial is part of a broader effort to create a celebratory version not only of U.S. history but of Western civilization. Its proponents embrace American exceptionalism, believe in manifest destiny, excuse the removal of Native Americans, and play down slavery and Jim Crow. Holocaust denial fits well into this narrative. The United States did not perpetrate the genocide, but it has a history of antisemitism, which has increased in recent years. “Make America great again” proponents who express pride in their “European heritage” (a euphemism for white supremacy) have no trouble minimizing or denying what white Christians in Germany did to Jews.

At the center of the battle over American history is critical race theory, a legal argument from the 1980s that maintains systemic racism continued to oppress African Americans long after the passage of civil rights legislation. The 1619 Project commemorating the 400-year anniversary of the arrival of the first African slaves in what would become the United States sparked renewed interest in this issue. The collection of essays published by the New York Times called for teaching a more inclusive view of U.S. history that acknowledged the prevalence of racism.

The project produced a firestorm of criticism from conservatives who insisted that it would divide Americans and impose guilt on white children. Eleven states have passed bills restricting the teaching of racial history and social studies, and 12 others have introduced them. The ambiguity of these statutes has created confusion among educators and invited meddling by anyone with a political ax to grind. 

The Texas law (HB 3979) that led to the Holocaust controversy in South Lake is a case in point. It requires that teachers explore controversial issues from “diverse and contending perspectives without giving deference to any one perspective.” Who decides what is controversial? Should apologies for slavery be taught as a “contending perspective” worthy of equal consideration with the prevailing view that condemns it unequivocally? Many conservatives would say “yes.”

Equally pernicious is the law’s requirement that no curricular material make any student “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex.” Given the subjective nature of such feelings, this caveat lets parents object to any content they don’t like on grounds that it causes their children “discomfort” or “distress.” Anyone, no matter how ill-informed or uneducated, can show up at a school board meeting to oppose course material with which they simply disagree. Across the country, school board meetings have become so contentious that board members have had trouble conducting routine business and have faced threats and intimidation.

In South Lake, Peddy alluded to the pressure she faces from parents. “How do you oppose the Holocaust?” one teacher asked. “Believe me,” she responded. “That’s come up.” 

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The superintendent of Caroll ISD has apologized for Peddy’s remarks. “As we continue to work through implementation of [House Bill] 3979, we also understand this bill does not require an opposing viewpoint on historical facts,” he explained. His tepid response to the controversy misses the point that there is no longer a consensus on what used to be accepted as historical facts. Advocates of the Texas law are not interested in a balanced view of the past. They want an exclusionary one that celebrates their group at the expense of everyone else.

History should be taught, not as a feel-good narrative or a list of grievances, but as a balanced, comprehensive account that includes all voices and acknowledges both our accomplishments and the wrongs we have done as a people. That approach will help young people use the past to build a better future. 

Tom Mockaitis is a professor of history at DePaul University and author of Violent Extremists: Understanding the Domestic and International Terrorist Threat.”