In a misguided effort to promote an “open-minded atmosphere”, another major Swedish morning newspaper has taken a stand in favor of intellectually dishonest conspiracy theories. The newspaper, called Göteborgs-Posten (GP), recently published a couple of opinion pieces by two Bosnian genocide denialist. Together, they trot out a number of classic genocide denial tactics and tropes: denying the existence of a systematic extermination, intentionally underestimating civilian casualties, exploiting historical revisions by actual historians working on the topic, drawing false moral equivalences and promote conspiracy theories about the United States. They even go so far as to put the terms genocide and death camp in scare quotes. Shockingly, these two people are academics at high-profile Swedish universities: professor Lennart Palm at the University of Gothenburg and associate professor of sociology Kjell Magnusson at the University of Uppsala. This is yet another example of the disturbing fact that being a well-educated academics does not make you immune to succumbing to pseudoscience and pseudohistory.
So far, the following opinion pieces have been published in this exchange:
Allowing genocide denialists to promote their flawed conspiracy theories in major newspapers has nothing to do with being “open-minded”. In reality, it is a postmodern appeal to false balance where flawed genocide denial is given the same standing as historical fact in the name of “fairness”. Nothing could be further from being fair.
Who are the Bosnian genocide denialists?
Although people often conceptualize genocide denialism as a far-right enterprise (e .g. Holocaust denial), Bosnian genocide denial is to a large extent a pseudoscience (or more precisely pseudohistory) of the political far-left. Although it is not possible to provide a deep and detailed coverage of the different groups of individuals involved in Bosnian genocide denialism, two prominent examples deserve to be mentioned: the British magazine Living Marxism and the American writer Diana Johnstone.
Living Marxism originated as a communist magazine in the late 1980s and had published articles denying the genocide in both Bosnia and Rwanda (notice the way the term genocide is put in scare quotes). They magazine claimed that Independent Television News, whose journalists (Penny Marshall and Ian Williams) had taken the footage that revealed the Bosnian genocide to the world, had faked their news reporting. They sued Living Marxist for libel and a two-part investigation published in Journal of Human Right by political scientist David Campbell concluded that the claims made by the Living Marxist magazine were “erroneous and their arguments flawed”. Because of this loss, Living Marxist closed the doors in 2000, although It was resurrected as the online magazine Spiked.
Diana Johnstone published the diatribe Fools’ Crusade: Yugoslavia, Nato, and Western Delusions in 2003 where she denied the genocide at Srebrenica and claimed that only about 200 were killed. After being rejected by her Swedish publishers, various left-wing intellectuals (including Noam Chomsky), defended her book. Johnstone and her book are generally considered pseudohistorical crankery.
Now, let us turn to the two Swedish professors. Kjell Magnusson is an associated professor of sociology and a senior lecturer at the University of Uppsala. His current research project involves studying documents and media together with using high sample-size surveys of people living in the regions of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, and Serbia to study nationalism. Lennart Palm is a professor of history at the University of Gothenburg and his research is primarily in the history of Swedish agriculture. Neither of the two appear to have been involved in historical research concerning the Bosnian genocide or the wars in former Yugoslavia or the criminal investigations concerning the genocide at the International Crime Court.
The time has now come to examine the claims made by Magnusson and Palm on the reality of the Bosnian genocide.
False moral equivalences and systematic underestimation of death tolls
A common tactic among different genocide denialists is to draw false moral equivalences. The general tactic involves downplaying the number of deaths and trying to distract by pointing to attacks done by the other side. There are at least two classic examples of false equivalence, both related to WWII. Holocaust deniers often attempt to underestimate the number of killed at Auschwitz and overestimate the number of casualties in Dresden in an effort to distract from the horrors of the Holocaust and to demonize the allied forces. Similarly, some extreme Japanese nationalists deny the Nanking Massacre and claim that both sides committed horrible crimes and that women are raped in all wars. However, this kind of “atrocity subtraction” does not work. No genocide can be justified by saying “look over there at what the other side did”. It boils down to the kindergarten mentality of “but what about him?!” In both of these cases, the attempted moral equivalences do not hold up: the allied bombing of Dresden is not equivalent to the events of Auschwitz and the Nanking massacre cannot be nullified by saying that the Chinese also killed Japanese or that there are many wars were women are raped.
Trying to erect false moral equivalences is also something that Bosnian genocide denialists do. In this case, they try to distract by pointing to the deaths of Serbians. Yes, Serbians were also killed during the conflicts and this is horrible. However, this does not nullify the war crimes at e. g. Srebrenica. Palm also tries to make the argument that the Bosnians Muslims waged war against many other groups, but this is also a distraction.
This overlaps with another common technique of genocide denialists, namely systematically underestimating the number of casualties. When this does not work, they tend to portray civilians as merely soldiers. For instance, some Nanking denialists like to portray civilian casualties as part of the Chinese guerrilla. However, this approach is also flawed because DNA evidence has been used to determine the identities of the victims in the mass graves (in addition to clothing and other features). This was pointed out in the response by freelance journalist Hamrud.
Outright and implicit genocide denial
Magnusson explicitly claims that there was no systematic extermination in Bosnia or Srebrenica. Palm explicitly denies the existence of death camps, but is also a little bit more subtle, putting the terms death camp and genocide in scare quotes. This makes it clear that both of them are genocide denialists.
Exploiting historical revisions by historians
Some of the initial estimates for the number of casualties at Auschwitz given by the Soviets were a bit high and this was revised by actual Holocaust historians down to ~1 million. Holocaust deniers have exploited this and labeled it “the shrinking Holocaust” in an effort to undermine the estimates made by historians. However, the ~1 million estimate is based on solid historical evidence, so that is not going to arbitrarily change to the numbers that Holocaust deniers promote (typically 100k or a few 10k). Similarly, those extreme Japanese nationalists that deny the Nanking massacre exploits the fact that real historians consider the early Chinese estimates to be a bit high.
Both Magnusson and Palm are guilty of the same tactic: they uses the fact that some early estimates for the number of casualties in the war was a bit high and try to make it appear as if historians working in the field and the International Crime Court is on their sides. They are not.
What kind of science or history denial would be complete without the promotion of irrational conspiracy theories? Holocaust deniers blame the Jews and Nanking massacre denialists blame the Chinese government. Palm blames three entities: the Bosnian Muslims are allegedly playing the victim card, U. S. and the EU get to rationalize their alleged role in triggering the conflict and NATO gets to justify their military interventions. Claiming that the Bosnian genocide was a US/EU/NATO/Muslim conspiracy is just as ridiculous as the anti-Jew and anti-Chinese conspiracy theories about the Holocaust and the Nanking massacre, respectively.
Playing the martyr card, just asking questions and a last-ditch appeal to “free speech”
Palm did not bother to reply to the actual arguments provided by freelance journalist Hamrud. Instead, he deploys a classic denialist triple-combo: claiming that finding truth about the events of the war requires “free and open debate” (while ignoring the fact that such a debate is held in the peer-reviewed historical journals on this topic, a place were he has never been published). He also portray himself as merely asking questions and laments being called a genocide denialist. However, Palm is not labeled a genocide denialist just because he is asking questions. He gets that label because he uses classic genocide denialist tactics in an effort to undermine the mainstream historical account of the Bosnian genocide.
This is yet another tragic case of highly educated public intellectuals succumbing to irrational pseudohistory. These two Swedish professors are committed to many of the same tactics as other kinds of genocide denialists: false moral equivalences, underestimating death tolls, the promotion of conspiracy theories, playing the martyr card, “just asking questions”, false appeals to free speech and exploiting real historical revisions as if they supported their position (when it does not).