Genocide is one of the worst crimes against humanity that has ever happened. The UN Genocide Convention that was adopted in 1948 defines genocide as “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: (a) Killing members of the group; (b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; (c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; (d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; (e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”
Although it seems extremely hard to grasp, there are many groups out there that falsely deny that the existence of certain genocides (and massacres). They do it against all science, reason and evidence and yes, they really believe what they say. This post surveys some key characteristics of genocide denial with a particular focus on the Holocaust, the Bosnian genocide and the genocide in Rwanda. Although not formally designated a genocide, the Nanking Massacre will also be covered because of the deep similarities in the approach taken by e. g. Holocaust deniers and those extreme nationalists in Japan who deny the former. Debunking Denialism has discussed some of these issues before and the references therein are recommended.
The key characteristics of genocide denial covered in this post are: faulty attempts at moral equivalences, abusing initial estimations done by governments, systematically underestimating death tolls, quoting historians out of context, exploiting new discoveries or honest errors, promoting conspiracy theories, insist that they are nearly asking questions, and having clear ulterior ideological motives.
Faulty attempts at moral equivalences
It is extremely common for different kinds of genocide denialists to attempt to make moral equivalences between the genocide(s) in question and actions carried out against the state, nation or group perpetrating the genocide. On their view, this would eliminate the factual asymmetry in moral condemnation between “the two sides” because the victims of the genocide are alleged to be “just as bad”.
First of all, this is an obvious example of a logical fallacy known as “two wrongs make a right”. This occurs when a transgression is countered by a comparable accusation thinking that this nullifies or make the original morally or philosophically transgression acceptable. This is, of course, incorrect. Two wrongs do not make a right.
Second, the problem goes even further than that. The counter-accusations leveled are rarely factually true and certainly not comparable. For instance, Holocaust deniers point to the allied bombing of Dresden and falsely inflate the number of German deaths by a factor of ten (~300 000 instead of the mainstream scientific position of ~25 000). This false figure originates with Nazi propaganda after the attacks, which shows that Holocaust deniers are not independent scholars but have connections with the far right. Some Japanese nationalists who deny the massacre at Nanking attempts to distract by saying that a lot of Japanese were also killed by Chinese soldiers, that war is hell and that all sides are equally guilty. Some people who deny the Bosnian genocide highlight the death of Serbian soldiers or Bosnian Muslims waged war as well. However, none of this can make the genocides go away. They are real. They are historical facts.
Abusing initial estimations done by governments (not historians)
Initial estimates of genocide fatalities are often done by politicians, military or civil servants before historians have had time to gather all the facts and do proper scientific and scholarly research. Thus, these early estimates will rarely be highly accurate. When historians do the actual research needed to find out the truth and present a different figure, genocide denialists take this as absolute proof that “they” lied about the events and that there was no genocide. Holocaust deniers do this with Auschwitz (falsely calling it the “rapidly shrinking Holocaust”) and some Japanese nationalists who deny the Nanking massacre abuse early Chinese estimates that were different from current mainstream historical estimates.
Systematically underestimating death tolls
As a complimentary strategy to abusing early government estimates, many genocide denialists also systematically and consistently underestimate the genocide death tolls. This is done in an effort to downplay the genocide and make it appear less worse. This is also used in combination with the false moral equivalences to attempt to falsely balance it out. For instance, Holocaust deniers want to falsely underestimate the number of Jews that were murdered by one or two orders of magnitude.
Quoting historians out of context
In much the same was that, say, anti-vaccine activists and creationists love to quote scientists out of context to spread pseudoscientific nonsense about vaccines or evolution, so to do genocide denialists misquote historians or quote them out of context. Debunking Denialism has covered two such occasions in some detail in previous posts. Holocaust deniers quote Raul Hilberg out of context as saying that it is somehow hard to demonstrate that the Holocaust happened, but in the very next sentence Hilberg recounts how he did demonstrate that the Holocaust happened at the conference in question. They also quote Arno Mayer out of context as claiming that the evidence for gas chambers are sparse, but a few paragraphs later he points out that the fact that historical evidence is never supremely perfect does not at all call into the question the existence of gas chambers.
Exploiting new discoveries or honest errors
Genocide denialists often refer to themselves as “historical revisionist”. But in reality, they do not take evidence seriously, subscribe to conspiracy theories and refuse to admit facts. The people who engages in true historical revision (updating models based on evidence) are the historians. Genocide deniers are just another form of science denialists.
Genocide denialists often abuse historical research where any new discovery that relate to the genocide is taken as evidence that it is all fabricated. This is comparable to creationists using any newly discovered fossil that may change some small aspect of the evolutionary relationship in some group to call into question common descent more broadly.
Sometimes, historians also make honest mistakes on some minor detail. Genocide denialists blow these errors out of proportion and hold them up as proof that the science is corrupt. This very much similar to how climate deniers abuse the IPCC mistake related to Himalayan glaciers. This was an unfortunate mistake, but it was a single error in a report that was several thousand pages large.
Promoting conspiracy theories
Many Holocaust deniers believe in a worldwide Jewish conspiracy, many Bosnian genocide denialists think that it was all invented so that the United States could drop bombs and get into a war and some extreme Japanese nationalists claim that the Nanking massacre was fabricated by the Chinese government for political advertisement.
Insist that they are merely asking questions
Another common tactic is to deploying the tactic of “just asking questions”. This involves passive-aggressively spewing misinformation and then cowardly hiding behind the superficial veneer of just asking questions.
Clear ideological ulterior motive
The reasons for why they deny this or that genocide or massacre differ somewhat and genocide denial can be found among the far right as well as far left. Some on the far right deny the Holocaust because of white supremacism and antisemitism. Some on the far left deny the Holocaust because they detest the Israeli government and their treatment of Palestinians. Some on the far left deny the genocides in Bosnia or Rwanda because of hatred towards the United States or capitalism generally. Some on the far right deny the genocide in Bosnia because they hate Muslims.
Denying that real historical events that constitutes genocide ever took place is as bizarre as it is deplorable. It is carried out by a diverse group of people (from the far left and the far right) with a diverse sets of political motives (from bigotry to economy ideology), but their methodologies are highly similar to each other, to pseudoscience generally and deeply flawed.