Debating the Holocaust? The Role of Debate in History

By Andrew Nurse

Should one “debate” the Holocaust? The answer, according to failed PC London West candidate Andrew Lawton, is yes.

In an interview that surfaced shortly before the recent Ontario provincial election, Lawton said that he fully understood why Jewish people would find this idea of debating the Holocaust revolting and he would, too, if he were Jewish. But, he continued, he sure hoped that students would be encouraged to engage in this debate.

Lawton’s perspective is connected to the broader cultural transformation of conservatism — a political movement with which he self-identifies —  and that is important. My goal, however, is not to address that ideological perspective. Instead, I want to focus more narrowly on the historical educational issue Lawton raised: should we debate the Holocaust? What does it even mean to debate the Holocaust? What are the merits or demerits of his position?

The point I want to make is this: whatever Lawton’s political and social views, what is at stake in his comment is an educational matter related to history. What is at stake is how we approach the past, education, teaching and learning. And, on this level, Lawton is 100% wrong. The burden of this post is to explain why.

Lawton’s argument about the merits of debating the Holocaust do not exist in isolation. Indeed, as we have seen in Canada, the United States, and a range of other countries, questions are being raised about matters of the past that, I suspect, many people thought had been long settled. Politically-inspired historical revisionism is experiencing a new life. And, sometimes, it comes in the form of suggestions — such as those made by Lawton — that we should “debate” the past.

Lawton is not an historian, nor to the best of my knowledge, is he an educator. He is a former host for Rebel Media, who has repeatedly made a series of offensive and off-colour comments about a broad range of different people. In his defense, he argues that he was putting himself “out there” — that is, taking some sort of risk — with the aim of stimulating debate.

Debate seems remarkably laudable and it has become a bit of a shield behind which the alt.right seems to hide. As Angela Nagle noted in Kill All Normies, the alt.right argues that nothing should be beyond the pale of commentary, discussion, or derision. For that political perspective, that is true. For history, however, it is not.

To address this issue, we need to recognize that what we might call debate in the historical profession proceeds on a number of levels. In terms of research, interpretation, narrative, and the like, debate is part of a process that refines historical inquiry. There will always be debates among historians because debate is inherent in the nature of the historical profession underscored by the orientation toward documentation and primary research. Historians will continue to develop new research questions, explore the archives in different ways, discover new sources, and make use of different research tools. This invites on-going revision that, in turn, occasions debate.

Debate is also useful in the classroom. I don’t use it all the time — I think discussion can and should take a range of different forms — but once or twice a semester I create some type of discussion exercise for larger classes that divides students into groups and has them engage in some sort of peer-moderated debate. In theory, this allows students to work together to hone arguments, mobilize evidence, consider alternative perspectives, think about the weaknesses in their own positions, and — ideally — consider the range of different factors that affect historical developments.

In other words, I don’t use debate pedagogically as if I were organizing a debating club in which there are winners and losers. In fact, the point I am trying to make is the exact opposite. The aim of a debate is to show students the ways in which differing interpretations are partial, the importance of multi-factor analysis, how they need to conduct more research and that in the process of doing so, their views can — and should — change.

I have heard people claim that debate is a way of discovering the truth. Good arguments, or so this logic goes, will win out. I think this is precisely where one needs to be careful. If discovering truths is the objective of debate, a poorly construed or framed debate can have precisely the opposite effect. In other words, it can impede the discovery of truths. For example, a debating-club approach in which two sides argue for and against a certain proposition actually artificially limits the range of discussion. At its worst it could present “winning” as more important than learning and it could construe winning in a very narrow sense: beating an opponent as opposed to engaging complex and multifaceted matters of interpretation.

Another problem with debate is more significant. It is trickier to explain and runs the admitted risk of sounding arrogant: some things are simply not matters of debate.

If you are about to say I am arrogant, hear me out. I have friends who work in a range of different occupations: one is a geologist, another a medical doctor, another a chemist. Each of them have things, within the framework of their jobs, that they debate. But, they also have things they don’t debate. My doctor does not spend his time wondering if the heart or blood exists. The geologist does not question the reality of minerals. I asked my chemist friend if, in his course, he ever debated the existence of molecules and he looked at me like I was odd … really odd.

In other words, there are such things as facts. One either accepts this idea or rejects it. Part of what we do in history is to teach students to respect facts, learn how to determine them, and respect scholarship. Thus, no one debates whether or not World War II occurred, or that Newfoundland entered Canada under the Terms of Union, or that Kennedy was president of the United States.

We ask questions about these facts all the time: what caused World War II? Why did Newfoundland opt to join Canada? Why did Americans vote for Kennedy? But — and this is the key point that Lawton did not understand — debating why something happened is not the same thing as contending that there is a legitimacy to saying that it did not happen at all. Debating what caused the Holocaust is not the same thing as debating whether the Holocaust occurred. The former can be an important learning moment. The latter is an artificial fantasy that teaches nothing except disrespect for evidence.

I am running long, but I wanted to end with this question: is this arrogant?

I have heard people say “who are you to tell me what exists and what does not exist? Who are you to tell me what is a fact and what isn’t?” I find the very contention of arrogance applied to historical interpretation interesting.

On the one hand, I love the openness of history. It lends it an almost democratic quality. Historical inquiry does make use of specialized tools and a specialized language but it is more limited in this regard than the so-called “hard” or social sciences. I find this openness appealing and a sign of history’s accessibility. And, judging by the reams of people who visit museums, galleries, and historic sites each year, so do a bunch of other people. At a conference I attended a couple of years ago, an staff member from Pier 21 explained that he could actually get most visitors up to a reasonable fluency with basic issues relating to display, interpretation, and modes of understanding the past in a surprisingly short time. This allows the ordinary person to enter into meaningful historical conversation in a way that is, frankly, simply more difficult for, say, biochemistry or even some streams of economics.

But, does the fact that history allows for a more open, fluid, and democratic conversation mean that all voices carry equal weight? Certainly the people who taught me history did not think so. They did not argue that historians or the professoriate deserved respect simply by virtue of being historians or the professoriate. As sites like activehistory.ca illustrate, doing so would severely limit the multivocal character of contemporary historical communication. What the people who taught me history said is that we should respect both the sources and the people who have done the research.

This is, of course, precisely what historians try to do and what we try to teach our students. We urge them to assess the basis on which argument are made, the ways in which narratives are crafted, the uses of different types of sources and whether or not those sources have been fully and properly examined, among a range of other things. But, we do not teach them to ignore facts and I suspect nearly 100% of the people reading this blog agree with that proposition. Why? Because, if facts did not matter …  how could we understand anything at all about the past?

Andrew Nurse is a Contributing Editor to activehistory.ca and a professor of Canadian Studies at Mount Allison University.

4 thoughts on “Debating the Holocaust? The Role of Debate in History

  1. Don Harding

    This is the age of “fake news,” of rejecting the very notion of facts. Scholars in the sciences (especially those that work on climate and its change) and in the humanities (especially historians) are increasingly facing this assault on/disregard of/contempt for “facts.” Insisting on the existence of some first principles, some verifiable facts, should not be considered arrogant (it’s but an acceptance of reality), and frankly I don’t think the question of arrogance is that relevant. Opponents of facts may use any number of arguments to attack those who insist facts exist, and arrogance may or may not be one.

    As for the role of debate, here you hit the nail on the head: “Debating what caused the Holocaust is not the same thing as debating whether the Holocaust occurred. The former can be an important learning moment. The latter is an artificial fantasy that teaches nothing except disrespect for evidence.”

    Keep up the good work!

  2. Greg Bak

    Thanks for this interesting and stimulating post, Andrew. This is also a key issue for reconciliation and decolonization, to counter discourse in which gross human rights violations committed through Canadian colonialism are either minimized or denied. The TRC, in its final report and Calls to Action, called for Canadian archives to conduct their work in light of the UN Joinet-Orentlicher Principles. UNJOP describes a “right to know” for victims of gross violations of human rights and calls upon archives to serve as a bulwark against the deniability of these violations. UNJOP also calls upon all of us to ensure that fact-based discourse serves to combat impunity for such violations, and to guarantee against re-occurrence. None of this can be accomplished easily or passively. All of us must be vigilant in rejecting “debate” about the facts of genocide and human rights violations.

  3. David Calverley

    Really enjoyed your article. I’ve had my Grade 12 students examine historiographical issues regarding the Holocaust. What caused it? The role of other countries/complicity in the Holocaust. The arguments that arose regarding certain books about the Holocaust. Should the/could the allies have done more to either stop or slow down the Holocaust? We don’t discuss whether it happened or not.

    Facts are facts and interpretation can only go so far before the facts are stretched beyond all recognition. I am going to look at Holocaust denial arguments next year to help my students understand what constitutes a weak historical argument. Ten years ago I wouldn’t have considered doing this, but there seems to be a rising tide of conspiracy theories that needs to be countered. One way of countering these theories is showing students how they operate and the logical fallacies/factual mistakes that underpin them .

  4. Andrew Nurse

    Thanks for the thoughtful comments, folks. It does my heart good to see such a clear commitment to sound historical education and research.

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