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Talk on Holocaust Studies at MCHE Conference

(A statement by William McGaughey read on May 5, 2007, at the 2007 Annual Conference of the Minnesota Chapter of the National Council for History Education)


"Good afternoon. I’m Bill McGaughey. I’m the author of a book titled Five Epochs of Civilization which presents a new scheme of world history. There’s also a website titled based on its concepts.

When Jesse (Godzala) first announced this conference, I asked him if he would entertain the thought of a little controversy. He said he was all for controversy. So here I am, ready to present a controversial thesis. Because the subject is so sensitive, I think I’ll read my statement to be sure to get the words right.

This discussion is about teaching the Holocaust. I have never taken or taught a course in the Holocaust so I have nothing useful to say about current practices in this area. I do have some thoughts about history and how Holocaust studies might relate to this.

Perhaps we could start with the famous quotation of the Prussian general Karl von Clausewitz who fought Napoleon. He said that war was a continuation of politics by other means. I would suggest that, to some degree, Holocaust studies are a continuation of politics by other means. The same observation would apply to Black History and Women’s History. They are also a continuation of politics by other means.

My question to you is whether this is the best approach to history. Should this be an arena for groups wanting a political advantage over other groups or should it be an objective study of humanity’s past?

Let me propose some principles of world history:

First, history should be a study of important events that happened in the past. I think it should be a creation story. It should be the story of how our human society came to be. Yes, stories have human characters. Some of these characters can be understood in terms of being either good or bad. But the point of world history should not be to present a moralistic lesson. History should not be told in such a way as to make some groups of people look good and others look bad. It should not be making a case for group victimhood. Otherwise, we’re simply making a political argument.

A second principle is that world history should be approached as a science rather than as a religion. In science, people are free to formulate truth using the latest evidence. New theories based on fact are allowed to replace long-established theories, even ones that have enjoyed broad support. In religion, on the other hand, the original doctrine is revered as representing the word of God. Therefore, its statement cannot be changed. Every aspect, every word of the established teaching is considered literally and completely true.

Let me also state a third principle. That is that, if world history is a science, then it shouldn’t matter who is doing the research or formulating the theory. Any sincere seeker of truth should be respected for what that person has found. But in politically inspired history, identities do matter. There is, for instance, a critique of so-called “Orientalism” which says that scholars of European ancestry can not begin to understand Asian society and culture; and therefore, their scholarship is automatically discredited. This is politics, not science.

Some may ask: Who are you to be proposing these principles of history? Are you a noted scholar? Do you have a Ph.D.? No, I do not. I’m a self-taught historian. After you hear what I have to say, you will realize why I would not last even a week in an academic setting. In a politically charged environment, my head would soon be demanded on a silver platter.

However, it may be useful to have a person such as me speak at this conference. You are free to accept or reject what I have to say. If it makes sense to you, please accept all or part of it. If it doesn’t make sense, reject it. I have no credentials forcing you into a decision either way.

OK. Now let’s talk about Holocaust history.

The Holocaust refers to an event which took place in Nazi Germany during World War II. Millions of people - many of them Jews - were forceably taken to concentration camps. Many people died in those camps. We have photographs of emaciated corpses stacked up like cords of fire wood when the camps were liberated. it was a horrible scene. As human beings, we are moved to sympathize with people who were treated that way. It’s like being at a funeral. Reverent respect for the dead is required.

So, what’s wrong with Holocaust history? If it happened, why not tell the story of Jews dying in those concentration camps? Of course, it happened. But there is something else going on here.

Normally when a horrible tragedy occurs, the victim’s family go through several stages in the grieving process. According to the scheme developed by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, there is initially denial, followed by anger, and then by a period of bargaining with God to take away the sorrow, depression, and, after a long psychological struggle, some measure of acceptance.

I remember as a boy I met a British man who had been imprisoned by the Japanese during World War II. The adults who brought me to that event advised me beforehand not to bring up the subject of his imprisonment since the experience was so painful to that man. This is the humane way to deal with tragedy. You honor the victim but, out of respect for his suffering, keep silent about the gruesome details.

Holocaust history takes a different approach. Here the object seems to be to talk about this experience as often as possible to make sure that everyone knows about it. The Holocaust is taught in schools. It is the subject of TV documentaries and Hollywood films. There are numerous museums devoted to this topic. There is an international “Holocaust Remembrance Day.”

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I would argue that such remembrance goes beyond simple reverence or grief. In effect, the Holocaust has become the focus of a religion. It isn’t not the first time this has happened. Think of Christianity with its image of Jesus hanging on the Cross. That image is so familiar to us in a religious context that we seldom think that crucifixion was a means of execution. Would we want to contemplate the image of a man sitting in an electric chair? Probably not. However, gruesome images such as this have a role to play in religion. They are emotionally compelling.

Now I know that many will object to my calling Holocaust study a religion. Religions, you say, have certain defined elements: There is usually an altar, a priest performing ceremonies, worship of God, and an ethically-based belief system. The Holocaust, on the other hand, is a part of history.

I would argue, though, that the Holocaust has become a quasi-religion. The Enlightenment of the 18th century caused many European Jews to turn away from traditional religion. In its place, certain ideologies and political causes arose which had religious characteristics. Zionism was one of these. Marxism was another. If you look at the historical structure of the Marxist ideology, you will find elements in common with the Christian and Jewish religions. The more recent focus on the Holocaust fits this pattern.

What, then, are some of its religious characteristics? First, it is a system of compulsory belief. Persons who refuse to believe are regarded as heretics - evil persons deserving punishment. In this quasi-religion of the Holocaust, we have persons filling the role of the heretic who are called “Holocaust deniers”. In contrast, individuals belonging to the so-called “Flat Earth Society”, who deny that the earth is round, would be regarded as misguided eccentrics, with little animosity directed at them.

Holocaust denial is different. The deniers are not merely deluded; they are evil. They deserve to be put in prison. And, indeed, in Europe, some are.

A second aspect of the Holocaust worship is that its doctrines are regarded as correct in all substantial details. Arnold Toynbee wrote of traditional Jewish religion that “in the Syrian world to which the Jews belonged, a book ... was revered as the revealed word of God: a sacred object in which every jot and tittle on the written page had a magical potency.” Likewise, the cult of the Holocaust regards historical details such as the number of Jews who died in the Nazi concentration camps as beyond factual challenge. Six million Jews died - that is an article of faith. If someone claimed that only 4.8 million died, that would be a sacrilege.

Then the story of the Holocaust is moralistic. It shares the Judaic and Zoroastrian scheme of a world sharply divided between Good and Evil. The Nazis are, of course, evil. Adolf Hitler is a Satanic figure presiding over an evil realm. There is not a whole lot of Good in this story except for the Jews who survived the ordeal.

The religion of the Holocaust considers that world history itself came to a sharp focus in this event. Other religious schemes have considered other moments in history as being of transcending importance.

I remember when some DFL legislators brought Rep. Arlon Lindner before the House Ethics Committee of the Minnesota Legislature for expressing an incorrect interpretation of the Holocaust. A woman quoted in the newspaper, who was a Holocaust survivor, called him a “blasphemer”. This word, “blasphemer”, is a religious term. So much of the language surrounding the Holocaust is religious in nature.

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Now, of course, if study of the Holocaust is acknowledged to be a religion, sooner or later it will run into limitations imposed by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” Under the doctrine of the separation of church and state, state-sponsored religions are illegal.

In that case, it would be illegal for Holocaust studies in be included in the curricula of the public schools. It would be illegal for the government to contribute money to the Holocaust Museum. Government should not be in the business of supporting any system of compulsory religious belief. Now, of course, trying to enforce that Constitutional provision in this particular case would stir up a political hornet’s nest so I see the situation continuing.

Even so, this question gets at the kind of society we wish to have in America. In seven western nations, it is illegal to deny the Holocaust. I, on the other hand, believe in extending freedom of speech and of thought to the greatest possible limit. Human society has a way of dealing with outrageous statements, short of throwing someone in prison. Despite the risks, a “free society” is ultimately the best. That’s my view.

While we’re on the subject of Holocaust denial, let’s consider what the deniers actually deny? Are they denying that there was such a thing as a Nazi concentration camp or that Jews died in those camps? Are they like the people who believed that the Apollo 11 flight to the Moon was staged on a Hollywood set? I don’t think so. This is a straw man argument.

From information sent to me on the Internet, I would say that the most common “denial” is that six million Jews died in the concentration camps. The deniers think that this number overstates the reality. They point out, for instance, that an official report issued in 1988 revised the number of Jews killed at Auschwitz downward from 4.1 million persons to 1.1 million persons. Also, the New York Times published a report in 1919 in which it was claimed that six million Jews had died during World War I. So the nice round number of six million is in dispute, not the fact that Jews died in those camps. I have no further information about this, one way or the other.

Another question raised by the Holocaust deniers is whether the Jews in the concentration camps died from such causes as starvation and disease, which were related to the disruption of German transport by Allied bombing, or whether they died from deliberate policies of extermination. Most likely it was both. Even if there were other reasons, the accepted Holocaust story is that the German captors were fiends bent on sending as many Jews to the gas chambers as possible. I don’t want to get into the details of this controversy because it takes us off the main subject which is Holocaust studies.

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Any study of History has at least two aspects. First, we must look at the information from the standpoint of truth. History must be accurately written. Second, assuming their truth, we must look at the selection of materials to be included in the history. Which stories ought to be included? My concern has to do primarily with selection.

I once asked a teenage girl who took history courses in Cottage Grove (Minnesota) schools what she studied in those courses. She said that her world-history course was about “Nazis”. Her American history course was about “slavery and discrimination”. I would wager that much of what she learned about Nazis was that they killed Jews in concentration camps.

I also would guess that the prominence of historical materials in school textbooks about slavery and the Holocaust are related to political pressures exerted within our society by African-American and Jewish interest groups which try to have as much space in the history textbooks devoted to their people’s experience as possible. There is, however, such a thing as historical balance.

With respect to slavery, the issue was framed by a conservative columnist, Mona Charen, in a Star Tribune commentary piece published in March of this year. She was responding to Al Sharpton’s statement: “Slavery is not dead. It’s not even past. It’s not something you can wish away.”

Ms. Charen’s response was: “No, you can’t wish it away, but it is possible to dwell on it too much ... To judge by what my children are learning in school, you’d think American history was 75% slavery and 25% everything else (and that 25% includes a large dollop of imperialism, racism, sexism, and homophobia, leaving little time for Lincoln, Edison, Clay, Holmes, Alcott, Dickinson, Addams, or Longfellow.”

The same concern pertains to teaching the Holocaust.

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Many have complained that the current generation of high-school students is not as literate as previous generations of students were. This generation has been culturally weaned on video games and TV. They may lack skills in analytic or critical thinking. If that is true, then we must recognize that political and historical persuasion are not what they once were. They are more dependent on what is called “branding”.

Branding is the basis of persuasion in television commercials. There is little information about a commercial product which would help the viewer make an intelligent decision whether or not to buy. Instead, the repetitious use of images creates an unfocused idea that something is desirable or important. The same technique is used to sell political candidates. In this case, it does matter that a particular theme in world history is repeated over and over again.

Professional marketers say you need to repeat a message at least seven times to create a buying decision. If you can repeat a message or image related to the Holocaust in various media, you can instill a certain political attitude. The amount of space given in textbooks to particular topics does matter. These days, it matters as much as reasoned arguments, perhaps even more.

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This leads to an important question: What is the lesson of Holocaust history? What can the experience of the Holocaust teach us? The most common interpretation would be that the Nazis persecuted Jews horribly, but that Jews have been persecuted throughout history. Anti-Semitism is present among all peoples. Since the Holocaust shows the extent to which this hatred can be carried, we simply cannot tolerate any anti-Semitic thinking or speech. All such speech must be nipped in the bud lest it attract a following, like Hitler’s, that could have catastrophic results.

Such an interpretation has its problems. Mainly, it creates a paranoid attitude that excuses the Jews’ own behavior. For instance, such an attitude excuses the brutal displacement of Palestinian people from their land when the state of Israel was created and the subsequent mistreatment of these people which has produced much political instability in the Middle East and huge problems for our nation. It has created an attitude that it’s OK to criminalize free speech. But this is politics.

It’s possible to find another lesson in the Holocaust. My preference would be to see this as a product of totalitarian government. The solution is not to nip hateful speech in the bud, before it can get out of hand, but to limit the ways that it can get out of hand.

It may be that a free society can tolerate a Hitler ranting on the street corner but not a Hitler who becomes Chancellor of Germany. When you gain government power, you gain the ability to kill people. Society must protect itself against political leaders such as Hitler who bear a grudge against certain people and have the power to hurt them.

This lesson of Holocaust history would lead to a call for more “checks and balances” in government, a culture which abhors war, and a willingness to let private animosities resolve themselves in the exercise of free speech. Its interpretation of facts would lead to a more open and tolerant society, respectful to all points of view. We must resist the temptation to try to censor of control other peoples’ speech because it might lead to conclusions not to our liking. A free society gives neither Jew nor anyone else that privilege.

As it is, this focus on the Holocaust promotes a certain brand image, centered in the person of the anti-Semite. Suppose a person of Bulgarian nationality accused someone else of being “anti-Bulgarian”? The other would probably respond: “So what? I’ m not Bulgarian. Why should I care?”

But when someone is called an “anti-Semite” or a person who is anti-Jewish, it carries the historical stigma of being associated with the Holocaust. Hitler showed the damage of which anti-Semites are capable. All people, even if they are not Jewish, are supposed to care about this if they indeed acknowledge that, from a human standpoint, the mass killings by the Nazis were a deplorable situation.

Once the concept of the anti-Semite is firmly established in our culture, there is a ripple of intimidating effects. Some are ugly such as the calls for a certain Democratic Congressman from Virginia to resign when he dared to suggest that Jewish pressure groups were supporting the Iraq war. These days, people are quick to call criticisms of U.S. support for Israel “anti-Semitic”.

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Would I end teaching about the Holocaust in schools? No, but I would strip the religious element from this teaching. I would also try to restore balance to the history curriculum. An estimated 275 million people died in wars of the 20th century. However gruesome was the experience in Nazi death camps, I don’t think we want to get into making the argument that each Jew’s life is worth more than that of 40 Gentiles or that any one group is the supreme sufferer in human history.

However, world history is also about other things than wars and suffering. The historian should try to be objective about what has happened. That person certainly should be open to new evidences that relate to the stories being told. I believe that history represents an accumulation of knowledge. There is no end to the process of improving that set of historical facts and interpretations that we already have."


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This talk, given at the end of the NCHE conference, was part of a “Small Panel Discussion on Diverse Perspectives and Critiques on the Nature of History, the Holocaust and Genocide.” The other presenter was Vicki Knickerbocker, outreach director of the University of Minnesota’s Department of Holocaust and Genocide Studies. Her presentation followed the above talk given by William McGaughey.

In her opening remark, Knickerbocker said that the purpose of Holocaust Studies was not to cast persons or groups in a certain moral light. All persons are capable of both good and bad deeds. She said that she did not wish to get into a contentious debate over such topics as whether the Holocaust was a religion but instead give an idea of individual experiences during that time.

Knickerbocker did, however, comment that one of Hitler’s offenses was to present Jews as a “race” and not a people who adhered to the religion of Judaism. (The implication in this characterization by Hitler was that Jews were an inferior race and, ultimately, subhuman, making it easier to kill them in concentration camps.)

Her department at the University of Minnesota has broadened its focus from the particular experience of Jews during World War II to the experience of genocide generally. The Armenian genocide in the Ottoman empire during World War I is receiving particular attention at this time.

Much of Knickerbocker’s presentation consisted of an audio-visual show of images relating to the Holocaust, featuring both victims and persons who tried to help them.

After this presentation, Knickerbocker and McGaughey jointly took questions from the audience. The tone was informative and cooperative. On the other hand, since this part of the program took place at the end of the day, the size of the audience was smaller than for some earlier events.

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