CJ Werleman looks at the proliferation of genocide denial, from the Shoah to Bosnia, and how this enables continued killing and repression in Syria and China

There’s no greater crime against humanity than genocide, a word to describe the mass killing of an entire race or people, but one that didn’t exist until it was coined by Polish lawyer and linguist Raphael Lemkin in 1943, and then later ratified into international law by the United Nations General Assembly on 9 December 1948.

“Lemkin believed that if he could find the right word, if he could find the word that would unite people, that would ignite people to come together to stop these crimes…and he thought that there wasn’t a word that described the horror of this crime. So, he set off on a path to do that,” said Edit Belzberg, who directed a documentary on Lemkin’s work, in a 2014 interview.

If genocide is mankind’s greatest sin, then genocide denialism trails immediately behind it, given the denial or downplaying of genocide lays a foundation for the next killing fields and extermination camps.

The far-left and far-right speak in a shared language when it comes to state perpetrated mass murder, both attaching conspiratorial slogans, such as “Deep State,” “false flag operations,” and “CIA plots”

But whereas genocide denialism was once confined to the dark corners of the Internet, where neo-Nazis and anti-Semites conferred and conspired, it has very much made its way into the political mainstream during the social media age, a frightening reality driven home by a survey that found a quarter of young Americans have bought into Holocaust denial conspiracy theories.

The state-by-state survey reveals an astonishing lack of knowledge about one of the 20th Century’s greatest crimes, with 23% of American adults aged 18 to 39 believing the Holocaust to be a myth and that the number of Jews killed has been exaggerated, alongside 12% who say they are totally unfamiliar with the word “Holocaust”.

Even more alarming still is the fact that 11% of young Americans believe the Jews were responsible for their own deaths during the Nazi regime’s “Final Solution” which took place at thousands of extermination camps throughout Europe in the 1940s. While a further 49% of respondents said they had seen Holocaust denial or distortion content on social media.

“The results are both shocking and saddening and they underscore why we must act now while Holocaust survivors are still with us to voice their stories,” Gideon Taylor, the president of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, which commissioned the survey, said in a statement. “This needs to serve as a wake-up call to us all, and as a road map of where government officials need to act.”

Any journalist or academic who has reported on any of the recent or ongoing genocides and ethnic cleansing campaigns around the world will attest to how frustratingly and depressingly widespread genocide denialism is across Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, along with conspiracy theories that blame the victims of state sanctioned mass murder for their annihilation, many of which are generated and disseminated by the perpetrators to divert attention away from their crimes.

The Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s campaign of terror and mass murder not only meets the definition of democide or sectarian genocide, but it represents the first time in history that victims were able to publish their persecution in real time on social media platforms, making it the world’s most documented campaign of mass slaughter, but none of this stopped the mass circulation of easily debunked pro-Assad conspiracy theories, many of which were generated by Russian state media outlets, and believed by millions across the entire ideological spectrum.

“This propaganda facilitates the gas attacks, hospital bombings, sectarian cleansing, and so on,” Robin Yassin-Kassab, co-author of Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War, told me when we spoke in 2018.

“It also contributes to the general demonization of Muslims and Arabs in our culture. Beyond hurting Syrians, Arabs and Muslims, it is also damaging our civic and political life in the West, but the main purpose of this propaganda, because it has been carefully planted and guided, is to distract attention from the crimes committed by Assad and the Iranian and Russian occupations against civilians in Syria, and to prevent solidarity with those victims”.

Rewriting History – Bosnia and East Turkestan

Genocide denialism and conspiracy theories that vilify the victims of genocide not only undermine global solidarity movements and sabotage collective efforts to halt the violence, but also pave the way for a repeat of past horrors, a path that is being laid out in Bosnia Herzegovina today as a result of efforts to deny and downplay the events of 25 years ago.

Serbian nationalists in Serbia and Republic Srpska are peddling revisionist narratives, conspiracy theories and outright Bosnia Muslim genocide denials, with the Serb member of the Bosnia Herzegovina presidency, Milorad Dodik, describing the Srebrenica genocide a “fabricated myth” and “greatest deception of the 20th Century”.

As a result of these genocide denials and ahistorical revisions, anti-Muslim animus is again ascendant in the Balkans as unfounded resentment grows among the Serbian population, many who now feel as though Serbs have been wrongly condemned for the genocide that took place 25 years ago. 

23% of American adults aged 18 to 39 believe the Holocaust to be a myth and that the number of Jews killed has been exaggerated

“The situation in Bosnia is very tense. We are afraid of the new war and we know very well that if the war starts, we will be the victims again — Muslims, of course. Great countries [Russia and Serbia] are playing again,” a Muslim citizen of Bosnia and Herzegovina, who asked to be identified only by her first name out of fear of Serbian reprisal, told me.

On the other side of Central Asia, China’s effort to annihilate Uyghur life and culture in Xinjiang, or what was once East Turkestan, meets the UN’s definition of genocide, specifically “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group,” but not only does the Chinese Communist Party deny what is now plainly obvious and self-evident, but also its denials and diversions are being shared and amplified by Muslim majority countries that are economically dependent on Beijing’s patronage.

Genocidal denialism has also horseshoed the ideological political spectrum, bringing the far-left, particularly self-described anti-US imperialists, into touching distance with the far-right, particularly anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic bigots.

“What these seeming opposites share is a commitment to dismantling the liberal-democratic order that has dominated Western politics since 1945,” observes Jasmin Mujanovic, a political scientist and Assistant Professor at Elon University. “Another joint preference is to use the historical record as a tool of their programs rather than allowing the scholarly record to truthfully represent what happened”.

This explains why the far-left and far-right speak in a shared language when it comes to state perpetrated mass murder, both attaching conspiratorial slogans, such as “Deep State,” “false flag operations,” and “CIA plots,” to most of the world’s current and recent genocides.

Social media platforms have helped form this ideological bridge, with Facebook recently acknowledging that its recommendation algorithm was “actively promoting” genocide denying conspiracy theories.

That a quarter of young American adults believe the Holocaust to be a myth of exaggerated should be the canary in the coalmine. If genocide denialism is the continuation of genocide, which it is, then governments and media outlets have a moral responsibility to better educate the public and shun those who propagate dangerous ahistorical revisionism.


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