The Psychology and Politics of Genocide Denial: a Comparison of Four Case Studies

  • Henry R. Huttenbach


Denial has become an integral part of genocide; not to take this aspect into consideration is to fail to comprehend a major component of the dynamics of extermination.1 As the following analysis will attempt to show, denial played and still plays a variety of roles, as illustrated by each of the four cases of genocide, selected from the beginning, middle and end of this century. The purpose is to show how and why denial became central to each of these events. As will be seen, the sources of each of the denials are markedly different, though the motives less so.2 What emerges from this admittedly abbreviated comparative approach to the phenomenon of denial is a realization of its complexity, i.e. much more than simple denial is at stake. However, before embarking on comparing the origins and consequences of four forms of denial, a short corrective on the history of the denial of genocide is in order.


Moral Evil Mass Killing Military Tribunal Turkish Government Holocaust Denial 
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  1. 1.
    There is already an extensive literature on the phenomenon of the denial of genocide. In the past few years, it has developed in two major directions, the comparative and the multidisciplinary, quickly assuming the status of a sub-topic and discipline within genocide studies. All in all, the growing body of articles and monographs corroborate the claim that denial is an integral part of the history of certain genocides. In theory, every genocide can become the target of denial; in practice more and more genocides have been and continue to be denied. The denial can originate from any quarter in society, ranging from an isolated psychopathic individual to the government, covering the entire range of motives, from the personal and vindictive to the radical ideological. A pioneering study of the denial of genocide was Israel W Charny, ed., Genocide: a Critical Bibliographic Review, Vol. 2 (London: Mansell, 1991).Google Scholar
  2. The most recent study is by Roger W. Smith et al., ‘Professional Ethics and the Denial of the Armenian Genocide’, Journal of Holocaust and Genocide Studies 9, no. 1 (Spring 1995 ): 1–22.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. 2.
    A focus on the motives underlying denial is catching the attention of several scholars, ranging from historians to psychologists. Their investigations have uncovered a wide range of reasons, some relatively unsurprising, such as bigotry and ideology, and quite a few imaginative ones that need further honing and defining, such as ‘careerism’, as mentioned in the Smith et al. article. For a general introduction see Israel W. Charny, ‘The Psychology of Denial of Known Genocides’, Charny (1991): 22.Google Scholar
  4. Pierre Vidal-Naquet, Assassins of Memory: Essays on the Denial of the Holocaust (New York: Columbia University Press, 1992), a far more theoretical and intellectually challenging approach;Google Scholar
  5. Kenneth S. Stern, Holocaust Denial (New York: The American Jewish Committee, 1993), a useful, factually reliable handbook designed to help one refute the deniers; and Hitler’s Apologists (New York: Anti-Defamation League, 1993), somewhat along the order of Stern’s book but covering certain other areas. Two additionally useful articles are: Edward Alexander’s incisive review article of Lipstadt’s book in Commentary 96, no. 5 (1993): 54–6; and Israel Gutman’s article ‘Denial of the Holocaust’, Encyclopedia of the Holocaust vol. 2 ( London: Macmillan, 1990 ), pp. 681–7.Google Scholar
  6. 5.
    An isolated example of an attempt to put Holocaust Denial on the academic agenda is Erich Kulka, The Holocaust is Being Denied: The Answer of Auschwitz Survivors ( Tel Aviv, 1977 ). The most that was done at the time to counteract the deniers was the issuance by Yad Vashem of a brief, unedited, raw bibliography of denial literature, lacking any introductory analysis. This publication found its way into libraries where it gave students the impression that the Holocaust was a legitimately debatable issue; why else the bibliography?Google Scholar
  7. 6.
    Arnold J. Toynbee, ed., The Treatment of the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire: Documents Presented to Viscount Grey of Fallodon, Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1916).Google Scholar
  8. Alongside this pathbreaking work must be mentioned Henry Morgenthau, Ambassador Morgenthau’s Story ( Garden City: Doubleday, 1918 ).Google Scholar
  9. 7.
    The exception has been documents gleaned from the published Ottoman Military Tribunals held after the war. See Vahakn N Dadrian, ‘The Documentation of the World War I Armenian Massacres in the Proceedings of the Turkish Military Tribunal’, International Journal of Middle East Studies 23, no. 4 (1991): 549–76; and ‘Documentation of the Armenian Genocide in Turkish Sources’, in Charny (1991), ch. 4.Google Scholar
  10. 13.
    For an overview of the literature, see Henry R. Huttenbach, ‘The Romani Porajmos: The Nazi Genocide of Europe’s Gypsies’, Nationalities Papers, Special Issue ‘The Gypsies of Eastern Europe’, 19, no. 3 (1991): 373–94.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 1999

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  • Henry R. Huttenbach

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