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By Tony Taylor
Melbourne University Press, 2008

INTRODUCTION: The Pathology of Historical Denial

[Bold emphasis added by Balkan Witness]

As a defence mechanism, denial is perfectly normal; we use it every day. We may deny to ourselves, perhaps, that we are drinking too much wine in the evening. We may deny that we are neglecting our paid work by taking unauthorised time off to do some shopping. We may also deny that our favourite sports team is tragically incompetent, externalising its run of losses as sheer bad luck. And we see denial all around us. We know senior managers of large organisations who deny that there is a staff morale problem, even though absenteeism rates are high, in-house bickering is endemic and efficiency is low. It is this kind of denial, as a defence mechanism, that helps us and our senior managers to deal with circumstances in life that make us feel uncomfortable or anxious. We tell ourselves and others that things are fine when they aren't, and it is these self-deceptive white lies of denial that keep us going. Denial is a day-to-day transactional business. It's just routine.

Denial becomes troublesome when the game is stepped up a notch or two, when the defence mechanism turns into a self-deceptive refusal to accept significant, life-affecting realities that are obvious to the world at large. When Thabo Mbeki and the South African government asserted (until 2006 at least) that HIV-AIDS was not a serious issue in their country, with the health minister explaining that AIDS was actually an illness that could be cured by garlic, beetroot and lemons, that was denial. When President George W Bush, against growing evidence to the contrary, rejected the criticism that his administration's intelligence failures had led to a faulty strategy in the war against Iraq, that was denial. And when Chinese leader Deng Xiao-Ping denied the scale and character of the massacre at Tiananmen Square, that was denial (along with contempt for human rights and for foreign meddling). These were not white lies told to smooth away anxiety; they were significant misrepresentations, distortions and falsehoods constructed to meet internalised psychological and external political needs. Not only are these self-deceiving deniers stubbornly resistant to external reality; they also occupy positions of authority, meaning that their denial is a powerful political tool. When it comes to denying for personal gratification and for political gain, the deniers hold all the cards, for the time being at least.

With his political denial, Mbeki was probably torn between thinking that he was right but sensing that he was wrong. Bush, in the circumstances, couldn't afford to tell himself that he was wrong. Deng deceived himself by following the expedient party line in refusing to accept a widely held belief (outside China) that the students of Tiananmen were peaceful, pro-democracy demonstrators. Observers and commentators may be angry about these types of contemporary political denials, but with much of the evidence still to be released concerning motivation, occurrence and causation, all they can do is conjecture, search for more clues and grumble about a half-known and half-explored present.

In contrast to political denial, with historical denial, it is a self-deceiving fantasy about a more fully known and explored past that makes observers angry, bearing in mind that interpretations of the past change, just as times change. Historical denialist fictions may make perfect, delusory sense to deniers, whose motivation to deny, as we shall see, is a self-protective irrationality; but denial provokes astonishment from bemused and exasperated onlookers, who may well think that denialist distortion of key facets of past events is just a spiteful version of flat earthism. More specifically, informed observers, such as working historians, tend to be dismissive of historical denialism, writing off both individual and organisational deniers as cranks motivated by personal or ideological agendas. Indeed, much professional historical commentary takes the phenomenon of denial at face value, treating it as an inexplicable, marginal activity peopled by stubborn fantasists.

Even when historical denial is taken seriously, individual historians have tended to confine themselves to examining it on a topic-by-topic basis. There are books about Holocaust denial, communist denial and Turkish denial, for example, but there is little written on denial as a historical genre in its own right. Even within these specialist historical topics, there is a tendency for historians to become distracted by testing out the content or substance of the denial rather than trying to establish its pathology - what it is that makes these deniers tick. Diverted by denouncing and proving the deniers to be impostors, the opponents of denialism have, in many instances, passed up the chance either to explain why deniers do what they do or to seek any deeper, functional basis for this strange and enduring phenomenon.

The key to historical denial lies in its self-deception transformed into an attempted deception of others, and this process tends to follow certain behavioural patterns. This book will deal with historical denial as an activity that has its own underlying structure based on several observable psychological characteristics. The argument here is that deniers share certain traits that may be categorised in psychological terms, although there are variations in their emphasis and applicability. Historical denial is viewed as about more than a capricious desire to block and shock, more than a personal or political desire to oppose. Once an individual or group wishes to convince others of their self-deceiving distortion of historical reality, the utterances of that individual or group will tend to follow the same processes employed by an individual using psychological denial. For example, to convince oneself that an unpleasant truth of one's own life is not so - no, I do not drink too much wine in the evening - one may repress knowledge of how many bottles of wine one buys, claim to be just a social drinker, point to others who drink much more (whether they do or not), and dismiss, ignore or hide the empty bottles. Similarly, a political leader or a writer who wishes to deny interpretations of past events may repress uncomfortable feelings or thoughts, claim to be an objective observer, discuss others' alleged misdeeds and dismiss, ignore or suppress any contradictory evidence.

Having established this proposition, that historical denial has a psychological dimension, the application of denialism's common characteristics will be considered in detail in this book, through an examination of six illustrative case studies taken from modern history. The case studies chosen are, in chronological order: Turkish denial of genocidal behaviour towards Armenians; Holocaust denial; Japanese denial of wartime atrocities; British communist denial of Stalinist crimes against humanity; Serbian and Marxist denial of genocide in Bosnia; and Australian denial of the maltreatment of Indigenous Australians.

The choice of these particular twentieth-century topics was based on several factors: It is only in the twentieth century that we have seen the promulgation of a series of constraining international conventions and declarations that have attempted to limit, through international condemnation and sanctions, the excesses of brutal regimes and organisations. From 1899 onwards, following the adoption of the first Hague convention, originally framed to govern conduct in war, a growing international awareness of the continuing conflict between human rights on the one hand and ruthless political, religious or economic ambition on the other produced a parallel growth in denialism. Perpetrators and their supporters, trying to stay within the bounds of what has become increasingly accepted as lawful behaviour regarding human rights, rationalise away their excesses through practices of denial, which may vary in character but remain consistent in form and function.

The first of these consistencies in denialist form is hostility by the majority of deniers towards a particular 'other' or group of 'others'. That is to say, they are, as individuals and as groups, bigoted; indeed, in some cases, they are deeply prejudiced to the point of showing intense hatred. For example, Turkish bias against Armenians is still alive and well among some Islamic extremist sections of the Turkish community; neo-Nazis enthusiastically maintain their anti-Semitism; Japanese ultra-nationalists continue to be racially contemptuous of their Chinese and Korean neighbours; Serbian ultra-nationalists loathe their Muslim neighbours to the west and to the south; and some Australians who support the denialist position seem to have an obsession more with the condition of Indigenous history than with the condition of Indigenous Australians. There are exceptions; for example, in their pro-Stalinist condition of denial, British Marxists did not consciously display racist or ethnic intolerance, unlike their hero.

When they do exist, these different prejudicial perspectives occur on a denialist continuum that ranges from those at the extreme end who might sponsor assassinations, bombings and other forms of violence to the relatively restrained deniers whose activities lie mainly in publishing and public speaking, and also generally within the criminal law. This denialist continuum remains a measure of prejudice from the fanatical end of the scale to the merely abhorrent.

To place this kind of prejudice in context and to see how it relates to the functioning of denial, the work of US social psychologist Gordon Allport is particularly valuable. Allport, a pioneer in the field of prejudice whose 1954 classic The Nature of Prejudice had a huge impact in the 1960s and thereafter, gave prejudice some theoretical and practical context by moving beyond a merely psychodynamic definition. He described the prejudiced individual as a person who holds a hatred based upon a 'faulty and inflexible generalization'. This was an of-its-time definition that did not, for example, include gender issues, and some of Allport's pre-feminist thinking has since been challenged as the basis of subsequent research. However, the characteristics of prejudiced individuals or groups identified by Allport, and by his successors, include some recognisable traits that hold today among deniers: acquiescence to authority and leaders; emotional inhibition; belief in order and discipline; hostility towards an easy target; distrust of others who are different; simplistic analysis of complex circumstances; antagonism to ideas beyond their frame of reference; belief in the purity of self and in the evil of a different other; and belief that their own group is superior to other groups. As we shall see, these traits manifest themselves repeatedly among individual deniers and, to some extent, form a behavioural basis for institutional denial.

The second consistency in denialist form is the attachment of deniers to outrageous beliefs, an attachment that appears to defy logic and seems only to increase in intensity as yet more evidence comes to light that contradicts the denialist position. Again, in line with the facile view that deniers are misguided idiots, critics of denialism see this simply as an extreme form of obstinacy: the tendency of a denier, drowning in a sea of refutation, to clutch at straws. However, there is more to this stubbornness than meets the eye, and to explain exactly what is going on, the work of Leon Festinger, yet another pioneering US psychologist, who developed the concept of cognitive dissonance, is both apposite and helpful. In his book A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance (1957), Festinger argued that the self seeks internal consistency of beliefs, but, if faced with two competing belief systems, resolution of this uncomfortable state of mind may be sought by rejecting one system and by increasing adherence to the remaining system. For example, if a group has an unfolding organisational memory (or history) that imagines Stalin to be especially good, but this organisational memory is increasingly confronted by evidence that unambiguously shows that Stalin was especially bad, the result will be an uncomfortable cognitive dissonance within the group. Festinger's approach, although qualified and modified by later research, thus helps to explain why, when the evidence for one set of denied events becomes increasingly incontrovertible, the deniers simply cling to their original position, tightening their grip and rationalising away any new findings that contradict their beliefs. Festinger also pointed out that when cognitive dissonance reaches breaking point, an individual will either strongly reinforce already held views or reject them. This finding is borne out, for example, when we consider those British Marxists who, after enduring decades of increasing cognitive dissonance, finally broke with communism over the Soviet suppression of the Hungarian uprising in 1956, and at the others, who remained within the Communist Party of Great Britain, notwithstanding the clearly appalling behaviour of Soviet authorities.

The third consistency in denialism is found in the way in which almost all of its attributes can be grouped within the overarching concepts of repression and projection, two key defence mechanisms that were first outlined by Sigmund Freud in a psychoanalytic context and later refined by his daughter Anna.

Repression is a method used by the self (in this case, the denier) to deal with an anxiety-producing condition (in this case, knowledge of a discomfiting past), by blotting out the unsavoury details, contradicting any commentary that may include anxiety-producing symptoms and fabricating a reassuring, if deluded, worldview. Such is the case, for example, with Marxist denial of Serb atrocities in Bosnia.

To bolster their defences against unwelcome intrusions from more realistically grounded others, deniers may also employ projection as a defence mechanism. This is the attributing of one's own feelings or motivations to others. For example, deniers will commonly accuse their opponents of a conspiracy against the denialist position when, as it happens, the deniers themselves are engaged in a conspiracy or coverup of their own. Or, if the denialist case is concerned with rejecting accusations of mass murder, the projectionist position will argue that the victims of the mass murder committed murder on the same or similar scale or were so provocative that they brought the punitive killings upon themselves, an argument that contemporary Turkish nationalists have made against their Armenian accusers about the massacres of 1915. This form of projection, which includes the view that the deniers' opponents are out to get them and repression of the idea that it is they, in the first place, who are out to get their opponents, produces in the deniers a feeling of increased self-confirmation and solidarity, which allows them to continue to cope with their fearful version of reality.

Moving beyond her father's basic analysis of repression and projection, Anna Freud extended the ideas by categorising denial, again within a psychoanalytic context, into four major forms, which provide a useful set of behavioural categories.

The first category of denial is simple denial, or a blocking of reality, despite overwhelmingly contrary evidence that is generally regarded as unassailable. In modern Japan, for example, nationalists refuse to believe that imperial Japanese troops carried out countless barbaric atrocities, preferring instead to think that accusations of appalling military behaviour during World War II are part of a foreign conspiracy against the honour of Japan.

The second category lies in deeds, or taking action, to support denial. For example, in Turkey, as we shall see, under Article 301 of the criminal code, it is illegal to defame Turkishness by commenting on the 1915 Armenian massacres in a way that suggests Turkish involvement was a genocidal act.

The third category of denial is fantasy, in other words maintaining a belief in unsound ideas by creating fantasies around the object of the denial. Holocaust deniers provide the most florid examples of fantasy with their view, for example, that Adolf Hitler was a much-maligned leader. And, the deniers may continue, even if it is the case that large numbers of Jews were killed, the Fuhrer was, in reality, both the unwitting chief of organisations staffed by over-zealous underlings and the victim of post-war Jewish conspiracies and lies.

The fourth category is the use of carefully chosen words to perpetuate the mistaken belief. The single most significant word in current denialist vocabulary is 'revisionism', generally the rewriting of history either using new evidence or re-interpreting existing evidence. In making the assertion that they are ' revisionists', the deniers hope to place themselves on a scale of legitimate historical inquiry that ranges from orthodoxy to heterodoxy, with themselves situated at the (respectably) heterodox end.

There are other, less common forms of denial that are clearly manifested in the behaviour of some individual deniers. In Freudian terms, the more specific neuroses of grandiosity and narcissism are often associated with the overarching neuroses of repression and projection. Grandiosity is a boastful and pretentious tendency to regard the self as a mover and shaker when others do not share this view. To deal with possible external rejection, grandiose personalities demand recognition for fantasised achievements and tell lies to gain credibility. There are several deniers discussed in the following chapters who exhibit grandiose behaviour. Narcissists display symptoms similar to grandiosity; indeed the two are commonly linked. Narcissists inhabit a self-absorbed and conniving world and have a tendency to use and abuse others to gain attention that will prop up their self-regarding fantasies. They become enraged when obstructed or when their defences are broken through and they are revealed for what they are. While conventional narcissists may behave in a callously seductive fashion to achieve their goals, in an inverted form of the neurosis, the more that denialist narcissists behave in an outrageous and manipulative fashion, the more reinforcement they feel they are obtaining for their view of self as the centre of attention. As with grandiosity, this form of narcissism is exhibited in the most extravagant fashion by several of the individual deniers discussed in this book.

A composite picture now begins to emerge of deniers as individuals or groups who, in making false claims, frequently display behaviour and opinions consistent with deep-seated prejudice, including: belief in the wickedness of others, the infallibility of the self and the supremacy of right-minded authority; vindictive attacks on supporters of opposing points of view; obsessive fear, to the point of neuroticism, of attack, while attacking others; stubborn refusal to believe widely accepted rational explanations for past events; defence of their position through actions that, at worst, may include violence, and, at least, may include a vexatious form of litigation; re-emphasis on the strength of their beliefs while rationalising away rebuttals in order to cope with contradictions in their own convictions; and overweening egotism combined with an inability to see themselves as others see them.

When it comes to ego, there is an interesting common feature in the case studies that follow. Without wanting to linger for too long in Freudian constructions, each set of deniers discussed has an ego ideal, an iconic pater familias, so to speak. Among Turkish deniers, it is Kemal Ataturk; among Holocaust deniers, Hitler; among Japanese deniers, the emperor; among Marxist deniers, Stalin; among Serb deniers, Milosevic; and among Australian deniers, long-serving prime minister John Howard, a fatherly hero in the battle against progressivist thinking. Not all of these father figures have much in common; their inclusion in the pantheon of denial has more to do with the way in which denialism operates (uncritical respect for a superior authority) than it has to do with universality of behaviour.

Deniers not only appear to have a pathology, or a symptomatic commonality of motivation and process, but also adopt a common set of techniques, including falsely claiming scholarly or technical expertise; using straw-man reasoning (the attributing of false assertions to others to distract argument); focusing on relatively insignificant and apparently inconsistent events that bolster their argument; forcing the counter-denier into arguing about an event of minor significance in a manner that steers the debate well away from the larger mass of corroborated evidence; attacking minor inconsistencies in the arguments of others while ignoring or denying major flaws in their own position; contradicting widely accepted evidence or deriding it as a product of a conspiracy, thus placing opponents in the position of proving a negative; accepting evidence as proven or corroborated even when there is neither valid proof nor corroboration; misrepresenting the views of opponents; making outrageous statements in public to attract media attention and notoriety; choosing to defy authorities or the law to gain publicity and martyrdom; picking public appearances carefully to take advantage of media ignorance; and telling lies. It is through these techniques that the denialist betrayal of history takes place.

In the first instance, denialism betrays history by attempting to distort our understandings of the actual past, or history, as it was lived. It does this by wilfully bending the evidence to suit the unyielding and self-interested purpose of the deniers. The second betrayal lies in denialism's scorn for the primary principles of historical investigation, which include following the evidence, balancing the arguments and providing a coherent and justified explanation. The third betrayal is found in misrepresentation: not only the deniers' misrepresentation of opponents' arguments, a common enough tactic, but also the false claims of historical authenticity made by the deniers themselves.

Another common feature of historical denial that seems to be almost axiomatic is that the more traumatic the event, the more strenuous the denial. The most strenuous forms of denial surround the issue of genocide and its definition. It is important, therefore, to clarify the exact meaning of the word 'genocide'. It was created by US Justice Department lawyer Raphael Lemkin in his 1944 report 'Axis Rule in Occupied Europe: Laws of Occupation, Analysis of Government, Proposals for Redress', as a context-specific reference to the Holocaust. Lemkin's term was adopted internationally as one of several 'crimes against humanity' as defined in the Nuremberg Charter (or the Charter of the International Military Tribunal), and later by the United Nations (UN), under Resolution 96-1 of December 1946 and Resolution 260-111 of December 1948. The fact that the term was created at a certain time does not mean, as some deniers assert, that it may not be applied retrospectively to events that preceded its adoption. Indeed, the worst consequences of the Holocaust itself preceded the creation of Lemkin's neologism, which had a precise but generally applicable etymology, from the Greek genos, meaning 'people' and the Latin caedo, meaning 'I murder', the latter commonly used prior to 1944 in the words patricide and matricide.

During the negotiations that preceded the UN resolutions, however, the Soviet Union, having just done its pre-war best to annihilate the 'counter-revolutionary' Ukrainians and still busily incarcerating and killing its people in the Gulags, was keen to avoid including political crimes within the term 'genocide'. That is why the final UN definition focused on 'intent to destroy, in whole or in part [emphasis added], a national, ethnical, racial or religious group', but not a political group. According to the definition, destruction of members of such groups may be through outright killing; causing serious bodily or mental harm; deliberately inflicting conditions of life calculated to bring about a group's physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within a group; and forcibly transferring children of the group to another group. The important point here is that because the term genocide is so closely associated with such a dreadful event as the Holocaust, delinquent nations, groups and individuals will do all they can to avoid categorisation as genocidal any violent activities for which they may have been responsible.

As tight a definition as it may seem, the UN version of genocide still exhibits some serious semantic flaws, as genocide scholar Eric Weitz has pointed out. For example, the Indonesian campaign against its Chinese minority in the 1960s, which resulted in the deaths of approximately half a million civilians, may be construed by its defenders as a political (hence non-genocidal) campaign, a classic piece of denialist casuistry. On that basis, the Khmer Rouge may technically be accused of genocide only against their minority populations, because their murderous 1970s campaign against their own people was, it may be argued, politically motivated.

Deniers also use the numbers argument to defend their position, adopting a piece of logic chopping known as 'denying the antecedent'. This is how the argument goes: Anything of the nature and numbers of the Holocaust is genocide; if any event does not have the nature and numbers of the Holocaust, it is not genocide. To put it another way, the Holocaust equals genocide; therefore, genocide must equal the Holocaust. The first problem here is that, when it comes to the nature of the event, the Holocaust was a specific historical occurrence that had certain attributes, including intent and a comprehensive, industrially run extermination campaign. If other mass murders do not have these precise attributes, this does not automatically disqualify them from being considered genocidal. The second problem, the numbers debate, is a red herring, since the key phrase in the UN definition is 'with intent to destroy, in whole or in part': under Lemkin's rules, it allows that an intentional plan to harm, for example, part of a small clan, a tribe or an ethnic community of several hundred can be genocidal. Proportion is one thing; numbers are another - it is the proportion that counts. For example, the international legal definition of mass murder has come to include the 1990s euphemism 'ethnic cleansing', but only in certain circumstances is this considered genocidal, as in the case of Bosnia between 1992 and 1995. The Serbian plan to create a Muslim-free zone in the Upper Drina Valley by means of murder, rape and destruction of property was confirmed as genocide by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia and by the International Court of Justice in 2007, but solely in the case of the massacre at Srebrenica. In this, the ICTY and ICJ's judgment was not in accord with a broader version of genocide as 'intent to destroy', a formulation agreed upon by a nonbinding UN General Assembly resolution in 1993. The 1948 and 2007 definitions currently hold sway in international law.

The UN definition of genocide, while including highly localised atrocities such as Srebrenica, excludes, on the above grounds, such violent incidents as the terror attack on civilians in Guernica in 1937; the indiscriminate bombings of Rotterdam and Coventry, and the London Blitz, in 1940; the fire-bombings of Hamburg in 1943, and of Dresden and Tokyo in 1945; the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945; the Red Army violence against German civilians in Berlin in April 1945; the Soviet expulsion of Germans from East Prussia in 1945; and the post-war Czech expulsion of Sudeten Germans from the Czech borderlands, also in 1945. Although all were morally questionable assaults that led to dreadful civilian casualties, their exclusion is based on the view that the Germans and the Allies (in these cases) had no intention of destroying the people of Spain, the Netherlands, England, Japan and Germany 'in whole, or in part'.

Genocide, therefore, is about intent; it is about proportion but not necessarily numbers; it is retrospectively applicable. This definition separates genocide from such terms as massacre (general slaughter), mass murder (killing of many individuals), ethnic cleansing (forced expulsion, usually involving brutality and murder) and Holocaust (a specific historical event, despite attempts to gain ownership of the proper noun by non-Jewish survivor groups).

Finally, a note about Denial. This book is intended for the general reader. In presenting its findings as a series of introductory essays, it is based on scholarly and other sources that are, in many cases, relatively inaccessible or highly specialised. The essays themselves cover six discrete areas of modern history, and the structure of each chapter is shaped by its own story. For example, four of the less familiar narratives are given detailed backgrounds (Turkey, Japan, Bosnia and Stalinism), while the Holocaust and Australian chapters focus more on denial and on the arguments about denial than they do on the well-known narrative of the Final Solution and the less well known but fairly easily summarised narrative of the dispossession and deaths of Indigenous Australians.


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