In the first part in this series, I introduced a basic premise for assessing commonalities among conspiracy theorists and deniers of many stripes, focusing on three specific tendencies outlined in Denying the Holocaust. But there are broader consistencies among deniers, writ large. Probably the second-best known volume on Holocaust denial next to Lipstadt’s is Denying History by Michael Shermer and Alex Grosman. Linking the denial of Japanese war crimes during WWII to Holocaust denial, the text develops an explicit comparative perspective. Further, the authors note “The parallels between the fallacies of the reasoning of Holocaust deniers and other fringe groups are […] eerily similar”.
Outside of the deeper frameworks of psychological study, denial might be described simply as the rejection of an “official narrative” and the approval of an alternative hypothesis or hypotheses. This, on face, is not bad if the evidence supports the rejection of a given narrative. Still less so if the given narrative is widely held enough to be deemed “official.” There is a difference between good faith efforts to parse the truth and the work of denialism.
Denialists exhibit obvious bias that trap them in a mindset defined by their denial. They do not follow the fact patterns created by the confluence of evidence but look for small details, mistakes in the evidence collection, or even the potential for falsification, in general, in order to reject scientific findings outright. Since science is defined by the possibility of falsification by theorists like Karl Popper, the presence of such a potential is intrinsic to any analysis worth pinning confidence to. Denialism becomes denial for the sake of denial.
In the previous post, I called on witnesses to denial like Deborah Lipstadt, who described Holocaust denial “as a threat to all of history and to reasoned discourse.” Enjoining her readers to defend history from its assailants, Lipstadt opens the door, I argue, to the broader work of confronting misinformation, disinformation and, specifically, denialism.
The parallels of denialism are striking in Peter Maass’s account of the Bosnian war, who observes of the Bosnian genocide that the goal “was to kill history. If you want to do that, you must rip out history’s heart… reinvent the past in whatever distorted form you wanted, like Frankenstein”. To create this Frankenstein, the genocide targeted not only material bodies but symbolic ones as well—mosques and memories—in what Bosnian academic Hariz Halilovich called “memoricide.” The Greater Serbia project was about eradicating the (cultural) history of Bosnia and Herzegovina. And eradicating Bosnia and Herzegovina from history—the most notorious event in this regard being the shelling of Vijećnica.
In the previous part, I described dehumanizing humiliation and insult of the victims of crimes against humanity, the misconstrual of official documents and efforts to take a perpetrator’s rational faculties for granted as important tactics for deniers. To hone the analysis it may be useful to focus on one particular tendency with more generalizable attributes. Based on Maass’s description of the destruction of history in Bosnia, I think it makes sense to look at how the tactics of deniers functioned. For a broader, robust set of general attributes of denial, I will look to Shermer and Grosman, who enumerate ten points to aid “denial detection.”
By examining Bosnian genocide denial in relation to the ten points of detection, we can get a sense of a kind of rubric that can be used to assess the extent and dimensions of denial. More specifically, we can examine the Markale massacres —two separate incidents in February 1994 and then August 1995 in which a Sarajevo marketplace was shelled, leading to many deaths. Immediately, the aggressors suggested the Bosnians had bombed themselves in order to prompt a humanitarian intervention from the West. While this claim was dubious, the next bombing was proven to come from the forces of Republika Srpska, which was carrying out genocide of Bosnians. Here are the ten points of denial at work:
- Using accepted methods. Generally, deniers fail to utilize “dispassionate employment of scholarship,” instead reverting to ad hominem attacks, bravado, and unevidenced, inflammatory claims. In the aftermath of the bombing of Sarajevo’s Markale marketplace in February 1994, the war criminal Radovan Karadžić told journalist Mark Danner, “You know, the Muslims—they took bodies from the morgue and they put them there, in the market. Even when they shell themselves like this, no one shell kills that many. So they went to the morgue…” But Danner had been there. He had seen the bodies and seen injured people. He recognized the corpses from previous trips to the market. Karadžić further claimed that the bodies were mannequins and dolls. The story had no basis in fact.
- Incongruity with common sense. Deniers often claim that the US strove to become involved from the beginning to break apart Yugoslavia to more easily exploit the new nation-states. So why did the Bosnians need to go to the absurd measure of bombing themselves in hopes that the West would get involved? The narrative structure stretches credulity.
- Confirmation bias.Deniers tend to utterly discard all evidence that contradict their own theories, if they have any at all (or are bold enough to posit them out loud). In the case of the February explosion, deniers insisted that one shell could not land in a market surrounded by tall buildings, and that the site was too far for any but the most experienced marksmen to hit. The next bombing included five shells, and proved to be launched by the Republika Srpska side. The fact was that Republika Srpska forces had been shelling Sarajevo for a long time, and were quite experienced marksmen by that point. Deniers further argued that the rapidity with which reporters responded belied the authenticity of the scene—something with no scientific basis beyond skepticism.
- Exaggerated claims, for instance, that the shell had actually been a bomb that had been planted, presumably by Islamist terrorists on the side of the Bosnians. While some disputed who fired the shell, including the British leader of the UN Protection Force, General Michael Rose, they agreed it was a real shell and not a bombing. The conjecture about a bombing played on stereotypes of Muslims as terrorists. And while General Rose was correct about the blast coming from a shell, his revelation was based on information posited a mere three days after the incident, and his own UN Protection Force later admitted an error in calculation.
- Textual distortion. General Rose’s admission from his book is often taken as a confession of sorts, but the context is important. Three days after the February 1994 attack, his text states, he told a Bosnian official that their side launched the shell. This does not offer evidence or proof. In the case of the second Markale massacre in August 1995, deniers insisted that the UN could not immediately determine the source of the shells. This however was false, the result of a rumor spread as a result of a “neutral statement” made by a UN commander.
- If there is an alternative explanation, is it evidenced? Despite General Rose’s informal verdict, the alternative hypothesis is contested even among deniers. When alternative hypotheses are raised in such situations, there are often so many of them that the generation of hypotheticals renders impossible the serious pursuit of historical truth. The number of theories may compensate for their lack of merit, raising doubt in some people’s minds. That said, the far-fetched nature of the “false flag” hypothesis did not stand up at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, which found Stanislav Galić guilty for the shell based on the available evidence.
- Claims only verified by other deniers. This is the source of grievance among deniers, because while their information may be unreasonable, they interpret the lack of public support and mainstream publication as evidence of a conspiracy to silence them. There were stories coming out through mainstream media highlighting official uncertainties, which deniers seized on, but ensuing and contradictory evidence was largely ignored.
- Is it all just denial? The focus on denial is obviously the most important part for deniers. There is rarely any further rational explanation of the confluence of evidentiary streams beyond blaming a conspiracy for lying to the public. Reporters who spoke with Karadžić, for instance, were virtually unanimous in noting his penchant for simply lying straight faced. For the Republika Srpska, after shelling the city of Sarajevo a thousand times, the Serb forces killed no Bosnian innocents. The general denial was so unlikely as to render its provocation clear.
- Are personal beliefs getting in the way? While deniers often falsely accuse their opponents of bias, they often openly pronounce the politically-charged nature of their efforts. For instance, despite insisting they had no interest in defending Milošević, deniers would then offer services for his defense team at The Hague.
- Preponderance of evidence. Does the confluence of evidence fail to support the deniers? For Shermer and Grobman, the “convergence of evidence” includes written documents, eyewitness testimony, photographs, the camps themselves, and inferential evidence like demographics In the case of Markale, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia found that, while six different official reconstructions meant to determine the origin of the shell were submitted to evidence, the most reliable studies indicated the shell came from the direction and distance of the Republika Srpska lines, and carried the necessary charges. By contrast, the defense’s countervailing claims were shown to be faulty.
Now, Shermer and Grobman meant for their framework of denial to be applied in general terms, not just to one incident but to a range of incidents adding up to denial. Bosnian genocide denial (or “Bosnia denialism”) is not just about the nature of the genocide in Srebrenica, which has notoriously been denied, it’s about obfuscating the entire nature of the Bosnian War and the broader intent of the Greater Serbia project.
The concentration camps are arguably easier to prove than the first Markale massacre, as are the mass graves and the “cleansing” of places like Goražde and Srebrenica, or the shelling of Vijećnica. Nevertheless, each of those incidents are denied in various ways that track with the above attributes, precisely because they were part of the same endeavor that needed to be denied collectively in order to subjugate the Bosnian project of multiculturalism to an ethnonationalist narrative. If the scenarios of denial seem familiar, that is because they have been repeated in denials of other war crimes in Syria, to which we will turn in the next installment.
Alexander Reid Ross is a Doctoral Fellow at the Centre for the Analysis of the Radical Right and a PhD candidate in Portland State University’s Earth, Environment, Society program. See full profile here.
© Alexander Reid Ross. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).