MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
A new poll commissioned by a Jewish organization reveals big gaps in Americans' historical knowledge. According to that survey, two-thirds of millennials and 4 out of 10 Americans overall don't know what Auschwitz was. And while 6 million has long been accepted by historians as the number of Jews killed in the Holocaust, nearly a third of Americans think it was far fewer. And just over half of Americans think Hitler came to power by force. In fact, he was democratically elected.
To consider the significance of this, we're joined now by Deborah Lipstadt. She's the author of many books including, "Denying The Holocaust: The Growing Assault On Truth And Memory." You might remember that another of her books about her successful court defense against a suit by a British Holocaust denier was the basis of the 2016 film "Denial." Professor Lipstadt, thank you so much for speaking with us. It's a pleasure to speak with you once again.
DEBORAH LIPSTADT: You're welcome. Thank you for having me, Michel.
MARTIN: Well, as a person who teaches this history, were you surprised by the results of the survey?
LIPSTADT: I was surprised, I must say that, and I don't surprise easily. I was surprised because 6 million has become almost a noun more than a number. And Auschwitz has become a shorthand for so many things that I was surprised by this number and a bit depressed by it as well.
MARTIN: You famously wrote a book about Holocaust denial - actually, a number of books. What, in your view, is the danger of this lack of knowledge?
LIPSTADT: Danger of lack of knowledge is I think history is important. History shapes people's view of the present. I'm not saying that history always repeats itself or history's always the same. But if you don't know what came before, it's very hard to make wise decisions for the future. You know, as you pointed out in your introduction, so many Americans think that Hitler came to power by violent force - he didn't. As you pointed out, he was elected. And then there began a slow and steady drumbeat of attacks first on the press, then on the courts, then on institutions, slow takeover of institutions.
The Nazis didn't come into office on January 30, 1933, and decide on a genocide the next day. They slowly broke down a democracy. They destroyed it. And I think that is incredibly important. It doesn't mean that every time a democracy is threatened, you're going to end up with genocide. But first, you've got to threaten the democratic institutions to get there. And if you don't know the history, if you have no sense of the history, then you can be blind to what's going on right in front of your nose.
MARTIN: Well, here again is where I'm going to ask you to venture an opinion. I mean, the Anti-Defamation League reported a large increase - a 57 percent increase - in anti-Semitic incidents just last year. Do you think that this increase is related to this lack of knowledge or is it something else?
LIPSTADT: I think you're absolutely right. I think the two are connected. First of all, a lack of awareness of the past desensitizes you to what a comment, what a derogatory remark can mean or what it's part of. And this is whether you're talking about anti-Semitism, whether you're talking about racism, whether you're talking about homophobia. So I think that the lack of knowledge is part of it.
But I think we're now seeing something else. Hatred and the ability to express hateful opinions has become much more accepted in the past two, three years in the United States. Haters have become emboldened, and what they say has become amplified. We're seeing white supremacy, white nationalism, which brings with it of course not just racism but also anti-Semitism becoming a much more accepted force in this country. And I don't just mean Charlottesville, there have been lots of other things that cause concern.
MARTIN: That's Deborah Lipstadt. She is professor of Modern Jewish History and Holocaust Studies at Emory University. She was kind of to join us from her home office in Atlanta. Professor Lipstadt, thank you so much for speaking with us.
LIPSTADT: Thank you, Michel. Good talking to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.