|Deniers, Relativists and Pseudo-Scholarship
By Deborah E. Lipstadt
Holocaust denial should not be seen as an assault on the history of one particular group. It repudiates reasoned discussion, the way the Holocaust, itself, engulfed all civilization. Its attack on Jewish history is, like anti-Semitism, an attack on the most basic values of a reasoned society.
The denial of the Holocaust enlists many strategies. Truth is mixed with blatant falsehood, confusing readers who are unfamiliar with the deniers' tactics. Half-truths fill their pages too, leaving readers with a distorted impression of what really happened.1
What claims do the deniers make? The deniers begin with the supposition that war is evil. (They're really talking about World War II.) Assigning blame to one side is ultimately meaningless.2 Still, if guilt is to be found, the real crimes were committed by the Americans, the Russians, the British, and the French against Germany. The atrocities inflicted on the Germans by the Allies were, in the words of revisionist Harry Elmer Barnes, "more brutal and painful than the alleged exterminations in the gas chambers."3
For some deniers, Hitler was a man of peace, pushed into war by the aggressive Allies. He was a man whose only fault was that he was "too soft, generous and honorable."4 The Germans were the true victims of the war. They suffered as a result of bombing, wartime starvation, invasion, postwar dislocations, and brutal mistreatment by the Allied occupiers.
According to the deniers, Germans were additionally subjected to a vengeance which masqueraded as justice in the form of the Nuremberg trials. In their view, Germany, portrayed by Western historians after the war as criminal, remained a victim of much of the world's emotional and scholarly aggression.
But it is the "myth" of the Holocaust for which the deniers reserve their greatest passion. In their view, the accusation that Germans committed the most heinous crime in human history is the ultimate injustice. The worldwide acceptance of the charge, and the attendant venom towards Germany, has made it impossible, they say, for Germans to defend themselves. In the aftermath of World War II, the argument goes, when Germany endeavored to be readmitted to the family of nations, Germans had to confess their wrongdoing, even though they knew that the charges were false. Even the defendants at Nuremberg knew that it would be futile to try to convince the world that it had been deceived. To have tried to demonstrate that the charges were false would obviously have incurred even greater wrath. Consequently, the Nuremberg defendants chose to defend themselves by claiming that they were not personally guilty. As the latest example of what the deniers regard as wholesale charade, the East Germans felt compelled, in February 1990, to extend a mea maxima culpa to the Jews before embarking on plans for unification with West Germany.
According to the deniers, the charge of genocide is a Jewish invention. Some deniers, including Arthur Butz, a professor of electrical engineering at Northwestern University, admit that the Nazis were "guilty" of having expressed anti-Semitic sentiments. But they believe that Nazi anti-Semitism was justified in light of alleged "Jewish control" over the Weimar Republic. Nazi anti-Semitism wasn't even that significant, they note, since it's their belief that Germans had no intention of annihilating Jews. Citing Nazi propaganda, almost verbatim, they contend that Germans executed population "transfers" (i.e., deportations) to resolve social, economic, and labor problems. Deniers acknowledge that some Jews were incarcerated in places like Auschwitz, but, they maintain, the camps were equipped with recreational facilities like swimming pools and dance halls.5 Of course, some Jews did die, but this, they argue, was the natural consequence of wartime deprivations.
For the deniers what happened to the Jews is beside the point: Jews are not victims, they are victimizers. They "stole" billions in the form of post-World War II German reparations, destroyed Germany's good name by spreading the "myth" of the Holocaust, and won international sympathy because of what they claimed was done to them. In a paramount miscarriage of justice, Jews used this deception to establish the state of Israel.6
It is critical to understand that the deniers' pseudo-historical arguments, in addition to being anti-intellectual, are, in the words of historian Charles Maier, "blatantly racist."7
The assault on the Holocaust is not of recent vintage. For many years, Holocaust denial was an enterprise engaged in by a small group of political extremists and radical-fringe pseudo-historians. Their arguments tended to appear in poorly printed pamphlets, right-wing publications, and in neo-Nazi newspapers, such as the Spotlight.
When one first encounters them, it is hard not to wonder who could or would take them seriously. Their arguments are so beyond the pale of acceptable scholarly discourse and historical argument that it initially seems ludicrous to devote much, if any, mental energy to them. Given the preponderance of evidence from victims', bystanders', and perpetrators' eyewitness accounts, it seems to be a waste of time to worry about them. Besides, what possible impact could the deniers have? Since they are a group that is motivated by a strange conglomeration of conspiracy theories, anti-Semitic ravings, and neo-Nazi tendencies, the natural tendency is to summarily dismiss them. Some have equated them with "flat earth" theorists, worthy at best of bemused attention but not of serious analysis or concern.
There are a number of compelling reasons for not brushing them off. First, their modus operandi has changed in the past decade. They have dedicated themselves to convincing the world that they are engaged in a serious historical enterprise. Their books and journals have been given an academic format and they've worked hard to insinuate themselves into the arena of legitimate historical debate and deliberation.8, 9
But it is not just the strategies they've chosen to present their arguments which have changed. They have also strengthened their ties with influential political groups both in the United States and Europe. Although these groups are small, their influence and power seem to be increasing rapidly. In many cases, the extremist groups with which they are aligned have made Holocaust denial part of a melange of extremist, racist, and nativist sentiments.
Moreover, there is a danger in assuming that because these arguments are so outlandish they can simply be ignored. As Colin Holmes observed in his analysis of Holocaust denial in Britain, Holocaust "revisionist views of the world are no more bizarre than those enshrined in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion," a report claiming to present evidence of a secret plan to establish Jewish world supremacy.10 In fact, the revisionists draw a great deal of inspiration from the Protocols, which has enjoyed a sustained and vibrant life despite the fact that it was long ago exposed as a forgery.
Many years ago, German historian Theodor Mommsen warned that reason alone isn't enough to keep people from believing falsehoods. If this were the case, then racism, anti-Semitism, and other forms of prejudice would find no home. In despair Mommsen wrote, "You are mistaken if you believe that anything at all could be achieved by reason. In years past I thought so myself and kept protesting against the monstrous infamy that is anti-Semitism. But it is useless, completely useless."11
To expect reason, rational dialogue, and discourse to constitute the sole barriers against the pernicious attempts to deny the Holocaust is to ignore one of the ultimate lessons of the event itself. There was no rational basis underlying the Nazi atrocities. There was, however, the appeal of anti-Semitism. Mythical thinking and the force of the irrational have a strange and compelling allure. Intellectuals are hardly immune from irrational, mystical thinking. Some do so in the name of "free speech," free inquiry," or "intellectual freedom."
It is this commitment to free inquiry and the power of mythical thinking that explains, at least in part, how revisionists have attracted leading figures and institutions. Noam Chomsky is probably the best known among them. Chomsky wrote the introduction to a book by French revisionist Robert Faurisson. In it Chomsky argued that scholars' ideas cannot be censored no matter how distasteful they may be. Though Alfred Kazin was right on target when he recently described Chomsky as a "dupe of intellectual pride so overweening that he is incapable of making distinctions between totalitarian and democratic societies, between oppressors and victims," Chomsky's argument shocked many people, including those who thought they were inured to Chomsky's antics.12
Chomsky's example shows why the dangers of free inquiry should be taken seriously. Even the supposed protectors of reasoned dialogue can fall for the convoluted notion that all arguments are equally legitimate. Those who argue that the deniers must be given a fair hearing fail to recognize that the deniers' quest is not a search for truth. Rather they are motivated by racism, extremism, and virulent anti-Semitism.
Lately, the deniers' work has become more virulent and dangerous, in part because it has become more sophisticated. Their publications, including The Journal of Historical Review, mimic legitimate scholarly publications. This confuses those who do not immediately know the Journal's intentions.13
Outside the scholarly arena, the deniers' arguments have found a comfortable and ready acceptance among increasingly vocal and hostile anti-Semitic elements in both North America and Europe. Neo-Nazi extremist groups have adopted deniers' arguments as have groups of more recent vintage, such as skinheads. These groups have become dangerous because they, too, have found their way into legitimate political circles without abandoning any of their prejudices. David Duke's recent political achievements in Louisiana are evidence of this. Duke, a former Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, was elected to the state legislature. Later, he won 40 percent of the vote in the race to win the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate. (Duke won 60 percent of the white vote.) In addition to expressing racist sentiments, he has actively espoused Holocaust denial. When his sole identification was as a Klansman, his access to the public was limited. Today, however, the situation has changed. He has shed his sheet and donned a three-piece suit, winning him a respectable audience.
Similar trends are evident elsewhere. In France, for example, Jean-Marie Le Pen is leader of the right-wing National Front party. He has called the Nazi gas chambers "a point of detail" in history.14
Many people, I suspect, regard revisionist arguments as a test of free speech. A few years ago, shortly after the publication of my book on the American press coverage of the Holocaust,15 I appeared on a number of radio interview and call-in shows. On two or three occasions I was asked by the host if I would appear with or "debate" a revisionist.16 When I refused, the producers couldn't understand why I was unwilling to do so. One producer said, "I don't agree with them at all, but isn't this simply another 'side' which our listeners should hear?"
No one has been able to measure accurately or scientifically the impact of Holocaust denial on high school and college students. It is probably limited. But revisionist incidents have occurred on a number of college campuses. Recently, at the University of Indiana, a part-time faculty member used class time to argue that the Holocaust was a propaganda hoax designed to make the Germans look evil. Though the school promptly fired him, some of his students complained that he was being unfairly treated. One argued that he had brought articles to class which "proved his point."
In a number of informal conversations with those who help train history and social studies teachers to teach the Holocaust, I've heard that teachers sometimes feel the revisionist view should at least be mentioned as a "controversial" view of the Holocaust. College professors have also found this attitude among their students, who have complained that their course did not include a presentation of the "other side."
Those who are committed to the liberal idea of dialogue fail to recognize that certain views are beyond the bounds of rational discourse. After all, these views do not emanate from rational or honest inquiry. Thomas Jefferson argued that in a setting committed to the honest pursuit of truth, all ideas and opinions must be tolerated. But he added a caveat, which is particularly applicable: "We are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it" (emphasis added).17 In the case of Holocaust denial, reason becomes hostage to particularly odious ideology.
The impact of revisionist claims on young people is of valid concern since they often are the most willing to listen. As Walter Reich observed in the Washington Post, they listen because they believe "everything is debatable and nothing [including the Holocaust] should be accepted as true that was not personally seen and experienced."18
There is a less tangible but potentially more insidious kind of denial. It is what I choose to call the "yes but" syndrome: Yes, there was a Holocaust, but were there really six million Jews killed? Yes, there was a Holocaust, but the Nazis were only trying to defend themselves against their enemies. Yes, there was a Holocaust, but most Jews died of starvation and disease (as is the case in every war). Yes, there was a Holocaust, but there have been so many horrible massacres in history. Why do we hear only about the Holocaust?19
Exponents of these viewpoints may have different motives from the deniers', but the results are surprisingly the same: the blurring of the boundaries between fact and fiction and between persecuted and persecutor. With enough latitude, the "yes but" approach robs the Holocaust of its uniqueness and its capacity to offer the world ethical, moral, and political lessons. It reduces the Holocaust to a merely relative evil.
The "yes but" approach nurtures and is nurtured by Holocaust denial. This is not to suggest that relativists, such as German historian Ernst Nolte, are crypto-deniers. What is clear, however, is that the existence of Holocaust denial has given relativism a cloak of respectability. Denial has stretched the parameters of the debate so far to one side that questions once considered outlandish and dismissed as historically untenable, now find acceptance simply because they are not denial. These include doubts about fundamental aspects of the Holocaust -- the existence of gas chambers, Hitler's knowledge of the Final Solution, and the innocence of the Jews.
Raising questions would be perfectly legitimate if distinctions were scrupulously drawn between fact and fiction in order to refine knowledge. But relativists are interested only in reshaping history and rehabilitating the persecutors.
Although relativists do not have sympathy for deniers, deniers sometimes use the "yes but" approach to find their way into more legitimate circles. The most striking example of this is found in The Leuchter Report. In it, Fred Leuchter purported to prove that there had been no gas chambers in Auschwitz. But he said that he did not deny that there was a Holocaust.20 (If there were no gas chambers, then what happened at Auschwitz?) The disclaimer notwithstanding, deniers have funded his work and disseminated his findings.
Scholars must study Holocaust deniers to expose their modus operandi. Still, readers might wonder, How much on the fringe can deniers be if serious historians don't dismiss them? Doesn't the fact that scholars accord them attention suggest that they are legitimate? Doesn't research on the deniers give them the publicity they crave?
Indeed, revisionists are quick to seize on any discussion of their work, including reports that demonstrate how they misquote and skew the findings of legitimate historical inquiry. Such discussion appears to give them respectability.
The danger of inadvertently making revisionists seem credible is not the only cause for trepidation. There is another, more serious problem inherent in refuting revisionists. Even if refutation is limited to the province of scholarly articles, it is possible, as the French historian Pierre Vidal-Naquet observed, that research on denial would elevate revisionism to a legitimate ideological enterprise.21 Deniers have recently taken to calling those who study the Holocaust "exterminationalists" to place denial in juxtaposition to truly serious inquiry; hence the significance of the name "revisionism" which they have adopted for themselves.22
While it is doubtful that we shall witness in the near future frequent instances of outright denial, subtle and consequently more dangerous theories continue to appear. The course of this development and the nature of the theories, however pseudo-scientific they may be, must be fully dissected. We need not waste time or effort answering the deniers' contentions. It would be never-ending to respond to arguments posed by those who freely falsify findings, quote out of context, and simply dismiss reams of testimony. Unlike true scholars, they have little if any respect for data or evidence. Their commitment is to an ideology and their "findings" are shaped to support it.
However, there is a critical difference between debate and analysis. To debate them is to risk giving their efforts the imprimatur of a legitimate historical option. It is far better to analyze who these people are and what it is they are trying to accomplish. Above all, it is essential to expose the illusion of their reasoned inquiry that conceals their extremist views. It is only when society comprehends this group's real intentions that we can be sure that history will not be reshaped to promote a variety of pernicious objectives.
The speciousness of their arguments, not the arguments themselves, demands a response. The insidious way in which denial enters the mainstream -- often disguised as relativism -- must be fully exposed.
Ultimately, it is crucial to understand the deniers' influence. In the words of historian Donald Kagan, the past and, more important, our perception of the past, have a powerful "influence on the way we act in response to our own problems today. What historians and others say happened and what they sat it means...makes a great difference." Relativists and deniers are well aware of this. It is not by chance that Harry Elmer Barnes, one of the originators of American Holocaust denial, believed that history could serve as a "deliberate and conscious instrument of social transformation."24
The deniers hope to achieve their goals by willing recognition as a legitimate scholarly cadre. Though treating Holocaust denial as a topic worthy of serious research may seem to confer this recognition, exposing them for who they really are will ultimately rob them of every shred of legitimacy.
1 See David Barnouw and Gerrold van der Stroom, eds., The Diary of Anne Frank: The Critical Edition (New York: Doubleday, 1989), pp. 91-101, for a discussion of how revisionists have treated Ann Frank's diary.
2 Conversation with Robert Faurisson, Vichy, France, June 1989.
3 Harry Elmer Barnes, "Revisionism: A Key to Peace," Rampart Journal, Vol. 2, No. 1 (Spring 1966), p. 33.
4 Ibid., Revisionism and Brainwashing: A Survey of the War-Guilt Question in Germany After Two World Wars (Privately printed, 1962), p. 33.
5 This was part of the defense testimony given at the trial of Ernst Zundel in Canada.
6 Conversation with Robert Faurisson, Vichy, France, June 1989.
7 Charles Maier, The Unmasterable Past: History, Holocaust and German National Identity (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988), p. 64.
9 Their entré into the academic sphere has not been marked with much success, however. Obviously, no serious or respected historian would give them any credence. The only historian who has associated himself with the deniers, David Irving, has long been on the fringe of scholarly critics and has, in fact, consistently been dismissed by many scholars for his strange theses.
10 Colin Holmes, "Historical Revisionism in Britain: The Politics of History." In Trends in Historical Revisionism: History As a Political Device (London: Centre for Contemporary Studies, 1985), p. 8.
11 Marvin Perry, "Denying the Holocaust: History As Myth and Delusion," Encore: American and Worldwide News, September 1981, pp. 28-33.
12 Alfred Kazin, "Americans Right, Left and Indifferent: Responses to the Holocaust," Dimensions, Volume 4, No. 1, p. 12.
13 Such confusion has already occurred in the highest circles of the American educational establishment. In 1986, a history major at Yale University submitted his senior essay, on the German Luftwaffe during the Spanish Civil War, to The Journal of Historical Review, which happily published it after paying him $250. (Most academic journals offer no compensation, particularly to students seeking to publish student essays.) The student stated that he did not research the Journal prior to submitting the article. He simply found it listed among other historical journals and assumed it was legitimate.
14 U.S. News and World Report, May 28, 1990, p. 24; Los Angeles Times, May 29, 1990, pp. H1, H7.
15 Beyond Belief: The American Press and the Coming of the Holocaust, 1933-1945 (New York: Free Press, 1986).
16 Lucy Dawidowicz had a similar experience on the Larry King show. See Dawidowicz, "Lies About the Holocaust," Commentary, December 1980, p. 36.
17 Dumas Malone, The Sage of Monticello: Jefferson and His Time, Volume VI (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1981), pp. 417-418. My thanks to David Ellenson for reminding me of the applicability of Jefferson's ideas to this inquiry.
18 Walter Reich, "Denying the Holocaust: Prelude to What?," Washington Post, May 3, 1981.
19 See my Beyond Belief for a discussion of how the "yes but" syndrome first manifested itself during the war and prevented many Americans, particularly publishers, editors and reporters, from grasping the implications of the reports they were receiving.
20 Fred Leuchter, The Leuchter Report: The End of a Myth. An Engineering Report on the Alleged Execution Gas Chambers at Auschwitz, Birkenau and Majdenek, Poland, with a foreword to Robert Faurisson (Samisdat Publishers Ltd., 1988, no place cited).
21 Democracy, Vol. 1/2, April 1981.
22 Their decision to call themselves "revisionists" was clearly a calculated one designed to align themselves with other legitimate schools of historical thought, e.g., World War I revisionism. The implication is, of course, that there are two schools of thought on a given issue.
23 Donald Kagan, "The First Revisionist Historian," Commentary, May 1988, p. 44.
24 Justus D. Doenecke, "Harry Elmer Barnes: Prophet of a Usable Past," History Teacher, February 1975, p. 273.
Deborah E. Lipstadt is author of "Beyond Belief: The American Press and the Coming of the Holocaust, 1933-1945" and Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory,
This article originally appeared in Dimensions, Vol. 6, No. 1, 1991.