Commentary Magazine


Denying the Holocaust, by Deborah Lipstadt

The Deniers

Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory.
by Deborah Lipstadt.
Free Press. 278 pp. $22.95.

Denying the Holocaust provides a detailed and incisive account of the antecedents, origins, and development of the crudest but also the most highly publicized form of travesty to which the Holocaust has been made subject in our day—the movement to deny that the destruction of European Jewry ever took place at all.

As Deborah Lipstadt tells the story, the first steps of outright denial were taken after World War II in France by Maurice Bardèche and Paul Rassinier, and in America by a variety of Nazi sympathizers. It is to Austin J. App, a professor of English at the University of Scranton and La Salle College, that Lipstadt assigns the dubious credit for enumerating the eight assertions that would form the credo of all subsequent deniers. These “principles” keep turning up recycled and repackaged in the “thinking” of those who engage Lipstadt’s attention in the central chapters of her book—Arthur Butz, Ernst Zundel, Robert Faurisson, Fred Leuchter, and David Irving. They are as follows:

  • The Reich plan for the Jews was never annihilation, only emigration.
  • The gas chambers never existed.
  • Most Jews who disappeared were under Soviet, not German, control.
  • Those Jews who did die in German hands deserved what they got because they were spies, saboteurs, and criminals.
  • If the Nazis really had murdered six million Jews, then “world Jewry” would have demanded subsidies to conduct research on the subject and Isreal would have opened its archives to historians.
  • The Jews who exploit the six-million figure have never supplied a shred of evidence to prove it.
  • “Talmudists” and “Bolsheviks” have so bullied the helpless Germans that the latter have paid billions in reparations without even demanding proof of the allegations against them.
  • The fact that Jewish scholars themselves do not agree in their calculations of the exact number of victims constitutes irrefutable evidence that they lack scientific proof of the occurrence of the Holocaust.

Few things better illustrate the bizarre logic of the deniers than this last “principle,” since it invites an obvious retort: if world Jewry is indeed all-powerful, why has it not required its hireling scholars to be in perfect agreement on their findings? For that matter, as Lipstadt observes in one of the rare impassioned moments she allows herself, the omnipotent Jews who have allegedly forced Washington to cooperate in the Holocaust “hoax” are the very same Jews

who were unable to convince [Washington] during the prewar and war years to liberalize the immigration system, open its doors to the 900 Jews on the St. Louis, admit German Jewish refugee children, transport refugees on empty transport ships returning from Europe, or permit any more than 1,000 Jews to enter the United States during the war itself.

The iron law of the deniers—no evidence attesting to the Holocaust is admissible—gives rise to methods of “argument” whose grotesqueness has been well captured by the French writer Nadine Fresco:

A document dating from the war is inadmissible because it dates from those years. The deposition of a Nazi at his trial is inadmissible because it is a deposition from a trial. This is applicable to all the Nazis who were tried. If, as is the case, not one of them denied the existence of gas chambers, it is not because the gas chambers existed . . . but because the witnesses believed that if they assisted the victors, the judges would reward them with clemency. As for the testimonies and depositions of some hundreds of Jews who pretended to be survivors of the genocide, they are inadmissible because given by people who could only be instigators or, at best, accomplices in the rumor that led to the swindle from which they benefited.

Lipstadt adopts a similar tone of exasperation in describing the quaint logic of Northwestern University’s Arthur Butz (a professor of electrical engineering). Butz alleges that “the myth of the six million” (the title of his book) is based upon the mass forgery, after the war, of thousands of documents designed to prove that the Nazis intended to murder the Jews, whose diabolical cleverness included an ability to convince “the very people they accused of perpetrating the hoax that it had actually happened,” thus “winning the defendants’ [i.e., the Germans’] cooperation in their own incrimination.”

_____________

 

Far from being elusive, amorphous, or ill-defined, the Holocaust is by now one of the most fully documented events in all history. It would, therefore, seem virtually impossible for any reputable historian to deny that it happened at all. And indeed, no reputable historian has done so. The deniers, a collection of anti-Semitic cranks, include veterans of fascist and Nazi organizations, convicted frauds and libelers, pornographers, and similar types. How, then, given the level of discourse at which they operate and the frequency with which they have been discredited in the courts, do they continue to flourish?

One reason is that the media are endlessly fascinated with them. In one particularly telling example, Lipstadt recounts the apparent indestructibility of Fred Leuchter, a self-proclaimed “engineer” and seller of (appropriately enough) electric chairs who also specializes in denying that Jews were murdered in gas chambers. After being unmasked as a charlatan and liar in the Ernst Zundel trial in Canada, and declared a fraud by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, he was depicted in an article in the Atlantic Monthly (February 1990) as an expert on this country’s execution equipment. Deluged by protests, the magazine pleaded ignorance of Leuchter’s sordid past and declared that its researchers could hardly be expected to know about his peculiar “hobby.”

Three months later, the ABC program Prime Time Live devoted a segment to this same “Dr. Death,” despite being informed in advance of his record of fraud and Nazism and despite being warned (by Lipstadt and others) that airing the segment would enhance the reputation of this discredited man and of Holocaust denial in general. The profile of Leuchter not only was aired, it studiously eliminated all reference to his activity as a Holocaust denier.

Lipstadt returns frequently to the eagerness with which journalists and especially TV and radio talk-show hosts give air time to the deniers. The compulsive desire to stage “debates” between them and genuine historians or survivors arises, she believes, not only from a show-business spirit but from “an absolutist commitment to the liberal idea of dialogue.” It is this that links the professional communicators to their brethren at the universities—whether students, professors, or administrators. These, in turn, inappropriately invoke the First Amendment to protect the allegedly inalienable right of Holocaust deniers to run their paid ads or receive free op-ed space in campus newspapers. (As Lipstadt acidly notes, this devotion to “free speech” flags considerably when editors of college papers are offered ads for cigarettes, and disappears altogether when it comes to giving space to opinions that have been deemed politically incorrect. One may also venture to guess that a movement claiming that black slavery never existed in this country would encounter some difficulty in placing its ads or expressing its “opinions.”)

_____________

 

The reluctance of many in the academic community to reject anything as untruth, or even to acknowledge that truth exists and can be known, is probably a sufficient explanation of the ability of the Holocaust deniers to make their way into universities. The manifold imbecilities displayed by the universities in dealing with this problem are discussed, at perhaps excessive length, in the book’s penultimate chapter. But Lipstadt also proposes a single source for the free-speech argument that is routinely trundled out on college campuses in defending the “rights” of deniers. That source is the well-known linguistics scholar Noam Chomsky.

In 1980, Chomsky, whose previous contribution to the discussion of Nazism had been an urgent insistence that “what is needed [in the U.S.] is a kind of denazification,” discovered Robert Faurisson, a French right-wing anti-Semite and sometime lecturer in literature at the University of Lyons-2. Faurisson’s guiding dogma was that “Hitler never ordered (or permitted) that someone be killed because of race or religion.” If the Nazis built gas chambers, it was for gassing lice. (After all, had not Himmler himself said that “it is the same with anti-Semitism as with delousing”?) Moreover, the only witnesses to the Holocaust were Jews, and Jewish witnesses were liars—because they were Jews.

Chomsky came noisily to the defense of Faurisson after the latter’s university classes had been suspended1 and he had been brought into court for defamations of witnesses and scholars of the Holocaust. Chomsky placed his own name at the head of a petition supporting Faurisson’s “just right of academic freedom” and identifying him as someone who had been “conducting extensive historical research into the ‘Holocaust’ question” and was harassed as soon as “he began making his findings [emphasis added] public.”

As the French scholar Pierre Vidal-Naquet has remarked in Assassins of Memory (Columbia University Press, 1992), a useful complement to Lipstadt’s book,2

what is scandalous about the petition is that it never raises the question of whether what Faurisson is saying is true or false, that it even presents his conclusions or “findings” as the result of a historical investigation, one, that is, in quest of the truth.

Although Lipstadt assigns considerable blame to Chomsky for his “Voltairean” defense of the Nazis’ right to free speech, she does not follow him down the winding path whereby he has moved deeper and deeper into the revisionist morass, arguing, first, that denial of the Holocaust is no evidence of anti-Semitism, and second, in a truly spectacular example of to quoque, that anyone who says the Jews alone were singled out by Hitler for total annihilation is involved in “pro-Nazi apologetics.”

At times Chomsky has given the impression that what moves him to defend the deniers is simply an immaculate agnosticism. Thus, in Libération (December 23, 1980) he wrote that “I do not know enough about [Faurisson’s] work to determine if what he is claiming is accurate or not.” And in Le Matin (January 19, 1981) he wrote that “we do not want people to have religious or dogmatic beliefs about the existence of the Holocaust.” But even though Chomsky does not directly endorse the claims of Faurisson and the other cranks, he wishes them well in their endeavors; for he evidently thinks that to undermine belief in the Holocaust is to undermine belief in the legitimacy of the state of Israel, which many people suppose (albeit mistakenly) to have come into existence because of Western bad conscience over what was done to the Jews in World War II.

Indeed, the crucial place of Israel in the demonology of the deniers is the most relentlessly pursued theme of Lipstadt’s book. Almost without exception, they claim that the Jews invented the “legend” of the Holocaust because they wanted license from the world to “displace” the poor Palestinians and establish the Jewish state, and they wanted the helpless, defeated Germans to finance the operation. In her scrupulous and patient manner, Lipstadt points out that although the deniers constantly accuse Israel of exaggerating the number of Jews killed so that it could get more German money, in fact, since the money Israel did receive was based on the cost of resettling survivors, it would have been in the state’s interest to claim that fewer than six million had been killed and that more had managed to reach Israel. But such, again, are the grotesqueries of denial logic. (Although it may be impolite to say so these days, articles denying the Holocaust have long been a staple of publications of the PLO.)

_____________

 

Denying the Holocaust is a book that was undertaken with great reluctance, for its author was keenly aware that for the deniers there is no such thing as unfavorable publicity. (One of them said of his conviction by a Canadian court for promoting racial hatred that “it cost me $40,000 . . . but I got a million dollars’ worth of publicity for my cause.”) She began, she writes, as “an ardent advocate of ignoring them,” but after examining their activities closely, decided that they would not and will not retreat unless aggressively beaten back.

Without according them legitimacy by “debating” them, either on the TV talk shows that have incessantly invited her to do so or in this book itself, Lipstadt has, in her scholarly and dispassionate exposé of their political program, fake scholarship, and fraudulent methods, exploded every one of the deniers’ claims. Whether her tenacious effort will explode the movement itself remains to be seen. “The wicked,” says Isaiah, “are like the troubled sea;/ For it cannot rest,/ And its waters cast up mire and dirt.”


Footnotes

1 Faurisson's right to teach was not withdrawn, and his request of a transfer to teach correspondence courses was approved.

2 Also worth consulting are Holocaust Denial by Kenneth Stern (American Jewish Committee, 1993) and David Irving's Hitler by Eberhard Jackel (Ben-Simon Publications, 1993).

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