Opportunity and Challenge in a New Era
By Mark Weber
With the dawning of a new century, Holocaust revisionism is making headlines everywhere. Around the globe there is real ferment, a new surge of media attention on Holocaust skepticism, and growing criticism of the oppressive impact of the powerful "Holocaust industry."
"Holocaust deniers" are, of course, still widely portrayed as misguided or malevolent. But we are seeing more and more "mainstream" concessions to historical truth, and open acknowledgment of "Holocaust" manipulation and exploitation. More than ever, the iconic facade seems to be cracking.
In late December, a much-discussed documentary film about American gas chamber expert Fred Leuchter was released for public showing, to the accompaniment of commentary in nearly every major American daily paper. (In 1988 Leuchter carried out a forensic examination of the alleged homicidal gas chambers at Auschwitz and Birkenau, and concluded that they were never used to kill people as alleged.) The film "Mr. Death" attempts, of course, to discredit Leuchter's findings; it portrays him as both arrogant and self-deluded; it completely ignores the investigations and studies of other specialists that impressively corroborate the results of his on-site investigation. The director Errol Morris portrays as quite natural and unexceptional the outrageous campaign that destroyed Leuchter's career as the country's foremost execution hardware specialist, and even presents without criticism the hateful comments of two of the perpetrators.
But on balance, the film has the merit of focusing renewed public attention on the Holocaust debate, prompting at least a few independent observers to say the unsayable. Film critic Godfrey Cheshire, for one, in the weekly New York Press, told readers that "'Mr. Death' is the closest thing we're likely to get to a film that questions Holocaustolatry, a mild form of which is now firmly established as part of our official culture." The Holocaust, Cheshire went on, has become a "myth" of "supernatural character," and "an untouchable, quasi-religious event fraught with a Significance quite beyond anything that mere history might support."
Another indicator of the changing climate is a recent front-page Los Angeles Times article, "Danger in Denying Holocaust?" For the first time ever, a major American daily newspaper highlighted the fact that in France, Germany, and some other European countries, scholars are jailed, fined and forced into exile for questioning government-ordained Holocaust history.
Written by veteran journalist Kim Murphy, the lengthy January 7 piece begins by citing the persecution of a young German chemist, Germar Rudolf, for concluding -- on the basis of a detailed on-site forensic examination -- that no one was killed, or could have been killed, in the alleged homicidal gas chambers of Auschwitz and Birkenau. As the article goes on to note, this doctoral candidate at Stuttgart University lost his job at the respected Max Planck Institute, saw his doctoral degree put on hold, was sentenced to 14 months in prison, and finally was forced into exile -- all because of his carefully considered evaluation of Holocaust "gas chamber" claims.
More than a few readers of the Times article must certainly wonder: Just what kind of "historical truth" is it that must be protected by the armor plate of police, lawsuits, fines and imprisonment? Because the report suggests that revisionists might at least have a point about the issue of academic freedom, the Jewish lobby lost no time in furiously attacking both the Times and Murphy for this "immoral" article.
Even more important in terms of public awareness is something that happened in London on January 11. On that day began the libel trial brought by British historian David Irving against American Jewish activist Deborah Lipstadt. In his opening statement to the court (reprinted elsewhere in this Journal issue), Irving charges that Lipstadt and her British publisher severely damaged his reputation and career through her book, Denying the Holocaust, a strident work that also attacks professors Robert Faurisson and Arthur Butz, revisionist activist Bradley Smith, and the Institute for Historical Review.
Further complicating this already complex case, authorities in Germany announced shortly after the trial began that they would try to extradite Irving to that country on the basis of a fine imposed on him by a German court for having told a meeting in Munich in 1990 that the "gas chamber" at Auschwitz, shown to hundreds of thousands of tourists yearly, is a postwar dummy. Amazingly, one of the witnesses for Lipstadt in the London trial, Robert-Jan van Pelt, has acknowledged the truth of precisely this point in his detailed 1996 study of Auschwitz. (For more on this, see "The 'Gas Chamber' of Auschwitz I" in this Journal issue.)
Irving, a literal and figurative David, faces a Goliath. Day after day he sits alone on one side of the courtroom; arrayed against him sits a legal team of some 20 lawyers and para-legal specialists (not to mention the phalanx of support staff posted outside the courtroom). Each day he walks alone into the court house, carrying his own books and documents.
Win or lose, Irving is a marked man, a pariah -- more than ever, a target of his enemies' implacable hatred. Independent observers marvel at his unflagging confidence and verbal skill in the courtroom. But even an Atlas would falter under the great emotional and psychological burden of this ordeal -- especially because so much of the court battle focuses on a field of history that, as Irving concedes, "is not my patch."
Whatever the outcome, and whatever wavering or waffling the strain of battle might occasion, Irving is performing a great public service by heightening public awareness of the international debate on this much abused chapter of history.
In a recent essay about the trial published in a major British daily, a prominent Jewish Holocaust historian, David Cesarani, writes with concern about what he calls "the growing backlash against the so-called 'Holocaust industry'." He cites as evidence the new book by Jewish-American writer Peter Novick, The Holocaust in American Life, and a forthcoming book, The Holocaust Industry, by another Jewish scholar, Norman Finkelstein. This "intellectual backlash," Cesarani continues, "is taking hold in mainstream and media circles."
Perhaps the most remarkable fallout thus far from the Irving-Lipstadt case is "The Holocaust on Trial," a front-cover feature article in the current Atlantic Monthly (Feb. 2000), written by London-based American-Jewish writer D. D. Guttenplan. This 19-page essay begins by conceding that "political calculation" has "influenced our knowledge of the Holocaust from the very beginning," and that "what everybody knows about the Holocaust isn't always true" -- a point that this Journal has been making for 20 years.
Guttenplan notes that no one was ever gassed at Dachau and Belsen, but says nothing about the far-reaching implications of such concessions. Though he implicitly acknowledges that a mass of historical "evidence," including court judgments and many "eyewitness testimonies," is worthless, he can neither acknowledge nor publicly regret that men were put to death on the basis of such bogus "evidence."
"Though it is considered impolite to mention them in public," Guttenplan writes, "there are still a number of 'live questions' about the Holocaust," among them the "delicate ... question of survivor testimony." Much of this "testimony," he acknowledges, is just plain wrong.
Particularly eyebrow-raising is what Guttenplan tells readers of this leading intellectual/literary magazine about the decades-long efforts by organized Jewry to suppress historical scholarship, even by Jewish academics. As a result of such efforts, "certain aspects of the Holocaust and its aftermath ... became not just controversial but unmentionable."
As long ago as the early 1960s, Guttenplan shows, Jewish historian Raul Hilberg was accused of "impiety" and "defaming the dead" in the pages of Commentary, the American Jewish Committee monthly, because he had taken note of the extent to which wartime German authorities relied on Jews to assist in the "final solution." Officials at Yad Vashem, Israel's central Holocaust memorial center, even refused Hilberg access to their archives.
Also in the 1960s, Jewish historian Barbara Tuchman attacked Hannah Arendt for her much-discussed book, Eichmann in Jerusalem, accusing the German-born Jewish intellectual of "a conscious desire to support Eichmann's defense." The Anti-Defamation League similarly condemned Arendt's "evil book," hurling charges at her that, as Guttenplan notes, were "not just false but the reverse of the truth."
Another Jewish historian, Princeton professor Arno Mayer, was, in Guttenplan's words, "practically excommunicated" by organized Jewry for concluding, in his 1989 work on the "final solution," that Hitler was far more concerned with annihilating Communism than he was with decimating Jews. "It isn't only Holocaust deniers who twist facts, obscure the truth and, in Deborah Lipstadt's phrase, create 'immoral equivalencies'," writes Guttenplan. "... Time and time again those who insist on the truth in all its 'complex, unsentimental,' paradoxical, and ambiguous detail are shouted down."
Another indication of the general worldwide trend is a column about the London trial in the weekly New York Press (Jan. 18). "Irving is right to be upset that an influential minority with a political agenda succeeded in destroying his career," comments George Szamuely.
After pointing out that the epithet "Holocaust denier" is an elastic one, the columnist writes:
In Denying the Holocaust, Lipstadt wrote that Pat Buchanan's "attacks on the credibility of the survivor testimony are standard elements of Holocaust denial." Yet, a few years ago [August 1986] the director of Yad Vashem's archive [Shmuel Krakowski] told a reporter that most of the 20,000 testimonies it had collected were unreliable: "Many were never in the places where they claim to have witnessed atrocities, while others relied on secondhand information given them by friends or passing strangers." Is he also then a "Holocaust denier"?
"We now know," Szamuely continues, "that many of the most lurid stories of the Holocaust are not true ... Whether Irving wins or loses his libel case, we will probably find out that our current knowledge of the Holocaust is much flimsier than we had believed."
Here at the IHR, we are generally pleased with the overall trend and guardedly optimistic about the future. To be sure, we still face powerful enemies who, to paraphrase Guttenplan, are determined to "shout down" those who insist on the truth. At the same time, our adversaries are slowly but inexorably being forced to make ever more grudging concessions to truth.
With a recently expanded staff, we're working hard to bring new books into print, prepare for the next full-scale IHR Conference (May 27-29 in southern California), and get the Journal back on schedule (which is why this issue is a combined one). Through greater and more solid awareness of the past, we're doing our best to build a better future for us all.
Written January 24, 2000, by Mark Weber, and published in The Journal of Historical Review, Sept.-Dec. 1999 (Vol. 18, No. 5-6), pages 2-3, 5.