Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory

by deborah lipstadt
free press, 278 pages, $22.95 

Assassins of the Memory: Essays on the Denial of the Holocaust

by pierre vidal-naquet, translated by jeffery mehlman
columbia university press, 205 pages, $27.50

Ever since the end of World War II there have been people who deny, or at least minimize, the enormous crimes of Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich. The most outrageous claim by these deniers—or “revisionists,” as they style themselves—is that there never was a Holocaust (or Shoah) in which six million Jews were systematically murdered by the Nazis. The event often regarded as the very symbol of evil in our time simply didn’t happen, they say. The whole story of gas chambers and crematoria is pure fiction, a gigantic hoax, a myth, a vicious fraud invented by World Jewry in order to gain financial reparations from Germany and global sympathy for the state of Israel. The Allied powers collaborated in this Jewish conspiracy in order to divert attention from their own aggressive intentions and wartime atrocities against the Germans. 

Until recently, scholars and Jewish organizations practiced a discreet silence toward the deniers, on the theory that responding in effect concedes a certain stature and seriousness to their claims. The historical record of the Holocaust is so immense and, in its main features, so incontrovertible that anyone honestly researching the subject will quickly discover the utter falsehood, absurdity, and bad faith of the deniers’ account. Therefore (the thinking went), let the crackpots and deceivers do their fulminating in the fever swamps of the far, far, far right.

Such an approach is no longer possible, however, because over the last decade or so Holocaust deniers have managed to be heard beyond the lunatic fringe. Now and then they have been able to worm their way onto a TV or radio talk show, or to air their views in courtrooms and publicity stunts, or to place ads (and sometimes even get reviews) in college newspapers and professional historical journals. No longer simply producing easily dismissable screeds on cheap paper for certified bigots, Holocaust deniers have developed increasingly sophisticated methods of tailoring their message to different audiences and presenting what may, at first, seem a respectable array of institutions and scholarly publications. Though they remain (for now) comfortably out of the mainstream, deniers have been able to cast doubt and uncertainty among credulous and uninformed people. Some prominent figures—French politician Jean-Marie Le Pen and columnist/presidential candidate Patrick Buchanan, for instance—have given Holocaust revisionism a major boost simply by making reference, albeit in a slyly noncommittal fashion, to some of its claims.

In light of these developments, a number of books have appeared recently to refute the so-called revisionists. Denying the Holocaust by Deborah Lipstadt, a professor at Emory University, provides the most comprehensive guide to the people, organizations, and ideas associated with Holocaust denial. Assassins of Memory by Pierre Vidal-Naquet, a French classicist, contains shrewd and learned dissections of the denial literature, with special attention to its rhetorical devices and deceptions. Neither author regards the story of the Holocaust as sacred history or martyrology that is exempt from revisions that naturally occur in the light of new evidence and arguments—nor, they point out, have reputable historians treated it as such. (The figure of six million, for instance, is legitimately open to question: it might be somewhat less—or more.) But as both texts make clear, all writers currently adopting the brand name “Holocaust revisionism” defy or corrupt the recognized canons of historiographic investigation and truth; they distort and manipulate the historical record to create usable falsehoods that can advance the agenda of “an extreme right-wing that sees itself as heir to Nazism and dreams of its rehabilitation” (Vidal-Naquet). For those unfamiliar with the actual facts, but curious as to whether there is perhaps some portion or fragment of truth in “Holocaust revisionism,” Deborah Lipstadt’s patient and measured account, supplemented by Vidal-Naquet’s withering critiques, should put such suspicions to rest.

Lipstadt’s early chapters are taken up with a review of the antecedents of contemporary Holocaust denial, beginning with the revisionist history of the 1920s and 30s that sought to absolve Germany of guilt for starting World War I. One leading member of that revisionist school, the American historian Harry Elmer Barnes (of Smith, Columbia, and the New School for Social Research), went on to oppose American intervention in the thirties and to justify German policies even after the war. In later years, Holocaust deniers would embrace Barnes as a kind of mentor and Barnes in turn eventually embraced them.

The first major public denials of the Holocaust began in the late 1940s, with the writings of a Frenchman named Paul Rassinier (“the true father of contemporary revisionism,” as Vidal-Naquet describes him). A former Communist and Socialist who became an unvarnished anti-Semite and Nazi sympathizer, Rassinier did not initially deny the existence of death camps and gas chambers, but he claimed that the number of Jewish victims was hugely exaggerated, and that most of these were in fact murdered by other Jewish inmates who had been given authority within the camps. In any case, he argued, the Jews, as implacable enemies of the German people, got what they deserved. Throughout the fifties and sixties, deniers followed the Rassinier lead, producing pamphlets and articles mainly for consumption within their own ranks, i.e., fascist and anti-Semitic groups on both sides of the Atlantic. Such literature was limited in its appeal partly because of its undisguised racism, and partly because of its contrived and contradictory character. (Some, for instance, said that the putative victims of the Nazis were really living in Russia, while others placed the bulk of them in Israel—or in Manhattan.)

A full-fledged “revisionism” did not emerge until the 1970s with the publication of three key works: Austin J. App’s pamphlet The Six Million Swindle (1973), whose very title, Lipstadt observes, “links . . . Holocaust hoax arguments to traditional anti-Semitic imagery” of Jewish chicanery, deception, and manipulation; Did Six Million Really Die? (1974), a widely circulated twenty-eight page pamphlet by Richard Harwood, the pseudonym for Richard Verrall, editor of Spearhead, a publication of Britain’s neo-Nazi organization, the National Front; and finally, a book-length treatment with footnotes and citations, The Hoax of the Twentieth Century (1977) by Arthur L. Butz, a professor of electrical engineering at Northwestern University. The Butz book, says Lipstadt, with its “veneer of scholarship and the impression of seriousness and objectivity,” set the standard for future deniers and won major media attention in the U.S., including articles in the New York Times, thereby establishing Holocaust denial/revisionism as a public phenomenon.

As the deniers crystallized their story they also began to consolidate institutionally, largely through the efforts of one Willis Carto, often cited as America’s leading anti-Semite and Nazi apologist. In 1978 Carto founded the Institute for Historical Review (IHR), a Los Angeles-based clearinghouse for Holocaust denial and other agitprop blaming the Jews (and to some extent the United States) for most of history’s wars and depressions. IHR’s publication, the Journal of Historical Review, followed the Butz model in its own articles, blending apparent objectivity and scholarly protocols (footnotes, quotes, tactical concessions, etc.) with occasional outbursts of rhetorical bluster and anti-Semitic invective. By coordinating the efforts of the Institute and Journal with his other organizations—the far-right Liberty Lobby, the Noontide Press, American Mercury magazine, and the newsletter Spotlight—Carto established a kind of anti-Semitism/Holocaust denial conglomerate. Lipstadt writes:

The basic assertions—which were eventually adopted by the Institute for Historical Review as well as other revisionist groups as the fundamental tenets of Holocaust denial—fall into three distinct categories. First, they absolve the Nazis by arguing that they never had any plan for annihilating Jews and that the means supposedly used for annihilation were technologically impossible. They only wanted Jews to emigrate, and if any Jews did die it was the USSR that was ultimately responsible. Second, they legitimate the killing of those Jews who died by contending that they were killed for justifiable reasons. Third, they blame the perpetuation of this hoax on Israel and Jewish leaders and scholars, all of whom have material interests in its dissemination. Deniers frequently say there is no evidence or documentatary proof for the Holocaust. But, as Lipstadt points out, there is in fact a vast store of documentation (much of which she cites or quotes): public and private statements by the Nazi leadership about the extermination of the Jews; records and orders from the German government and military for the construction and use of gas chambers, and for the transportation of victim populations; diaries and eyewitness accounts from Holocaust perpetrators, survivors, and third parties; testimony of Nazi officials at the Nuremburg war crimes trials (testimony never recanted, incidentally, either by those who were sentenced to death or by those spared execution); photographic and film documentation of mass murder; the whole history of Nazi anti-Semitism which, throughout the twenties and thirties, spoke of Jews as insects and vermin in need of extermination.

How do the deniers get around such overwhelming evidence? Deniers, as both Lipstadt and Vidal-Naquet show, seem to have an endless supply of polemical tricks and dodges: they simply discount Jewish testimony out of hand as lie or fantasy; inculpatory testimony from the Nazis themselves is said to have been coerced by the triumphant Allies; documents confirming such testimony are said to be forgeries; Nazi statements and memoranda about the Final Solution are taken at face value if they are euphemistically phrased, but are interpreted as hyperbolic or figurative if they are blunt and explicit; photographs and films of executions are dismissed as fakes. Even mountains of corpses and emaciated, half-dead survivors prove nothing for the deniers, who say simply that these are unfortunate victims of typhus or cholera epidemics. And so forth.

Such an enormous conspiracy might seem to stretch the credulity of even the deepest paranoia about Jewish cunning and omnipotence, requiring as it does a seamless coordination of testimony from many different (often opposing) governments and agencies, plus thousands, indeed tens of thousands, of people far-flung geographically and separated by an enormous diversity of interests, purposes, and perspectives. If such an unimaginable project had been accomplished, then, as Lipstadt says, “one could legitimately expect a powerful force like ‘World Jewry’ to have seen to it that no discrepancies were allowed to creep into research by Jewish scholars” and others; moreover, amidst the mountains of supposedly forged documents, surely the conspirators would have placed a paper with Hitler’s signature beneath an order to exterminate Europe’s Jews.

Still, deniers work the edges of the story, picking out the inevitable contradictions (or appearances of contradiction) produced by a large and complex event such as the Holocaust, trying to give the impression of unravelling the whole story by tugging on a few loose threads. If even one detail can be disproved, perhaps the whole story can at least be put in doubt. As with thieves trying various doors, anything is fair game for the deniers’ purposes. Some years ago (to take just one example), European deniers caused a storm of publicity by contesting the authenticity of Anne Frank’s diary. Among other things, they claimed to have scientific and technical evidence that the ink used in the original manuscript was not available until 1951, years after the war ended. The various charges were repeated so widely that finally, in 1980, the Dutch government began a massive investigation. In the end, forensic experts reported that the diaries were, beyond doubt, written by one person, that editing was extremely limited in nature—e.g., punctuation, a few words here and there—and that the paper, glue, fibers in the binding, and ink were all in use in the 1940s. “While some may argue that the Netherlands State Institute for War Documentation used an elephant to swat a fly,” Lipstadt says, “once again it becomes clear that the deniers’ claims have no relationship to the most basic rules of truth and evidence.”

Some deniers, Lipstadt indicates, have tried to peddle “the notion that it was technically and physically impossible for the gas chambers at Auschwitz to have functioned as extermination facilities,” whether because of their construction or because of the gas that was used (prussic acid, more commonly known as Zyklon-B). A French denier, Robert Faurisson, inaugurated these technical speculations, though it was Fred Leuchter, an American entrepreneur dealing in execution equipment for states with the death penalty, who provided Faurisson’s theories with elaborate displays of pseudoscientific “proof” in The Leuchter Report: The End of a Myth: An Engineering Report on the Alleged Execution Gas Chambers at Auschwitz, Birkenau, and Majdenek (1988). The findings of this report were subsequently discredited, as was Leuchter’s claim to be an “engineer.” A Boston court trial revealed that Leuchter had no credentials whatever in engineering (or chemistry, toxicology, or any of the disciplines relevant to his report) and he was ordered to refrain from fraudulently pretending to possess them. Jean-Claude Pressac, a French pharmacist and would-be denier who was for a time involved with Faurisson and Leuchter, repudiated the whole project when he saw its blatant mendacity. (Late last fall, Pressac published his own book, The Auschwitz Crematoria: The Machinery of Mass Slaughter, refuting the deniers’ technological disinformation.)

One can go on and on listing the deniers’ intellectual outrages: whole-cloth lies are intermingled with half-truths, statistics are manipulated, quotations are taken out of context to give them the opposite of their original meanings, and so forth. Lipstadt and Vidal-Naquet do a good job of cataloging and refuting the principle claims and techniques of the deniers. They confess, though, that it would take an encyclopedia to respond to each and every falsehood and specious argument. Vidal-Naquet remarks (with specific reference to Butz’s Hoax of the Twentieth Centurythough with application to denial literature in general) that it is “possible, of course, even easy” to refute them, “assuming one knew the archives, but it would be long and tedious . . . [and] to demolish a discourse takes time and space. When a fictitious account is well prepared, it dies not contain elements allowing one to detroy it on strictly internal grounds.”

This observation goes to the heart of the deniers’ strategy: make the charges, no matter how ludicrous; force legitimate scholars to refute them; repeat the charges even after they have been disproved, since few people have the time, inclination, or ability to study the matter—they are left simply to believe that there is “some question” or ”controversy” about the matter. In this way (it has been observed), new lies do not replace old discredited ones but simply accumulate. Students of the old Soviet propaganda machine will see familiarities between Holocaust deniers and the KGB, though of course the deniers lack a broad network of “moles,” fellow-travelers, and dupes within the establishment media.

Lipstadt argues against outright suppression or censorship of the deniers. The idea of “hate speech” is too vague, and preventing the dissemination of “false news” is a legal impossibility. Persecuting the deniers would only give them the publicity that they desire and need, maybe even make them into martyrs or folk heroes. At the same time, Lipstadt insists that the press and mass media should consciously and deliberately deny access to the deniers. Against some fuzzy-minded liberals, she argues persuasively that such action does not constitute a form of blacklisting in violation of the First Amendment: deniers may have a right to spread their word as best they can, but a newspaper (for instance) is under no obligation to open its pages for the rehearsal of claims whose falsehood and malice have repeatedly been demonstrated. Lipstadt insists, wisely, that no scholar or survivor should engage deniers in debates or other public forums, since this would only give the impression that, whatever the final judgment, Holocaust denial represents a legitimate point of view. Bradley R. Smith of the Committee for Open Debate on the Holocaust (CODOH) has sought to gain legitimacy for deniers in precisely this way, presenting “Holocaust revisionists” as an unjustly persecuted group of dissenters who simply want to get a fair hearing. Vidal-Naquet’s reply to Robert Faurisson applies with equal validity to Bradley Smith: “We do not ‘debate’ him; we demonstrate the mechanisms of his lies, which may be methodologically useful for the younger generations.”

And that, basically, is where matters stand. The denial movement has become too big simply to ignore, hoping that without publicity it “will wither on the vine.” Therefore it is necessary, as Vidal-Naquet says, to demonstate the deniers’ lies, and to put the truth on record, particularly as the generation of Holocaust survivors and witnesses passes away. One may certainly refrain from insisting, as some Jewish leaders have, upon mandated Holocaust studies in the public school curriculum: for many people, such “mandates” might appear as an effort to establish the passion of the Jews as the larger culture’s defining story, thus, ironically, giving plausibility to anti-Semitic claims about Jewish power. Holocaust museums and memorials, insofar as they avoid the appearance of manipulative intent, may have a positive role in combatting the deniers. But for now at least, the real work seems to be in maintaining the isolation of deniers from respectable forums, and in setting the record straight as much as possible. Vidal-Naquet summarizes the situation well:

Plainly, we will have to come to terms with the fact that the world has its Faurissons, as it has its pimps and its pornographic film clubs. But there can be no question of yielding any ground to him . . . What is needed is a ceaseless work, the establishment of facts, not for those who know them and who are about to disappear, but for those who are legitimately demanding as to the quality of the evidence. It is difficult to imagine the deniers gaining a major following unless there is some major upheaval and rending of the social fabric. Of course, that possibility gives special poignance to Vidal-Naquet’s concluding words: “Will truth have the last word? How one would like to be sure of it . . .” 

Matthew Berke is Managing Editor of First Things.