Encountering Holocaust Denial
"The SS guards took pleasure in telling us that we had no chance of coming out alive, a point they emphasized with particular relish by insisting that after the war the rest of the world would not believe what happened."
By Lin Collette
In 1991, college students across the country were confronted with a shocking form of bigotry against Jews: full-page ads in college papers purchased by Bradley Smith, founder of a California organization called the Committee for Open Debate on the Holocaust (CODOH). In the ads, CODOH and its supporters question Holocaust history as presently understood and taught by historians and others. Denial that the Holocaust has been accurately represented is called by critics Holocaust denial or Holocaust revisionism, and by proponents is called Historical revisionism.
The decision whether to run the ads was made by the students running the papers, since most college newspapers are independent of their school's administration. Those papers that chose to run the ad usually defended their decision as respecting First Amendment guarantees; they were uncomfortable with taking any actions that might be construed as suppressing open debate on this or other issues. As writer Carlos Huerta explains in a 1992 article on the issue of Holocaust revisionism on campus, even several newspapers with a large Jewish presence on the staff chose to run the ads. Although they found the ads offensive, these Jewish students tended to see the issue in terms of freedom of expression.
Papers that chose not to run the advertisement, on the other hand, did so because they found it offensive, inaccurate, or both. Campus and public reaction to either decision was swift--usually set squarely against the decision to publish. Papers that chose to publish the ads were often vilified by their communities and attacked for being anti-Jewish or ignorant of the actual mandate of the First Amendment.
The traditional response to Holocaust revisionism within much of the institutional Jewish community has been either to ignore it or to expose the neo-Nazi connections of deniers, often wishing to avoid engaging in open debate with them, or even acknowledging their existence for fear of lending revisionists any form of legitimacy. In this case, however, many students felt that in choosing to run the revisionist ads, Holocaust revisionism would be more effectively counter-attacked.
Jewish experience has been profoundly shaped and reshaped across the centuries by historical experiences of salvation above all, but also of destruction. A deep sense of identity and mission, coupled with the genius of historical memory, have preserved not only for Jews but the rest of the world, the root experiences of the Jewish people. The act of denying the Holocaust, however, diminishes not just Jews but the experiences of all people; hence it is important to understand the phenomenon of Holocaust revisionism and the role it plays in promoting not only anti-Jewish bigotry but a cynical conspiratorial analysis that encourages the acceptance of scapegoating and demonization.
Holocaust denial is not new; it has been a fringe activity since World War II. However, a combination of shrewd organizing by Holocaust revisionists and the aging of Holocaust survivors has allowed deniers to begin to enter the Western mainstream. This is particularly alarming since it seems that every possible document and eyewitness account exists to prove the truth of the Holocaust, even if the actual totals of those executed can never be known. Yet Holocaust revisionism seems to be growing in acceptance--at least among some members of the public.
What is Holocaust Revisionism?
Revisionism is a major function of serious historians, whose goal is to seek an accurate record of history wherever they find it. Some historians review and reinterpret the Holocaust and genocide in a manner that is not a subterfuge for attacking Jews. This type of historical analysis, although sometimes controversial, is generally regarded by scholars and critics as the only credible form of revisionism regarding the Holocaust. Essentially this is, at its most basic and benign level, the rewriting or reinterpretation of Holocaust history in a manner that argues: "It happened, but there are still things we need to learn about it." Such scholars usually have little difficulty getting their theories published in books and reputable journals and are frequently cited as reliable sources. Historians such as Lucy Dawidowicz, Charles Maier, Michael Marrus, Arno Mayer, and Christopher Simpson are found in this group.
Within Holocaust revisionism that involves a strain of anti-Jewish bigotry, there are three distinct schools of thought. These can be described as: "It happened, but far from the extent to which they say it did"; "It happened, but other groups suffered just as much as the Jews"; and "It didn't happen at all."
The first school, when it is taken seriously at all in academia, is considered to be of questionable credibility by most scholars; members of this school go to great lengths to downplay the Holocaust's historical significance or imply that the impact and extent of the Holocaust have been magnified to accomplish particular ends, such as justification of US aid to Israel or aid to Jewish refugees from the former USSR. David Irving, author of a number of books on World War II, the accuracy of which are consistently challenged, could be considered a member of this school, although he sometimes drifts into the more nasty schools of Holocaust revisionism.
The second school is a relative of the first. While admitting that the Holocaust did in fact occur, members of this school argue that Jews were only one of several groups of victims. This is a cynical use of other victim groups. For example, these researchers will claim that the non-Jewish Poles or Germans were equal victims to the Jews, and often minimize the impact Nazi policies had on European Jews by emphasizing the impact of those policies on other groups. An example of equalizing the victims of the Holocaust is the comments of former President Ronald Reagan when he visited a cemetery in Bitburg, Germany in which SS members, German soldiers, and Jewish victims of the Holocaust are buried. The visit caused a furor; Reagan's explanations "compounded his error" by making "no distinction between the fallen German soldiers and the murdered Jews; indeed, he suggested that both were 'victims of a Nazi oppression whose responsibility was abdicated through the madness of one man, Hitler.'"
The third school, the most unconscionable, is the one that has attracted media attention in the past few years. Proponents of this school completely deny that a conscious attempted genocide of Jews occurred. They generally argue that the Holocaust as a policy of genocide was a fabrication by the Jews. Although its advocates deny they are anti-Semitic, much of the material found in this category vilifies Jews and Judaism. Although their materials have no credibility among serious scholars, the credibility of the actual deniers within the general public is somewhat higher, if only because of ignorance.
To be noted is that some neo-Nazis are Hitler proponents who do not deny the Holocaust but openly bemoan the fact that it was not more effective. While grotesque, they are not Holocaust revisionists.
It should also be noted that there is a legitimate and subtle debate over the use of the word holocaust (Sho'ah) to describe the attempted genocide of the Jews. The word is sometimes adopted to describe an instance of mass murder or ethnocide and has been used by the media to describe large-scale killing in Cambodia or Bosnia. The term holocaust has also been expropriated by anti-abortion protesters to describe the number of abortions since Roe v. Wade in 1973.
Who Denies the Holocaust?
A November 1992 survey (now in dispute) conducted by the Roper Organization for the American Jewish Committee found that fully 22 percent of American adults and 20 percent of high school students thought it was possible that the Holocaust never happened. Another 12 percent weren't certain whether it was possible or impossible. Because the wording of the questions asked in this poll was flawed, however, Roper conducted a second poll for the AJC in March 1994, using revised questions and a new cohort. Results of the new poll, delivered to the AJC in May 1994, have not yet been released, but it seems certain that the previous poll overestimated the number of people who think the Holocaust never happened. A January 1994 Gallup Poll found that a much lower percentage, approximately 4 percent, of those it surveyed "have real doubts about the Holocaust; the others (19 percent) are just insecure about their historical knowledge or won't believe anything they have not experienced themselves," says Frank Newport, Editor of the Gallup Poll.
Contrary to popular belief, Holocaust denial exists not only on the political right, but also among some individuals characterized as moderate or left, although it is the right that is most prominent in the effort to present "another side" to Holocaust history. Most obvious on the right are the predictable suspects: neo-Nazis, skinheads, and members of the various Ku Klux Klans. The most prominent revisionist organizations are the Institute for Historical Review (IHR) and the Liberty Lobby, publisher of Spotlight, a radical right-wing newspaper published in Washington, DC. IHR, Liberty Lobby, and Spotlight magazine will be discussed in greater depth elsewhere in this article.
A nationally known Holocaust revisionist is David Duke, elected a Louisiana state representative although a former Klan leader, who ran as the 1988 presidential candidate of the extreme right-wing Populist Party and as a Republican candidate for President for a brief period in 1991-1992. Although he claims to have put his Klan and neo-Nazi past behind him, as late as 1993 he continued to sell IHR publications through his Louisiana State Assembly office, as well as a tape entitled "The Jewish Question II," in which he questions the Holocaust "myth." In addition, he has been reported by Louisiana Republicans as openly asserting that the Holocaust is a hoax dreamed up by Jewish-controlled Hollywood.
A current star of the revisionist lobby is Massachusetts resident Fred Leuchter. His lengthy Leuchter Report publicized his studies of "alleged gas chambers" at Auschwitz and other camps, and asserted that no execution chambers existed there. These theories claiming the impossibility of mass gassings were central to his testimony as an "expert witness" at the 1988 trial of Ernst Zundel, a German-Canadian revisionist and neo-Nazi, on trial for violating Canadian laws against publishing and distributing hate propaganda. Although Leuchter does not possess the engineering credentials with which he is often publicly credited, his report quickly became a best-seller on the far right.
Leuchter's Report has been discredited by Jean-Claude Pressac, a French writer who himself was a Holocaust revisionist at one time. In his most recent book, The Auschwitz Crematoria: The Machinery of Mass Slaughter, Pressac uses documents from recently opened KGB archives to supplement those on file at the Auschwitz Museum archives to illustrate exactly how Nazi extermination techniques worked.
Another segment of the extreme right that continues to claim that the Holocaust is a myth is the Christian Identity movement, which claims that contemporary Jews are not related to the original tribes of Israel, but rather impostors descended from the historic Khazars, a now-dispersed people whose leaders adopted Judaism as a religious belief hundreds of years ago. Identity theology maintains that contemporary Khazar-descended Jews concocted the Holocaust in an effort to cement their reputation as God's Chosen, while Identity Christians are the real descendants of the tribes of Israel and thus the real Chosen People, not contemporary Jews. IHR and Liberty Lobby publications are distributed through many Identity Christian ministries, book houses, and publications, and members of the movement have approvingly discussed the Holocaust denial movement in their periodicals.
In recent years, some segments of the African American community have also come to question the Holocaust's relative importance in history, arguing that the genocidal aspects of slavery and the Middle Passage affected more lives and that genocidal policies in the form of racism still continue today. While this debate can be handled with seriousness and sensitivity, and arguments can be made that slavery was a form of "Black genocide," some proponents use the debate as a cover for anti-Jewish bigotry. This is the case with the most prominent proponents, the Nation of Islam, headed by Minister Louis Farrakhan. Farrakhan himself has been accused of fostering anti-Jewish bigotry through his speeches and by refusing to condemn completely the anti-Jewish rhetoric of his spokespersons, particularly Khallid Abdul Muhammed, who has been giving incendiary speeches at various colleges around the country.
Although Farrakhan has been called a "problem for a broad range of American blacks who rightly fear that his anti-Semitic rhetoric erodes the moral authority of his appeals against racism," a 1994 Time/CNN poll of 504 African Americans found that 62 percent of those familiar with him said that he was good for the Black community and that 63 percent believed that he spoke the truth. Only a fifth of those questioned considered him anti-Semitic.
Because other aspects of the Nation's message strongly appeal to the African American community, such as an emphasis on self-reliance, cultural pride, and personal responsibility, many Blacks are prepared to look past Farrakhan's other, more controversial stands on Jewish relationships with Blacks, and racism against whites. For Jews, however, it is harder, if not impossible, to overlook those stands. Further, many aspects of Farrakhan's political ideology are so authoritarian, repressive to women, and homophobic that they are perceived as threatening to groups other than Jews.
Four Jewish groups withdrew their sponsorship of the Parliament of the World's Religions held in Chicago in September 1993, when it was learned that Farrakhan had been invited to speak. In response to an October 1992 Farrakhan visit to Atlanta, Georgia, the Anti Defamation League of B'nai B' rith (ADL) said, "The fact that the Nation of Islam does some good in the Black community is not a rationale for forgiving its scapegoating of Jews and Judaism."
Farrakhan, of course, is not the only Black leader to have exhibited anti-Jewish tendencies. A number of rap musicians have also been condemned for including anti-Jewish lyrics in their works. In addition, several Black scholars specializing in Afrocentric studies have sparked comment because their books and articles allege disproportionate Jewish complicity in slavery. One of the most recent incidents involved a book written by Wellesley College professor Tony Martin that chronicles a campaign of alleged persecution against him by Jews at Wellesley. The book was condemned by the school's president in a letter mailed to faculty, alumni, and students.
A prominent journalist and media personality who has openly questioned and belittled the extent of the Holocaust is Patrick Buchanan, 1992 Republican presidential candidate. Buchanan is known to have "mocked the feelings of Holocaust survivors as 'group fantasies of martyrdom and heroics,'" and has questioned the capability of the Treblinka concentration camp to have engaged in mass gassings of inmates.
Buchanan also appeared to go out of his way to anger Jews by arguing "the innocence of accused and convicted Nazi executioners." He has also "suggested that in any case the hunt for old, enfeebled men was of dubious moral value." For his unwavering support of John Demjanjuk, whose 1988 war crimes conviction was overturned on appeal by the Israeli Supreme Court, Buchanan (as well as Ohio Congressman James Traficant) were praised and embraced in an editorial in the Journal of Historical Review, published by the Institute for Historical Review. During the months leading up to the Persian Gulf War, Buchanan repeatedly referred to war hawks as being in Israel's "amen corner."
Buchanan's friends and colleagues find it difficult to believe he could be a "card-carrying anti-Semite" and, indeed, Buchanan has characterized anti-Semitism as a singular "disease of the heart" in his newspaper column. The problem, his friends say, is his "preference for journalistic swagger over editorial precision."
Mel Elfin, writing in US News and World Report, commented that in calling Congress "Israeli-occupied territory" and advising that the US not "cave in to 'Jewish' pressures," Buchanan displayed a "callous ignorance" of Nazi-style demagoguery. Elfin concludes: "If [Buchanan] really believes anti-Semitism is a 'disease of the heart,' he would be well-advised to avoid providing aid and comfort to those who still consider the Holocaust a myth and for whom group hatred has become a way of life."
The Institute for Historical Review
The chief organization promoting Holocaust denial is the Institute for Historical Review, a California organization founded in 1978 by Willis Carto, who also founded the extreme right-wing Liberty Lobby. IHR styles itself in fundraising letters as a "voice for historical truth" and a "champion of historical knowledge" because "we have the knowledge, and because we have the determination to see the truth prevail."
IHR was particularly gleeful over the acquittal of John Demjanjuk by the Israeli Supreme Court in the summer of 1993, claiming that the case is an important vindication of the cause of Holocaust revisionism. Revisionists felt they had been confirmed in their decades-long insistence that eyewitness testimony--even of Jewish Holocaust survivors--must be regarded with the greatest skepticism.
As part of its efforts to gain a mainstream following, IHR publishes the Journal of Historical Review, once a quarterly but now bimonthly. Previously geared to an academic audience, the Journal's format changed in 1992 from a 5x8 inch library-sized format to a more glossy, 8½x11 format, using more photographs and a less turgid editorial style. The Journal is now intended to appeal to all "intelligent" readers, and now carries articles on ancient history, culture, art, religion, philosophy, and social issues, as well as its old standby themes of racial issues and World War II history.
An important IHR function is to hold annual private conferences, usually in California, at which the elite of the Holocaust revisionist community are invited to present their "research." Guests are usually Journal subscribers and IHR donors. The 1990 conference featured a coup: one of the presenters was John Toland, author of several respected and authoritative books on World War II history, who is not considered to be a revisionist along the lines of the IHR.
IHR first came to public attention in 1980, when it offered a $50,000 reward to anyone who could conclusively prove that Jews had been gassed at Auschwitz. Mel Mermelstein, a survivor, accepted the challenge and submitted voluminous proof, including his own personal testimony. When the evidence was ignored by IHR, Mermelstein sued IHR for the reward.
During the trial, Mermelstein used the same evidence that had been submitted to IHR. The suit was finally settled in Mermelstein's favor in July 1985, with IHR ordered by the Los Angeles Superior Court to pay the $50,000 reward plus an additional $40,000 for pain and suffering caused to Mermelstein. According to a member of the staff of the Auschwitz Study Foundation, founded by Mermelstein in Huntington Beach, California, IHR did, in fact, pay the judgment.
In 1986, Mermelstein also won a $5.25 million default judgment against former IHR Editorial Advisory Committee member Ditlieb Felderer, a Swedish revisionist who had used his Jewish Information Bulletin to personally attack and libel Mermelstein. In retaliation for both suits, IHR and Liberty Lobby sued Mermelstein in 1986 for libel, but dropped the charges in February 1988. Mermelstein filed yet another lawsuit in October 1988, in response to the Liberty Lobby/IHR suit, charging malicious prosecution on the part of IHR. Although that suit was dismissed in September 1991, Mermelstein filed an appeal in August 1992, with no results to date.
IHR has often been mistaken for other, more credible organizations such as the London-based Institute for Historical Research, whose ideology is far from that of IHR. Organizations with little knowledge of IHR's work have sometimes been hoodwinked into selling ad space or mailing lists to IHR. For example, IHR was able to get a "Call for Papers" published in the newsletter of the American Historical Association in 1993, which caused an uproar when IHR's mission was revealed. As a result, the AHA decided to donate the money paid for the ad to the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
In 1980, IHR bought part of the membership list of the Organization of American Historians in order to send every OAH member a sample issue of the Journal of Historical Review, which ultimately caused the OAH to make its policies concerning purchase of its mailing list more restrictive. Ten years later, in 1991, the OAH agreed to publish an IHR "Call for Papers" in its newsletter, a move that enraged many members. OAH editors justified their decision by citing the First Amendment, and stood by it.
IHR presents a public face that avoids overt anti-Jewish bigotry. However, its fundraising letters, mailed to "supporters of truth in history," reveal its directors' prejudices quite clearly, as shown in a quote from a March 1992 letter:
The powerful interest groups opposed to historical awareness will not stand idly by while the suppressed facts of 20th century history continue to gain an ever widening audience. With millions of dollars at their disposal, for every dollar we spend to correct the historical record, they'll spend a thousand more building Holocaust museums and memorials, agitating for school indoctrination programs, backing Hillel groups on college campuses, and funding their vast web of professional snoops, censors, slanderers and media manipulators.
This text embodies a conspiratorial impression of Jewish power and control that reflects a major strain of historic anti-Jewish prejudice.
IHR claims that its founding goal was to follow in the footsteps of Harry Elmer Barnes, once a well-known and respected World War I historian and revisionist whose obsession with conspiracy theories led him to virulent anti-Jewish bigotry and support for Nazi policies during World War II and to a later belief that the Holocaust was a hoax.
In a "fact sheet," the IHR claims to shed light on suppressed information about key chapters of history, especially 20th-century history, that have special relevance today. It goes on to firmly support the First Amendment right of free speech. In fact, as aptly stated by Deborah Lipstadt, IHR's actual goal was "to move denial from the lunatic fringe of racial and anti-Semitic extremism to the realm of academic respectability. The IHR was designed to win scholarly acceptance for deniers."
Mermelstein's victories have been major defeats for IHR's cause. Nevertheless, IHR has managed to survive since paying out a $90,000 settlement to Mermelstein, as well as ever-increasing attorneys' fees. There is some evidence of cost-cutting, however--most notable in the Journal of Historical Review, which lost much of its bulk in 1992. There also are rumors that the IHR is losing donors; and this was before the split with Carto.
Another major setback was a firebombing attack in 1984 that destroyed most of IHR's files and office equipment at its Torrance, California warehouse and office, and prevented it from publishing the Journal for several years. Because it had been experiencing some harassment from several alleged members of the Jewish Defense League, IHR's leaders accused JDL of the arson, but no evidence was found linking JDL to the attack.
In October 1993, Willis Carto was forced out of the Institute for Historical Review in an apparent dispute over funding and ideology. Carto has filed suit in Los Angeles Superior Court to resume control of IHR.
Liberty Lobby/Noontide Press
Often those who get involved with IHR are unaware of its historic connection to Liberty Lobby, a connection which IHR itself is slow to reveal, presumably for the sake of its credibility. Indeed, only Liberty Lobby publicizes the connection, often publishing Holocaust revisionism in Spotlight and even devoting entire issues of that newspaper to the "Holocaust hoax." In addition, Noontide Press, a Carto/Liberty Lobby outfit, has been run in previous years by Tom Marcellus, current director of IHR. Fundraising letters for IHR have been printed on Noontide Press stationery; both organizations are usually based in the same California cities. If IHR moves, so does Noontide.
A legal connection has also been established. An appeal filed by Liberty Lobby, IHR, and the League for the Survival of Freedom, in an effort to present themselves as separate entities, was dismissed by the United States Court of Appeals in 1988. The appeal was part of Carto's attempt to sue the Wall Street Journal for calling him an anti-Semite. As Judge Robert Bork (soon to become famous in the failed attempt by the Reagan/Bush Administration to elevate him to the Supreme Court) stated in his opinion, the tactic was designed merely to disassociate the three groups from each other, in order to save their individual reputations. In addition, it probably was done as a financial move, to ensure that suits filed against one would not affect the other two, so that at least one group would survive should there be a legal defeat, as there was in the Mermelstein lawsuit.
Liberty Lobby's central role in promoting Holocaust revisionism dates to the 1960s, although associates such as Francis Yockey dabbled in this area in the early 1950s. Its involvement seems to have begun with its publication of The Myth of the Six Million, a book which "has become a staple item in the Liberty Library and in the wares of various racist-paramilitarist groups." In the 1960s it published discussions of Zionism and the Jews in Spotlight whenever possible, and on occasion it attacked ADL. While some criticisms of ADL deserve debate--such as whether or not its close relationship to law enforcement and intelligence agencies has led it to violate the privacy rights of dissidents, or if its high-profile attacks on Black anti-Jewish bigots are disproportionate--the Liberty Lobby critique of ADL falls into the classic pattern of conspiracy theories regarding Jewish power.
In later years, Liberty Lobby published at least two problematic tracts on the Middle East, one written by author Issa Nakleh (who has been a featured speaker at IHR conferences) expounding theories such as "Zionist intrigue as a factor in America's 1917 intervention," "dispute of the Holocaust statistic of six million Jewish victims," and "a conception of East European Jews as Khazars rather than Palestinian semites."
The Liberty Lobby's intention to support Holocaust revisionism became clearer in the early 1970s when it began to distribute The Hoax of the Twentieth Century, by Northwestern University professor Arthur Butz. Since then, it has often used Spotlight to promote the IHR, rail against Jewish groups, and protest the opening of the United States Holocaust Museum.
After Carto's ouster from IHR, he immediately began to plan a new revisionist publication to be published in October 1994. Called The Barnes Report, after revisionist historian and longtime Carto friend Harry Elmer Barnes, the journal is clearly intended as a challenge to the Journal of Historical Review. In an advertising blurb in the August 29, 1994 issue of Spotlight, the newspaper's Senior Editor Vince Ryan claims that The Barnes Report would be an incorruptible source you know you can trust.
Another Holocaust revisionist organization is the Committee for Open Debate on the Holocaust. Its efforts to place full-page newspaper ads in college newspapers (most recently The Good 5¢ Cigar, the student newspaper of the University of Rhode Island in Kingston, Rhode Island) has garnered extensive news coverage. Essentially a one-man operation, CODOH is run by Bradley Smith, a Korean War veteran and high school graduate who, as a bookseller, was prosecuted and convicted in the 1960s of disseminating obscene material because he sold Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer. At the time, he portrayed himself as a fervent believer in freedom of speech and expression, and it is that philosophy, he says, which prompts him to fight so hard for the cause of Holocaust revisionism.
Smith claims to have believed in the Holocaust "myth" until 1979, when someone gave him a copy of an article from the French newspaper Le Monde, written by French Holocaust revisionist Robert Faurisson. The article so impressed him that he underwent a "conversion," and has since self-published the first two parts of his autobiography, Confessions of a Holocaust Revisionist. He has also been working with the IHR as its spokesman and media director.
Smith founded CODOH in 1987 along with Mark Weber, who is now the editor of IHR's Journal of Historical Review. In an effort to promote his beliefs, he has appeared on well over 300 radio and television talk shows and began the college advertising effort. According to Smith, accounts of the Holocaust are akin to the stories found in the National Enquirer and other supermarket tabloids.
Smith's demeanor as a calm, kindly, elderly gentleman helps to sell his message. He is a far cry from the stereotypical alienated fanatic that one typically associates with anti-Jewish and neo-Nazi beliefs. Unfortunately, his opponents often become emotionally overwrought when confronting Smith's confident lies, and can seem more fanatical than he does.
Revisionist groups also exist in other countries, notably the Historical Review Press in Great Britain. There are also many individuals who have devoted their lives and careers to attacking the "myth" of the Holocaust. Some of the more famous include the British popular historian David Irving, Canadian high school teachers James Keegstra and Malcolm Ross, right-wing publisher Ernst Zundel, and French university professors Robert Faurisson and Bernard Notin. Both Keegstra and Faurisson have lost their teaching positions because of their beliefs, while Ross still teaches English and mathematics in a Moncton, New Brunswick high school, despite challenges by opponents.
Zundel has been tried twice on the same charges in Canada, for publishing "false news" through the printing and distribution of revisionist books and tracts such as Did Six Million Really Die? He was convicted both times, but each time his conviction was dismissed by the Canadian Supreme Court, most recently in August 1992, on the grounds that the law against spreading false news was too vague and might be used to limit legitimate forms of speech.
Two years after the verdict against Zundel was overturned, he is still publishing his revisionist literature. One of the newest offerings is a 567-page condensation of evidence presented at his trials. In addition, he has begun a satellite television program, as well as short-wave radio broadcasts in English and German, with the latter aimed at his ever-increasing right-wing audience in Germany. Although Zundel is reportedly under investigation by Canadian authorities, no admissible evidence of "hate crimes" has been found. A member of the Ontario Provincial Police commented in a 1993 interview that "Mr. Zundel is very knowledgeable about what he can say."
Keegstra, a former history and shop teacher, as well as Mayor of Eckville, Alberta, lost both jobs after a long struggle by opponents to oust him. Parents, disturbed by the anti-Jewish tone of their children's notes from Keegstra's classes, objected and sought to have him dismissed. They eventually succeeded, but encountered a great deal of opposition from his supporters, who ran the gamut from fellow teachers coming to the aid of one of their own to right-wing ideologues whose views were akin to Keegstra's.
Keegstra, like Zundel, was tried twice on charges related to spreading hatred and violating the "false news" law. Although an earlier conviction was overturned by the Canadian Supreme Court in 1991, after the second trial in July 1992 Keegstra was convicted of "promoting hatred by teaching his high school students that Jews have conspired to gain control of the world."
According to a 1985 article in the Jewish monthly Midstream, the frightening aspect of the entire affair was not so much that it happened, but that Keegstra poisoned the minds of his students for 14 years, that he induced them to hate Jews, and that this did not bother the high school principal, who said that Keegstra was a "good teacher" and that he would be "happy to see Keegstra reinstated." It did not stop one of his antagonists from thinking she could work with him in "trying to make Eckville a decent place to live," and it failed to disturb the equanimity of the school superintendent, who found Keegstra "most convincing" at the hearing where it was decided to keep him on for another year.
That his teachings had somehow been able to muscle aside the standard history found in mass media and school curriculum on the Holocaust and World War II was also alarming to Jigs Gardner, author of the Midstream article. But for Holocaust revisionists and revisionist sympathizers, mainstream media and Hollywood productions are run by special interest groups (usually meaning Jews) and therefore programming is controlled to convey only the message these groups want the public to hear.
Finally, the neo-fascist cult leader Lyndon LaRouche has questioned the Holocaust by claiming that most Jews died of disease and overwork, a stock-in-trade argument of Holocaust revisionists. Followers of LaRouche and Farrakhan have been making joint appearances in recent months.
These are only a few of the many deniers who have received public attention recently. Unfortunately, their message is sparking increased "debate" over the Holocaust, and the numbers of their supporters seem to be increasing.
Why Holocaust Denial?
Moderate Holocaust denial/revisionism generally takes the form of "wanting to hear both sides of the story," or questioning the extent of the Holocaust, in the spirit of not wanting to believe something on the scale of the Holocaust could happen. Carlos Huerta believes that the reason for this may be simply that people want to be tolerant, even of the most crackpot opinions. Such individuals, he says, have a sense of American fair play and have difficulty in understanding what they perceive as personal, slanderous attacks against revisionists. They ask the obviously simple question that if revisionism is so wrong and absurd, why not simply expose it as such and end the issue.
As mentioned earlier, however, a number of Holocaust scholars and Jews have declined to debate Holocaust deniers/revisionists, based on their fear that to do so would indicate that Holocaust denial is an acceptable theory. Deborah Lipstadt, a noted author and historian specializing in the Holocaust, explains:
The existence of the Holocaust [is] not a matter for debate. I would analyze and illustrate who they were and what they tried to do, but I would not appear with them. To do so would give them a legitimacy and a stature they in no way deserve. It would elevate their anti-Semitic ideology--which is what Holocaust denial is--to the level of responsible historiography--which it is not.
Lipstadt cites the case of a television program on which she refused to appear but viewed at a later date:
"When the show aired, in April 1992, deniers were given the bulk of the time to speak their piece. Then Holocaust survivors were brought on to try to 'refute' their comments. Before the commercial break the host, Montel Williams, urged viewers to stay tuned, so that they could learn whether the 'Holocaust is a myth or is it truth.'"
Unfortunately, the refusals of experts and survivors to confront the revisionists, while understandable, may allow Holocaust denial a virtually unchallenged forum. This is especially true in the case of call-in talk shows, which pit deniers (who are, ironically, well-prepared and well-read in standard Holocaust history) against well-meaning opponents who may not be well-versed in the subject, but know, through whatever means--experience or reading--the truth of the Holocaust. Such programs can become an exercise in emotionalism, with callers and even talk show hosts losing their tempers as they attempt to confront the deniers with the facts about the Holocaust.
It is not surprising that Holocaust deniers are taking full advantage of most Americans' tolerance for eccentrics. Brian Siano, in a column in The Humanist, comments:
"With nearly any subject we learn about in school, we retain only the broad outlines. Relatively few of us understand the Holocaust in intimate, working detail. Most people know of Hitler, camps, gas, maybe the number six million, and the vague understanding that the United States put a stop to it. It's not hard to imagine such a person; lots of them graduate high school every year.
Now imagine someone coming up to this person and saying, 'That Holocaust stuff is just silly, unscientific nonsense. Have you ever wondered how the Nazis could possibly gas so many people to death? Especially when the gas they used was only an insecticide?'"
Often, in our zeal to hear both sides of an issue, we are eager to question established truths, sometimes in toto. Americans have a fascination with conspiracy theories and so are often willing to entertain even the most crackpot theories in the belief that everyone deserves a fair hearing. On the other hand, we are often too willing to believe "authorities" who claim to be experts on one thing or another and to take what they say as the certified truth. These contradictory behaviors work in the revisionists' favor.
The increasing numbers of those who engage in Holocaust denial is perhaps emblematic of our own lack of memory of our past, and our preference for dealing with the present and future, rather than the past. As Geoffrey Hartman reflects:
As events "pass into history," and they seem to do so more quickly than ever, are they forgotten by all except specialists? "Passing into history" would then be an euphemism for oblivion, though not obliteration. That something is retrievable in the archives of a library may even help us to tolerate the speedy displacement of one news item by another. The storage capacity of the human memory is, after all, very limited. But what of the collective memory, with its days of celebration and lamentation, and the duty to keep alive a community's heritage?
This desire to let the unpleasant past slip away has contributed to controversy in Germany, where the Historikerstreit, or "Historians' Debate" over the meaning of Germany's Nazi past, has prompted bitter dissension among that country's scholars. The process of vergangenheitsbewaltigung, or "mastering the past," is a difficult one, forcing scholars to face the evil caused by the Nazis before and during World War II. Unfortunately, such questioning of the past has given rise to a new form of revisionism, in which many Germans are asking why their country should be held solely responsible for what happened 50 years ago and, indeed, why Germans today should be held responsible for "the sins of the fathers."
The debate in Germany has been prompted by an increase in commemorations of Hitler's seizure of power and of defeat in World War II as anniversaries reached the 40-and 50-year mark. Charles Maier, in his book exploring the Historikerstreit, The Unmasterable Past, says that although the current historical debate focuses on objections raised by conservative politicians and scholars concerning Germany's level of blame for the Holocaust, "the right did not open Pandora's box alone." Rather, as Jürgen Habermas, a prominent social philosopher, comments in Maier's book, "the memories [are accumulating] of those who for decades could not speak about their suffering," and must be spoken. In other words, Holocaust survivors are increasingly talking about their ordeal, forcing us to confront what they endured.
Such confrontations have often prompted those who have little or no interest in world events to question why the Jews seem obsessed with the Holocaust. Says Geoffrey Hartman, "Many think they already know about the Holocaust, and that it has received too much attention. But their attitude is a sign that they have no direct memory of the events and learn about them mainly from ceremonies and the media." Further, he says, "Life is characterized by a contradictory effort: to remember and to forget, to respect the past and to acknowledge the future."
What is troubling to all of those who have suffered through the Holocaust, but particularly to Jews, who were the prime targets, is the "careless or calculated rewriting of history" that "prevents many of them from laying their own ghosts to rest." But, most Jews are determined to keep memory alive, in spite of comments such as those made by Reagan at the Bitburg cemetery, comments that treated the young World War II German conscripts as if their suffering were equal to that of the victims of the Holocaust. Jews "saw the remark as only underscoring the tendency of history to blur the reality of their suffering--an inclination that is also visible in revisionist histories that have held the Jews partly to blame for their own slaughter."
The experience of the Massachusetts public education group, Facing History and Ourselves (FHO), is an example of this tendency. In 1986, FHO applied for grants from a special program of the Department of Education, the National Diffusion Network, to support its work educating high school students and adults about the forces that can lead to genocide, using the Holocaust and the Armenian genocide as examples. Its grant applications were reviewed by a special panel and rejected on the grounds that "[T]he project itself lacks balance; will former Nazis, etc. be allowed to speak?" After several other attempts, the organization was finally awarded a four-year grant in October 1990.
Holocaust Revisionism & Anti-Semitism
It is possible that Jewish efforts to understand and study the Holocaust are suffering from a backlash effect, similar to the backlash against feminism or even the Black civil rights movement. It takes the form of an attack against ideas that are described as being "pushed down one's throat," and perhaps many of those who resent frequent reminders of the Holocaust, but who are not active revisionists, are simply viewing the demands of Holocaust victims as "going too far" and "dwelling too much on the past."
The deniers play on a desire to avoid that which is unpleasant, and to forget the past and concentrate on the present. Holocaust denial also plays on conscious and unconscious anti-Semitic belief structures. Anti-Jewish sentiment and social prejudice has been a consistent presence in the US and other parts of the world, fostered by negative images of Jews in popular culture, often underestimated by historians.
Although overt prejudice and discrimination against Jews has declined, a covert form still survives, and so may be an important factor in fueling a tendency and/or desire to forget the facts of the Holocaust. Some may reason that the Jews (and other "undesirables") got their "just deserts" for perceived crimes committed against humanity, such as the murder of Christ or other alleged offenses, including support for socialism or communism or usury. This was in fact the attitude of many while the Holocaust was occurring, and it still is given voice by members of the extreme right. Indeed, Bradley Smith has been quoted as saying, "if God does love the anti-Semites, it might have something to do with way He feels about how some of you guys [Jews] behave."
But one doesn't have to be right-wing to believe anti-Jewish conspiracy theories or hold prejudiced views about Jews. As events unfolded during the course of the Keegstra affair, the unconscious prejudice of many Canadians came to the surface. This was usually embodied in the tendency for Christian communities to "denounce the anti-Semitic teachings of a self-proclaimed devout Christian" but to shy away from providing "outspoken moral leadership" on the question of prejudice against Jews.
Post-World War II America frowns on the open display of prejudice against Jews, although polls done in the 1980s indicated that one-third of all Americans believed that "Jews have too much power in the business world; 20 percent that they have too much power in the United States," opinions which echo the classic beliefs of most bigots.
Vice President Spiro Agnew once complained that the Jews controlled the banks and the media. In addition, there is still a perception that all or most Jews put the interests of Israel and American Jewry ahead of those of the United States, illustrated by the comment of Senator Ernest Hollings, who once referred in debate to Senator Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) as "the Senator from B'nai B'rith."
In its annual audit of anti-Semitic incidents, the ADL reported that the total number of incidents in 1993 (1,867) is the second highest in the audit's 15-year history, and an eight percent increase over the 1992 total of 1,730. Acts of a personal nature--harassment, threats, or assaults--increased by 23 percent, while vandalism against properties declined by 8 percent. According to the ADL, "this trend would seem to dovetail with the sense of many observers across the nation that confrontational, 'in-your-face' acts of violence, intimidation, and incivility, have been growing and spreading in recent years."
The audit, however, is but an annual account of overt acts of anti-Jewish bigotry or hostility, not a measure of actual prejudice present in the US today. Other observers say that, although the figures uncovered by the 1993 audit are alarming, they should be taken in perspective. J. J. Goldberg, writing for the New Republic, argues that in reality:
"[Anti-Semitism] is on the decline. Discrimination in housing, jobs, and schooling, once endemic, has all but disappeared. State-sponsored anti-Semitism, long a defining fact of European life, is virtually unknown here. Hostility toward Jews, measured in public opinion polls, has been declining steadily for two generations. Events that seemed sure to provoke broad anti-Semitism, from the Arab oil boycott to the arrests of Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard and Wall Street cheat Ivan Boesky, came and went without a blip."
The only increase, Goldberg claims, has been in incidents.
While a disturbing number of Americans may not believe or be sure that the Holocaust did happen, 83 percent of adults and 81 percent of students felt that "the main lesson to be learned from the Holocaust is that firm steps must be taken to protect the rights of minorities." Of note is that 60 percent of adults and 53 percent of high school students agreed that the Holocaust "makes clear the need for the state of Israel as a place of refuge for Jews in times of persecution."
While the extent and effects of anti-Jewish prejudice in the US are matters of ongoing debate, the ability of Holocaust revisionists to unleash or create anti-Jewish prejudice seems amply demonstrated.
What Should Be Done About Holocaust Denial?
There is no consensus at the moment on how to respond to Holocaust revisionism. Those who see the deniers as virulent anti-Jewish bigots eager to gain a respectable foothold for their distorted interpretations of history cannot agree whether the deniers should have the same First Amendment protections to which others are entitled. Recently, the German government has taken the position that Holocaust denial is forbidden speech. It presented a broad package of bills to combat right-wing violence that includes harsher jail terms for right-wing thugs and punishment for those who deny the Holocaust happened.
Two Rutgers faculty members who published an op-ed piece in the New York Times argue against publishing deniers' material in student newspapers:
"[The Editors'] decision to print [CODOH'S] ad is based on principle: an aversion to censorship or a belief that hate material should be aired and publicly refuted. Surely their right to publish such ads should not be questioned. They alone must decide what good purpose, if any, is served by printing ads that are intentionally hurtful and obviously false. [Yet] the ads should be rejected."
Their assertion later in the essay that "if the Holocaust is not a fact, then nothing is a fact" is well taken. Yet, while they defend the students' right to make their own decision about what should be published, they strongly advise that the ads be rejected. There have been similar discussions in other venues, even on computer bulletin boards and the Internet. One Internet computer node site based in British Columbia is host to the "Holocaust, The" and "Fascism" electronic mailing lists and the "Holocaust FAQ's," a text file repository of several sets of "Frequently Asked Questions" about the Holocaust, Holocaust denial, and the Carto/Liberty Lobby empire.
In early 1993, the "Holocaust" list moderator, Ken McVay, sparked a discussion of this same issue by mentioning that he had been asked to post articles from Spotlight that denied the Holocaust, but with refutation, and asked for input from bulletin board subscribers. A number of subscribers vehemently opposed the idea, arguing that it would be a travesty for the list to become another means of distributing revisionist propaganda. Others, including McVay, understood the concerns but focused on the education issue, as does the following posting by David Mandl:
"We're talking not about helping to spread these documents, but about refuting the wild claims of the 'revisionists' whenever necessary. It's been the subject of some debate whether 'we' should just ignore them, thus denying them valuable exposure, or address these claims and expose their lies; I've wavered on this question myself. But I think this group is here to confront these 'people' head-on and deal with their texts. Do you just stuff your garbage in a closet and ignore it, pretending that the fairy garbageman will take it away some day?"
Eventually, the discussion ended with the posting of the disputed article from Spotlight, with commentary by a subscriber.
Allowing deniers space and time to present their views may indeed be the lesser evil. If such material is suppressed, it takes on the appeal of suppressed "information," becoming more desirable. The public cannot help wonder what is dangerous about the prohibited material and so try to obtain it any way possible.
It seems, then, that a major challenge posed by Holocaust revisionists lies in determining the most effective response to them. Neither ignoring their existence nor suppressing their speech will make them go away. A middle course, acknowledging and allowing the publication of their theories and swift, calm, and thorough refutation, seems a stronger strategy in confronting revisionist distortions. As expressed by the student editors at Rutgers--how can one fight a devil one cannot see? How, indeed.
Lin Collette is a doctoral candidate in Religious Studies at the Union Institute in Cincinnati, Ohio. She is writing her dissertation on media depictions of right-wing Christian groups. Footnotes in the original version, which appeared in the September 1994 issue of The Public Eye, are available from Political Research Associates. © 1995, Lin Collette.
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