I doubt that last week’s gathering of Holocaust deniers in Teheran, convened by Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, registered high on the radar screen of many in our community –d at least until a small group of clowns in Chassidic garb showed up to hug and kiss Ahmadinejad and exchange their business cards with various Islamic clergy.
While denial of the greatest tragedy in modern Jewish history is profoundly offensive, we instinctively discount its impact. After all, we reason, surely the deniers will be dismissed as either insane or pathological liars by every sentient person. Some of us might even have thought that Ahmadinejad’s convening of such a conference was positive in that it would expose his lunacy and hate-driven agenda to all and sundry.
I will confess to having shared those views. In retrospect, however, it now seems to me irresponsible to cloak ourselves in a false sense of security with regards Holocaust denial. The world still treats Ahmadinejad as a head of state in good standing, despite dozens of statements calling for the destruction of Israel and past instances of Holocaust denial. European nations have a seemingly endless string of rationalizations and justifications for every Arab or Islamic departure from generally accepted norms of political behavior.
The fact that the theories are demonstrably wrong is no protection against their spread. After all, the tired myth that the Arab-Israeli conflict lies at the heart of all that ails the Middle East, recycled again last week by the distinguished members of the Iraq Study Group, demonstrates that no theory – no matter how weak or devoid of factual support — can be counted upon to refute itself.
TO BETTER UNDERSTAND THE PHENOMENON of Holocaust denial I recently read a superb book called Denying History by Michael Shermer and Alex Grobman. In particular, I wanted to understand why those who are often open about their loathing of Jews, and free with Nazi-like theories of racial contamination, are so keen to deny the Holocaust rather than embrace it. The journals, websites, and fundraising lists of the Holocaust deniers are filled with references to “our traditional enemy.” Though a few Holocaust deniers with pretensions to academic seriousness have on occasion complained of the fact that they are forced to spend their time lecturing to crazed racists and anti-Semites, their own publications pander to these groups and they themselves inevitably show themselves to be tainted with the same disease. So why are they so eager to clear Hitler and the Nazis, yemach shemam, of responsibility for the murder of 6,000,000 Jews?
Ahmadinejad himself poses the question starkly. He frequently announces the imminent destruction of Israel and the five million Jews living there. So why does he deny that there is precedent for just such an event? In the case of Ahmadinejad himself the answer is relatively clear. In his view, the creation of the state of Israel was an act of compensation by the world for the suffering of the Jewish people during the Holocaust. If that suffering can be shown to be wildly exaggerated, or the normal consequence of a brutal war and not the result of a deliberate state policy of extermination, then the original grant of statehood to Israel was made on false pretenses and is therefore null and void. And therefore the destruction of Israel is perfectly legitimate.
In the case of Holocaust deniers like Richard Verrall, editor of the journal of Britain’s right-wing National Front and author of Did Six Million Really Die?, the Holocaust represents a public relations problem that must be overcome. They greatly admire Hitler’s Aryan philosophy and willingness to promote racial purity through legislation, and even advocate similar policies for their own countries. But they sense that the deliberate murder of six million human beings might be a bit much even for some like-minded supporters. Thus they claim that Hitler never intended more than the expulsion of Jews from Germany and later from German-conquered territory in order to make the case for Nazi-like race laws more palatable.
Holocaust denial fits seamlessly with the most virulent anti-Semitism. Indeed it provides just one more proof of Jewish perfidy and manipulation. If the Holocaust is a “myth,” as the deniers claim, then it serves as a prime example of the way in which Jews control public discussion for their own benefit – i.e., an even more nefarious version of the “Israel Lobby,” the existence of which has now been confirmed by a former U.S. president.
Above all, Denying History is a profound essay on the nature of historical argument and proof. Along the way, the authors categorize and refute the basic claims of the Holocaust deniers and analyze their methods of argument.
The Holocaust deniers do not deny that many – perhaps even millions of Jews – died in the course of World War II. What they do deny is that there was any systematic plan to exterminate all Europe’s Jews or that Hitler ever gave an order for their destruction. In addition, they deny that there were gas chambers in the six leading extermination camps and that the total number of Jews who were killed or died approaches anything like six million.
Though few of the deniers have any academic training or credentials, a few do. Nor are they universally stupid. David Irving, for instance, is considered by many a first-rate archivist. In this battle, as in almost every intellectual encounter, it is wise not to underestimate the opposition or overestimate one’s own strength.
Grobman and Shermer make clear that most university students would be ill-equipped to confront the most articulate deniers unless they knew a great deal in advance about their methods and about the Holocaust. To prove the point, they quote at length from a disastrous T.V. interview by host Phil Donahue with two prominent deniers.
Arguing that both sides must be heard, Holocaust deniers like Bradley Smith will gain admission to college campuses. And once there, it would be foolish to rely on college students to refute them or on college faculty, many of whom have been infected with terminal relativism, to protect the students. Grobman and Shermer relate a well-known case where a Afrocentrist gave a speech at Wellesley College arguing that Aristotle had stolen all his ideas from African manuscripts deposited in the great library of Alexandria. Professor Mary Lefkowitz asked him how that could be since the library was only built after Aristotle’s death. After the lecture, she was attacked as a racist by members of the audience. But more frightening, when she complained to the dean of her college about such nonsense being foisted on students, she was told each of us has a different but equally valid view of history. The question is: Will Holocaust denial also find its way into the pantheon of equally “valid” historical views?
Typically the deniers do not offer their own theory for what happened to Jews under Nazi control, or support with evidence such theories as they do offer – e.g., the starvation of those Jews who survived until liberation was a consequence of the German’s difficulty of supplying adequate food because of Allied advances. Rather the deniers seize upon discrepancies in the accounts of eye witnesses to the gas chambers – e.g., how long did it take before all the victims were dead? – as proof that the gas chambers never existed. Occasional errors, long since corrected, such as the claim that the Nazis engaged in the commercial production of soap from human fat (as opposed to occasional experiments in this direction), are held aloft by deniers as proof that all the historical accounts are falsified.
Deniers take out-of-context quotations from disputes between historians over such issues as when was the extermination plan finalized to suggest that there is an argument over the existence of such a plan. They repeatedly demand production of the “smoking gun” – e.g., a signed order from Hitler ordering the extermination of all European Jewry or the construction of gas chambers – as if an event of the magnitude of the Holocaust can be reduced to a single frame. Grobman and Shermer explain that Hitler learned from the public outcry in Germany against his murder of 75,000 physically and mentally handicapped adults and children in the late ‘30s never again to put his signature to an extermination order.
The deniers focus on what is not known rather than the immense amount of information that is known. And they attempt to discount or reinterpret documents and oral testimony one-by-one rather trying to explain the overwhelming preponderance of the evidence. While rejecting the interpretations of historians who connect six different strands of proof of the Nazi Final Solution, they offer no coherent theory of their own.
Grobman and Shermer have provided an immense service in destroying the various strands of denier argument. For instance, deniers ask, if Auschwitz was an extermination camp, why did its architectural design not conform to that purpose? Answer: It was originally built as part of a model city, later became a prisoner of war and slave labor camp for Russian POWS, and only in its last stage an extermination camp.
They survey the various strands of evidence for the existence of the gas chambers, including the voluminous testimony from the trial of Rudolph Hess, the camp commandant, and Hess’s own confession, the eyewitness testimony of both Germans and Jews who worked in the vicinity of the gas chambers and the ovens, and aerial photographs from Allied bombers. In addition, they stress that Auschwitz and the extermination camps were only one aspect of the Final Solution. The Einsatzgruppen extermination campaign in conquered areas of the Soviet Union claimed between 1,500,000 and 2,000,000 Jewish lives even earlier in the war.
It is ludicrous given the scope of the Final Solution and the consistent diversion of valuable German military resources to the extermination effort, even in the final stages of the war, that it was not executed with Hitler’s knowledge and upon his orders. Grobman and Sherman compile an overwhelming array of quotations from Hans Frank, the military governor of Poland, Josef Goebbels, Heinrich Himmler, Adolph Eichmann, (including the Wannsee Protocol, authored by Eichmann, after the infamous gathering of top of the Nazi hierarchy, explicitly delineating the stages of the Final Solution) and Hitler himself, which singly and cumulatively leave no doubt of a well-developed plan, ordered from the top, to eradicate the Jewish “virus” once and for all from Europe.
When General Dwight D. Eisenhower arrived at the Buchenwald concentration camp on April 13, 1945, he insisted on touring every nook and cranny of the camp. Subsequently he sent communications to London and Washington urging the British and American governments to send groups of journalists. Eisenhower correctly anticipated the day when the last survivor had passed away and when many would say such things could not possibly have happened, and therefore wanted to make sure that evidence of Nazi crimes be laid immediately before the public.
That day is fast approaching.
Originally appeared in Yated Ne’eman.