An online publication, Three Monkeys , recently interviewed me. In the interview -- which took place prior to the Iran conference -- I address related issues.
Defending History - Deborah E. Lipstadt and Holocaust Denial
Author: Three Monkeys Online
Date: November 2006
When Professor Deborah E. Lipstadt first decided to study and write about the phenomenon of Holocaust denial, in the late 1980s, many of her colleagues counselled her against her decision. Holocaust denial was, in their eyes a fringe movement of no-importance, akin to the Flat Earth Society. She was, in short, warned against taking 'these kooks' seriously.
Almost twenty-years later, and Lipstadt's concern seems prophetic. The development of the world wide web has meant that global publishing has never been easier or more economic, a fact that applies equally to those who publish racist, neo-nazi propoganda.
Lipstadt is, perhaps, best known as the historian whom David Irving sued for libel. Lipstadt had referred to Irving, author of Hitler's War as a Holocaust denier in her authoratitive work Denying the Holocaust - The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory. A British court, in a landmark ruling, found in favour of Lipstadt, judging that Irving was an "active Holocaust denier".
Professor Lipstadt was kind enough to agree to an interview with Three Monkeys Online, to discuss Holocaust denial
For the benefit of those who haven’t read Denying the Holocaust, how has Holocaust denial evolved since 1945?
It began almost immediately after the war when some fringe intellectuals tried to denigrate the Jews’ suffering at the hand of Nazi Germany. They spread the notion that the Holocaust had been a myth. Their attempts gained little traction until the mid-1970s when the Institute for Historical Review was founded in Southern California. The IHR claimed that it was interested in “revising” mistakes in history. Interestingly enough, virtually the only “mistakes” they addressed related to the Holocaust. They insisted on calling themselves “revisionists.”
With the establishment of the IHR deniers changed their tactics. Instead of engaging in overt anti-Semitic attacks, they adopted the modus operandi of scholars and academics. They gave their publications the look of academic journals. They made their conferences appear to be academic gatherings.
Rather than marching wearing swastika laden clothing and carrying neo-Nazi flags and looking like skinheads, they tried to appear as if they were respectable folks with a sincere academic interest whose intent it was to fix historical mistakes.
It was telling, of course, that the only mistakes in which they were interested were the Holocaust and other matters which were designed to portray the Allies as aggressors, the Germans as victims, and the Jews deserving of whatever was done to them. As one pundit observed, when you read the material published by the deniers you were left with the impression that “the Jews were not killed but they were so awful they should have been.” [By the way, I fully expect some denier – possibly David Irving – to take that last sentence out of context and use it in some article on web posting.]
Three Monkeys Online recently published an interview with A.C.Grayling, whose latest book addresses the issue of whether the Allied bombing of Germany and Japan in 1945 constituted a war crime. Unfortunately this is a topic also close to the hearts of Holocaust deniers, as you point out in Denying the Holocaust. It poses a problem for Academics like Grayling, and magazines like Three Monkeys Online. Should we steer clear of valid historical questions like these for fear of unwittingly providing material that can be used/abused by neo-Nazis?
We should NEVER avoid valid historical questions. For example, when historians realized that the death tolls for Auschwitz/Birkenau were too high, they recalculated and lowered them. They did not hesitate to do so, even though some people feared – correctly so – that it would “give comfort to deniers.” Instead, serious historians welcomed the corrected information.
Another example of correcting a mistaken notion relates to the accusation that the Nazis rendered Jewish corpses into soap during the Holocaust. During the war and afterwards many people said that the Germans made Jews into soap. No one knows the precise origins of this rumor, but it persisted after the war. Survivors who arrived in Israel were sometimes called: ‘Sabonim’ [Soaps]. In fact, there is no proof that the Germans regularly processed Jews into soap. They may have and probably did experiment in doing so, but we have no indication that it was ever done on a mass basis. Many historians, myself included, have regularly talked and written about this, despite the fact that there are those who argue that it “plays into” deniers’ hands.
Correcting mistakes does not, in any way, lessen the Germans’ crimes. The Germans’ actions were horrendous enough that there is no need to support myths in lieu of facts or to fear the facts.
By the same token, if the Allies did things wrong, then we should address it and acknowledge it. I have no doubts that they did some terrible things. Nothing, however, that they did can compare to the Nazis’ crimes which include the Holocaust, the T-4 [euthanasia program], medical experiments on prisoners, and so much else.
To return to the heart of your question: historians do not need to fear the truth. Deniers, it should be stressed, as was demonstrated in my trial and affirmed by five different judges, are not proposing an iconoclastic version of history. They twist the truth and lie about the facts. As Judge Charles Gray, the presiding judge in my trial, wrote in his decision, “Irving had “significantly misrepresented what the evidence, objectively examined, reveals.” Judge Gray’s choice of words to describe Irving’s writings about the Holocaust were unambiguous: “perverts,” “distorts,” “misleading,” “unjustified,” “travesty,” and “unreal.” And, the Judge further stressed, these were not mistakes. Irving’s “falsification of the historical record was deliberate and ... motivated by a desire to present events in a manner consistent with his own ideological beliefs even if that involved distortion and manipulation of historical evidence.” [see Part XIII of the judgment]
Sixty-six years after the liberation of the death camps, we’re approaching the point where there are no living witnesses to the Holocaust. What implications does that have both for the teaching of the Holocaust, and for Holocaust denial?
I used to worry a great deal about this. There is a unique power possessed by the person who can say: “This is my story. This is what happened to me.” But the tyranny of time guarantees that we will only have those voices for a few more years. In fact, I concluded my book, Holocaust Denial: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory, with this very concern.
Yet during my trial my fears were assuaged about what will happen when the survivors are gone. My defense team chose not to use survivors as witnesses because we did not perceive of this trial as being about proving that the Holocaust happened. We saw our job as having to prove that I told the truth when I called David Irving a Holocaust denier. In other words, we were not proving precisely what happened. We were proving that what Irving claimed happened did not. It is a distinction with a difference. Survivors would have been, in the view of the court, “witnesses of fact.” We did not think we needed witnesses of fact. [see Lipstadt, History on Trial: My Day in Court with David Irving, (Ecco 2005)]
Furthermore, Irving was representing himself and we did not want to ask elderly survivors to stand in the witness box to be cross examined by a man whose objective, we feared, might well be to humiliate and confuse them. Instead we relied on first rate historians and on documents. Some of the historians relied on testimony given by survivors. However, the testimony on which they relied was all given in the years immediately following the war. In other words, it was written documents.
Relying only on written documents and transcripts of testimony, we nonetheless achieved a stunning victory. As our lead historical expert, Richard Evans, wrote after the trial: “The trial demonstrated triumphantly the ability of historical scholarship to reach reasoned conclusions about the Nazi extermination of the Jews on the basis of a careful examination of the written evidence.” [Evans, Lying About Hitler, p. 266]
In an article in the Jerusalem Post you wrote: “Other forms of denial -- declaring President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to be Hitler's equivalent or denouncing Israeli soldiers as Nazis -- are still prevalent. These charges are a form of Holocaust denial because, irrespective of how one feels about the United States' or Israel's policies, comparing them to the actions of the Third Reich is a complete distortion of the truth." To compare torture in Abu Ghraib with Nazi interrogation methods, or Israel's often-used policy of collective punishment with tactics deployed by Nazi troops against partisans are charges that are not without some historical merit. There are differences and similarities that deserve to be discussed - if only to prove clearly that there are important differences. To label these charges as forms of Holocaust denial surely plays into deniers hands, seeming to be a political usage of the Holocaust designed to prevent criticism of either the US or Israel.
I do not think my criticism plays into deniers’ hands. One simply cannot compare what the Germans did and what the Americans or Israelis are doing.
The Germans attempted to murder an entire people in Europe and beyond, e.g. North Africa. The Germans were intent on murdering every Jew on which they could lay their hands. They were so committed to this objective that in May 1944, two weeks before the Allies reached Rome, the Germans were engaged in deporting Jews from Rome. One might have assumed that they would be focused on repelling the enemy.
Similarly, in July 1944, a month after the landing at Normandy and over a month after the liberation of Rome, they took ships to the island of Rhodes in order to round up the members of that Jewish community, most of whom traced their roots on the island back over two thousand years, and take them to Auschwitz to be murdered. Of the thousands who were taken, only 151 Jews survived. One might have assumed that with the Allies on the European continent and the Russians steadily advancing on the eastern front, the Germans would have focused all their energies and military resources on fighting the Allies. Instead they were intent on tracking down every Jew they could find in order to kill them.
When the Russians were on the outskirts of Auschwitz the Germans gathered up the remaining Jews in the camps and took them on a horrendous “death march” back to Germany. They did not want to allow live Jews to fall into the hands of the Russians.
Whatever you think of Israel’s policies or of those of the United States in Iraq, the objective is not to murder all the Iraqis or Palestinians. To make such comparisons is to engage in “soft-core” denial.
What difference, if any, has 9/11 had on the Holocaust denial movement?
I don’t think it has had a tremendous impact in Europe and North America. It has energized denial in the Arab/Moslem world, as exemplified by Iranian President Ahmadinejad.
Holocaust denial has become an increasingly widespread phenomenon in the Arab world in countries like Egypt that have close economic and diplomatic ties with both the European Union and the US. Do you think that it’s time that official pressure was brought to bear, for example limiting foreign aid to countries that turn a blind eye or encourage Holocaust denial?
One would have hoped that intelligent and responsible people in these countries would have put an end – through public criticism – to these efforts. One might have expected that there would be a recognition of the fact that the active denial so prevalent in the Arab/Muslim world makes those who express these views look silly at best and nefarious at worst. This has not happened.
I have not seriously considered the notion that denial should be linked to foreign aid. I am not sure this is the best direction to take. I would certainly argue that any country which encourages Holocaust denial and fails to condemn those who engage in it, would be a questionable ally at best.
Prominent Holocaust deniers like Ernst Zundel and David Irving have been quick to take to the net, taking advantage of its cheap and fast ability to publish worldwide. The net seems, unfortunately, precisely because it’s cheap and accessible, to be the perfect place for disseminating hate literature. I would suggest that serious academics have been slow off the mark to use internet publishing and blogs constructively, leaving a dangerous vacuum for the likes of Zundel to fill. Would you agree, and what was the thinking behind the setting up of your blog?
I agree wholeheartedly. The internet has given deniers a new lease on life. They use it energetically. Whereas in the 1990s, before the explosion of use of the internet, a number of countries, Germany prominently among them, were limiting the activities of deniers by stopping them from shipping denial materials through the mail. That, of course, is obsolete today. No one need rely on the mail.
I also agree that most scholars have been incredibly slow in utilizing the internet and blogs as a means of responding to deniers. In fact, after my trial, for a short while, the only place one could retrieve the transcripts of the trial was on deniers’ websites. That is why Emory University, where I teach, created www.hdot.org , a website devoted to the trial. On this site one can find not only transcripts, the judgment, and the expert reports but also increasing numbers of documents which were used in the trial. We have also put up the materials related to the various appeals Irving submitted to the court.
The site is being used in university and law school classes and by law enforcement officers in their attempt to educate themselves about deniers and their arguments.
[In preparing this interview and particularly my comments about the rumor of making Jews into soap, I used Google to see what it brought up. I entered soap + Jews + Holocaust + Nazis. The first 4-5 sites were deniers’ sites.]
The dilemma for historians with regard to Holocaust denial, as you pointed out in Denying the Holocaust, is whether to challenge the falsehoods face-on, or to try to starve them of the oxygen of publicity. Six years on from your successful defense against the libel case brought by David Irving, what do you think the best method to counter Holocaust denial is? Your vindication in the courts, for example, should have been a clear victory and yet it’s not uncommon to hear the misrepresentation that it was you who initiated the court proceedings rather than Irving (thus presenting him as a persecuted figure). In the face of such a protean ability to twist the facts around, is it naive to believe that historical facts are enough to counter Holocaust denial?
This is a tough question. In certain respects you are right. Historical facts are not enough alone to counter denial. They are, however, our most important weapon. They certainly are a far better weapon than laws which outlaw Holocaust denial. I am an opponent of such laws. I don’t agree with them in part because of my advocacy of free speech. I also think that they have the potential of making the denier appear to be, as you put it, the “persecuted figure” or martyr. Moreover, such laws suggest that we cannot rely on historical documentation to make the case.
Rather than law, there is another “weapon” in our arsenal. That is the quick and forceful condemnation by scholars, political and religious leaders, and other people of stature of denial and deniers. There must be condemnation of both “hard-core” and “soft-core” denial.
In a recent controversy in Italy, provoked by the publication of a paid for ‘information notice’, the Minister for the Interior spoke of shared values necessary for all participants in the recently established dialogue body between the Italian government and representatives of the Islamic community. Affirming recognition of the Holocaust as an essential value, he described the Holocaust as “incomparable to any other event in our time”. What do you think of the argument that the Holocaust was a unique event, and more importantly that it should remain incomparable to other events?
There are many aspects of the Holocaust which might be called unique or, to use a more efficacious term, unprecedented. Unlike other genocidal events, the Holocaust was not a civil war with two warring factions going after one another. It was not, as was the case in Cambodia, the imposition of terrible treatment – including torture and murder -- by the regime of a country on its own citizens. The Khmer Rogue, unlike the Third Reich, did not try to enslave Cambodians who lived in countries outside the country’s borders.
The Armenian genocide comes the closest to the Holocaust. Adolf Hitler, on ordering his military commanders to attack Poland without provocation in 1939, dismissed objections by saying `[w]ho, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?' and thus set the stage for the Holocaust. What it suggests that, had the world remembered the Armenian genocide, then the Holocaust might not have been possible. There are, of course, stark differences between the Armenian genocide and the Holocaust. An Armenian living in Paris or Brussels or possibly even in Istanbul was safe from the perpetrators’ murderous reach. A Jew in the 1940s who was on the European continent or even in North Africa was not safe from Germany’s intention to find them and deport them. Armenian children were often taken – kidnapped – and raised as Moslems. Jewish children were murdered.
In no other genocide do we see a government throwing all its resources into the annihilation of a people; not just those within its borders but in every area to which it had access.
Nor can the Holocaust be compared to America’s treatment of the Native Americans. America’s unspeakable treatment of the Native Americans – which remains a blot on my country’s history -- was prompted, in great measure, by the fact that the Native Americans occupied land that the American government wanted for its people. There was perverse logic – however totally immoral and terribly cruel it might have been – to the perpetrators’ actions. It might be more exact to say, rather than logic, there was something for the perpetrators to gain by their annihilation of the Native Americans.
In contrast, though the Nazis gained immeasurable amounts of material goods, real estate, and art work from Jews, this was not the prime motivation of the massacres. All Jews – rich and poor, those with a great cache of wealth and those with none – were in danger. The Jews did not “occupy” land that the Germans wanted. They murdered Jews who were serving important tasks as slave laborers. There was no ostensible “logic” to the murder of the Jews.
The Third Reich did not assault only those of a military age. Instead, it went after men, women, and children of all ages. This government chased down everyone of those it deemed an enemy, even when it was to its own detriment to do so.
While there were unprecedented aspects to the Holocaust, I – together with most other historians -- reject the notion that it was uniquely unique, i.e. that it was an event which cannot be compared to any other event. First of all, there is no historical event which is sui generis. Every event can be compared and contrasted with another event. If it does somehow stand alone, then there is little we can learn from it. Moreover, from the perspective of the educator if something is unique unto itself, it is very hard – if not impossible – to teach to students.
I would argue that we banish the term “unique” to the dust bin and adopt “unprecedented.” Unique means something which stands alone. Unprecedented means that when it happened there were no other examples of such a thing. But unprecedented does not preclude the fact that there might be other examples which follow in the wake of the Holocaust.
The field of "Holocaust studies" has traditionally existed in a tension between introversion, stressing the uniqueness of the Nazi genocide of Jews, and extroversion, applying the ethical stance and expertise of the field to other cases of genocide and "ethnic cleansing," past and present. Introversion may have been a useful strategy for the early years of the field. Over the years, however, Holocaust studies have greatly advanced and developed a wide array of resources and it would be a pity not to put them to use also for the research, documentation and help in other relevant cases.
Like Women's Studies or African-American Studies, Jewish Studies were developed as a satellite field that was supposed to fill in the gaps left in "general" disciplines when it came to minority matters. As a satellite field, Jewish studies were merely expected to flesh out a theoretical skeleton developed in the "general" disciplines with Jewish-related subject matter. But Holocaust studies is one of the rare instances, where Jewish studies actually has a theoretical and methodological edge over "general" disciplines, and it is here that we can for once offer to reciprocate the theory stream.
Leading Holocaust deniers like Ernst Zundel embrace with vigor campaigns for freedom of speech, suggesting that they’re victims of censorship. Does the fact that Holocaust denial is a crime in certain jurisdictions support their claims? The argument goes that no other historical fact is protected by law – if someone wishes to say that World War II didn’t happen, while obviously wrong they don’t face prosecution. Why is the Holocaust different?
As I said earlier, I don’t believe that Holocaust denial should be outlawed. However, if one looks closely at some of the statements made by deniers they, on occasion, go beyond simple historical deception and enter into the realm of hate speech and incitement. That kind of talk, incitement to violence in particular, should be outlawed.
By the way, it is not only Holocaust denial which is outlawed. France recently passed a law outlawing Armenian genocide denial.
Does the continued underground existence of Holocaust denial, despite the overwhelming historical evidence, suggest that there’s a problem with how we teach history, or is it simply unfortunate proof that anti-Semitism still has strong roots in our culture? To put it another way, are there any lessons for us to learn from the continued survival of Holocaust denial?
Hmm, I think it may be a reflection in small measure of how badly history is taught. However, in the main it is really proof of the fact that anti-Semitism [which I prefer to spell as one word, antisemitism] has very deep roots. At its heart, Holocaust denial is naught but a form of antisemitism. And antisemitism is a form of prejudice. Like any other form of prejudice it is an irrational sentiment. [Think about the etymology of the word prejudice, pre-judge, i.e. “don’t confuse me with the facts, I have already made up my mind about this person or this group.”] Therefore, to imagine that one can thwart it with rational arguments is wrong.
One should not discount the impact of Irving v. Penguin and Lipstadt, even deniers acknowledge that it was one of the worst mistakes they ever made. Virtually every argument that they had in their arsenal was shown to be a “tissue of lies.” Five different judges and three courts emphatically agreed.
Of course denial persists, but not in the same overt manner that it did before [with the primary exception of the Arab/Moslem world.]
I think that the primary lesson to be learned from the fact that it exists at all – after all, it really is absurd -- is that the haters don’t go away and that those who are willing to challenge them must continue to do so. It’s not an easy task but if you cannot abide prejudice and hatred, you have no choice.