In her 1993 book, Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory, historian Deborah Lipstadt examines Holocaust denial: the myth that the murder of six million Jews by the Nazis never occurred. Once the deniers have absolved the Nazis of this central accusation, their next step is usually to claim that their warfare was similar to that of the Allies.
Holocaust Denier Irving Sues Lipstadt
Lipstadt, and her publisher Penguin Books, were the defendants in a Holocaust denial libel trial in London in 2000. The historical writer David Irving sued them for participating in a ‘conspiracy’ to ruin his career and destroy his academic legitimacy. Lipstadt, who teaches modern Jewish and Holocaust History at Emory University, Atlanta, claimed in her book that Irving knew the evidence about the Holocaust period but distorted it, until it coincided with his ideological leanings and political agenda.
Prior to this Irving had been found guilty by a German court in 1992, having declared at a 1990 public meeting in Munich that there had been no gas chambers at Auschwitz. After this verdict Irving was banned from Germany, and he has since been refused entry to several other countries including Canada. Another of his central theses was that Hitler neither ordered nor approved the murder of the Jews. Irving further claimed that, for a long time, Hitler knew nothing about the killings and that those Germans who murdered Jews did so without authorization.
Irving further asserted that at most 600,000 Jews had been killed in the Holocaust and that Auschwitz was not a death camp, but a slave-labor camp with a high mortality rate. This, and the huge death toll at Treblinka, were due to natural causes, such as typhus epidemics. Lipstadt also mentions that Irving refers to the Jews as “the traditional enemies of the truth.”
The trial attracted worldwide media attention and the defendants emerged victorious. Judge Charles Gray, in a 300-plus page judgment in April 2000, described David Irving as an anti-Semite who had “for his own ideological reasons persistently and deliberately misrepresented and manipulated historical evidence.” He ruled that Lipstadt and the publishers had justified their claims.
The Origins of Holocaust Denial
“Holocaust denial has a number of origins,” explains Lipstadt. “As far as deniers go, I could never figure out whether David Irving was first and foremost a lover of Nazism and fascism and thereafter an anti-Semite, or vice versa. I tend now to think that the first was the case. Irving loved Hitler and what he imagined the Third Reich to have been. In his fantasy it was neat and clean; everything was in its place. No outsider groups – such as Jews, blacks and others – could mess around there. Nobody could request special dispensation or wander the streets in different costumes. There was thus no need for any political correctness.
“David Irving’s case is particularly useful for analysis because it shows how the denial process works. He apparently loved the Nazis enough to actually want to reestablish National Socialism as a viable political system. At one point he may have thought that this would become possible in former East Germany after the fall of communism and its integration with West Germany.
“Irving realized that a pre-condition for Nazism’s resurrection was to strip and wash it of its worst elements. The first important tool to accomplish this was the creation of immoral equivalencies, essentially a balance of bad behavior. For instance, in the same breath, one mentions that, while the Nazis bombarded London in 1940, the Allies bombed Germany in 1945. Less truthfully, one agrees that the Nazis had concentration camps, which were terrible places, but then denies anybody was murdered in them. One can then ‘balance’ that by mentioning that the Americans had camps for American citizens of Japanese descent.
“A further step in the denial process is to search for various excuses for acts that cannot be denied, because there are extensive reports about them, such as the murder of civilians on the Eastern Front by the Einsatzgruppen. The denier then claims that they were carried out mainly by others, such as Estonians, Latvians, Ukrainians, as well as some rogue Germans. Yet another example concerns the many emaciated people in the camps the Allies found in May 1945. One justifies that by saying that it resulted from the Allies bombing the roads to the camps. The Germans were thus no longer able to take proper care of the people in the camps. “The final step in denial methodology concerns atrocities which simply cannot be excused by any of the above stratagems; hence they must be denied.”
“Before Irving there were several other deniers who began their attacks almost immediately after the war. Maurice Bardeche, a French fascist, asserted that people had died in concentration camps, not because they were murdered, but due to war-related events. He wrote that the expression, ‘the Final Solution of the Jewish problem’ meant, for the Germans, that the Jews would be transferred to ghettos in Eastern Europe. Bardeche claimed the gas chambers were used to ‘disinfect’ the concentration camps’ inmates, not kill them!
“Another Frenchman, Paul Rassinier, a pre-war communist and later a socialist, had been a member of the French Resistance. He was arrested and interned in concentration camps, among them Buchenwald. In 1948 he published a book Crossing the Line, in which he argued that people might have been killed in concentration camps, but that the perpetrators had acted on their own, not on orders from headquarters.
“Rassinier initially admitted that people had been killed by being gassed, which he claimed was a local initiative and not the responsibility of the central Nazi system. Later he denied the existence of the gas chambers altogether. This argument was repeated by Louis Darquier de Pellepoix, who had been Commissioner for Jewish Affairs of the notorious French Vichy government for several years. In an infamous interview in 1978, which drew widespread criticism, he told the French weekly L’Express that the Holocaust was a hoax and that only lice were gassed in Auschwitz. Rassinier also claimed that the concentration camps were not a German invention, and that many other countries had used them, including France. This is an early example of the balancing acts Irving and later deniers applied.
“The first generation of post-war deniers, to which both Bardeche and Rassinier belonged, justified Nazi anti-Semitism by asserting that the Jews were responsible for their own suffering, since they had caused Germany’s financial and political problems. Later deniers abandoned this line of argument, because they felt it undermined whatever credibility they had.”
More recent Holocaust denial activities in France have often focused on Robert Faurisson, a former literature professor at Lyons University. Lipstadt wrote that he “regularly creates facts where none exist and dismisses as false any information inconsistent with his preconceived conclusions. He asserts, for example, that the German army was given ‘draconian orders’ not to participate in ‘excesses’ against civilians including the Jews; consequently the mass murders of the Jews could not have happened. In making his argument, Faurisson simply ignores the activities of the Einsatzgruppen, the units responsible for killing vast numbers of Jews.” Faurisson often also became the inspiration for Holocaust deniers in other countries.
A Staunch Believer in Free Speech
Despite her ongoing battle against Holocaust deniers, Lipstadt maintains: “As an American, I’m a staunch believer in free speech. I recognize, however, that the situation in Germany is different and that there might be room there for a law against Holocaust denial; but there is also a practical aspect to my general opposition to laws against Holocaust denial. When speech is restricted, it becomes ‘forbidden fruit’ and more interesting to people.
“It is one thing to state that a country allows free speech, as does the United States in its constitution. That gives deniers the right to say what they wish. But it does not obligate newspapers to print letters or columns by deniers. Some student newspapers misunderstood the First Amendment and assumed it obligated them to print this material. It does not.”
Denial: A Threat to Responsible History
Lipstadt stresses that Holocaust denial is a threat to documenting responsible history. “If one history can be denied, any history can be denied. History then becomes totally subjective. It becomes negotiable, i.e. whatever one states it is.
“My barrister in the London trial, Richard Rampton, is Scottish. He said: ‘We must fight the battle against deniers because otherwise none of us will be safe in our beds.’ When he said that, he was not expressing a personal fear of persecution. He was expressing his understanding of the kind of liberal democratic society in which he wants to live. That society is threatened by the likes of David Irving. I was very appreciative that Rampton realized that Holocaust denial is not only a threat to Jews, but also to his own society.”
The Battle of Historians
The deniers’ claims should be seen in the context of an ongoing discussion on how subjective history is. Lipstadt comments: “The deniers do not operate in isolation. Since the late 1960s, we find scholars saying that knowledge is created rather than explored. In this methodology, the reader’s perspective becomes a dominant force in what version of the world one accepts. This ‘deconstructionism’ created a permissive climate toward the questioning of historical events.”
Lipstadt notes: “Even those serious historians who consider history very subjective do not accept Holocaust denial, because it goes beyond the boundaries.” She explains that, while some historians may say that Hitler was the worst murderer of the 20th century, others would assess that Stalin was as bad. “Some historians may claim the Soviets to have been a real threat to the West after the Second World War; others may consider this threat not so major, but rather a creation of the American defense industry. As for earlier events, historians may argue that there was no American revolutionary war in 1776, but rather a battle of the farmers against the vested interests of the city. Nobody would claim, however, that there was no war.”
Holocaust Deniers: “Off the Chart of Responsible Historians”
Lipstadt thus concludes: “The Holocaust deniers take deconstructionism and historical relativism to its most absurd extreme. Once one moves into the realm of denial, one is off the chart of responsible historians. No responsible historian would say there were no gas chambers. One should not take the deniers seriously, because it accords them an undeserved status. That is why I have always refused to debate with them.”
“This does not mean there are no legitimate arguments about the Holocaust. One may argue that the Holocaust is unique or that it is one among several genocides. Some historians consider the latter an incorrect professional conclusion, stressing the uniqueness of the Holocaust as incomparable to anything else. Yet I know responsible historians who believe that the Armenian genocide is quite similar to the Holocaust. There are those who say that in Bosnia there were elements of a genocide, if not a Holocaust. I disagree. But in no way can one say that such historians are, in any way, similar to deniers.”
Dangerous Half-way Historians
“Historians such as the German Ernst Nolte are, in some ways, even more dangerous than the deniers. Nolte is an anti-Semite of the first order, who attempts to rehabilitate Hitler by saying that he was no worse than Stalin; but he is careful not to deny the Holocaust. Holocaust deniers make Nolte’s life more comfortable. They have, with their radical argumentation, pulled the center a little more to their side. Consequently, a less radical extremist, such as Nolte, finds himself closer to the middle ground, which makes him more dangerous.
“A very different type of extremist is Norman Finkelstein, who claims that the memory of the Holocaust has been made into an industry. Had he not been a child of survivors, his book would not have received any attention. Yet other voices complain that the Jews try to monopolize their victimhood at the expense of other sufferers.
“It is very important to be able to confront all of these accusers with facts, figures and documents. The methodology followed in a court and the expertise presented there are very useful in such a defense. Prominent historians like Richard Evans, Christopher Browning and Peter Longerich were expert witnesses in the London trial, which gave it much of its importance. History had its day in court and proved victorious.”
Universalization of the Holocaust
“My own position on the uniqueness of the Holocaust has changed somewhat in recent years. I used to be a purist, considering it unique; but I now think that one errs by arguing that stand too strongly. There are other situations with some elements similar to those of the Holocaust.
“If one stops the comparison at 1939, one finds strong parallels between apartheid policies in South Africa and Nazi attitudes toward the Jews. There were times when the apartheid government convinced blacks that they were being taken to new homesteads. The authorities, however, took them to the bush and left them there without food and water. They died by the thousands, which was a limited form of genocide. Of course, the apartheid government was not intent on destroying the entire black population, because they needed them to do the work that sustained the country. Consequently, it was not a full-fledged genocide. It was horrible, it was inhumane, it was anti-democratic; but it was not intended to wipe out the black population.
“The true uniqueness of the Holocaust starts only after 1941, with the Nazi implementation of a systematic plan of murder. No other example exists of a modern government using all its forces (including post offices, banks, army, etc.) to annihilate an entire people: men, women, and children. This genocide occurred inside and outside Germany’s borders.
“It is not the industrial and technological elements of the Holocaust which make it unique. If the Germans hadn’t created the gas chambers, they would have continued to kill people en masse like the Einsatzgruppen did. They probably would have murdered far fewer people in four years. However, sometimes, by focusing on the significance of the gas chambers, we downplay the brutality and incredible horror, as well as the organizational aspects, of the Einsatzgruppen murders.
“While there is no example of a situation that comprises all elements of the Holocaust, we can still use the Armenian genocide as a comparative tool. Likewise there are places in Bosnia where one may conduct a similar analysis, as that too included some elements of genocide.”
History and Memory
“One of the important conclusions of Irving’s trial against me was that, in the future, historians will have to come to the fore to protect and defend history in a way that they haven’t had to until now. That is why my lawyers called historians as witnesses, and not survivors.
“Survivors are witnesses to the facts. It is much more powerful when someone speaks in the first person; but, had a survivor been put on the stand on our behalf, it would have meant we needed a witness of fact to prove the Holocaust had happened. We wanted to make it very clear that our purpose wasn’t to prove that the Holocaust had happened, as that was obvious.
“As more and more survivors pass away, the role of the historian will become increasingly important. Even if many testimonies have been transcribed or videotaped, historians will still have to interpret them. They will have to decide whether a testimony matches up to a document, and whether a side-testimony from the same village can support or help to understand it. When all the survivors have passed away, the only way to make the Holocaust relevant to a large group of people may well be to show how it fits in, compares to and contrasts with other genocides and outrages. Thus one will have to view the Holocaust in a much more comparative context than before.
“Another example: There is a small Holocaust memorial education center in Cape Town in South Africa, which every policeman has to visit during his training. This is not because the authorities are worried about what happened to the Jews in Europe, but because it provides a lesson as to what happened there and how it compares with the situation in South Africa, what is different and what can be learned from it.”
Holocaust Memory Beyond the Survivors
“Many things will remind us of the Holocaust after the death of the survivors, including books, movies, cultural histories and artifacts. Some monuments will be very effective; others will be forgotten the day after they are unveiled.
“Some of the Holocaust museums will do important educational work. These museums shouldn’t be afraid to look at the Holocaust in a broader context, even if the Holocaust is a big picture in and of itself. However, I do not think they should become museums for genocides with a room for the Armenians and another for the Rwandans. The Anne Frank Center in Amsterdam has gone to an extreme and, it seems to me, it is no longer really oriented toward the Shoah. Today it is more of a generalized anti-totalitarian center.
“The Holocaust museum in Washington deals exclusively with the Shoah, but it must also help those who visit it to understand the Shoah in the context of other outrages. This museum shows us what can happen in specific places if the world does not protest early enough. Thus it was important that a scholar from Rwanda, who had researched what happened there, could present his data in a lecture at the museum. It helped remind those who heard him that the world has learned relatively little since the Shoah, or from the Shoah.”
The Meaning for Israel
Many motifs which Lipstadt has analyzed in the deniers’ publications on the Shoah return nowadays in a wider context vis-a-vis Israel. “There are people who say, ‘I don’t think there should be a state of Israel or any Jews in the Middle East, because they do not belong there.’ By pulling the argument to one extreme, other extremists suddenly sound more reasonable. For instance, there are those who say, ‘I am against the State of Israel but the Jews can live peacefully in a democratic Palestinian state.’ Destroying the Jewish character of the state suddenly seems far more moderate than wanting the total expulsion of the Jews.”
Lipstadt agrees that criticism against Israel is as legitimate as that against any other country; but she stresses the difficulty of sharply defining proper boundaries: “What is not permitted,” she concludes, “is false historical analysis and the use of immoral equivalencies. One cannot compare the 2002 Jenin battle to the Shoah. Such a comparison shows either ignorance of history or misguided intentions.”
Lipstadt sees this comparison as a new expression of denial. “When one speaks about Israeli soldiers as Nazis, that is a denial of what Israeli soldiers are and what the Nazis were. This is a misuse of history for political purposes. One may not like Israel, but that is different from lying about history in a court. Much current criticism of Israel is based on anti-Semitism and denial. Some of the exaggerated talk about Israeli power, Israeli strength and Israeli ability is very similar to what one has seen for decades in the writings of the Holocaust deniers and, before that, in those of the Nazis and other anti-Semites.”
Interview by Manfred Gerstenfeld
* * *
Deborah E. Lipstadt is Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies at Emory University in Atlanta where she directs the Rabbi Donald A. Tam Institute for Jewish Studies. Her book Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory (Free Press/Macmillan, 1993) is the first full length study of those who attempt to deny the Holocaust. She is currently writing a book about the libel trial in London she won against David Irving who sued her for calling him a Holocaust denier and right-wing extremist. This interview is part of Manfred Gerstenfeld’s forthcoming book: Europe’s Crumbling Myths: Today’s Anti-Semitism’s Post-Holocaust Origins.