Revisionist Deniers and their Critics

[Note to readers: this post is going to contain some ‘scare quotes’. Normally, I don’t like scare quotes, but I thought it wise to use them here, for reasons that will become obvious]

Over the holiday break, I watched Shoah, Claude Lanzmann’s eight-hour documentary about the Holocaust. It was fascinating and intermittently almost overwhelming but, I must admit, a bit too long. A more detailed review will have to wait for another day.

Doing a bit of research on the movie, I came across the group blog Holocaust Controversies (HC), a site whose mission is to monitor and refute the arguments of Holocaust deniers and revisionists. HC thinks it’s important not to just denounce Holocaust deniers, but rather refute their specific arguments by criticizing their errors (inaccurate citations, sloppy/dishonest use of sources, non sequiturs, etc.). They’re continuing in the tradition of John C. Zimmermann, who recently wrote a book analyzing Holocaust deniers’ arguments. You can read a long, fascinating excerpt from the book, ‘Body Disposal at Auschwitz: The End of Holocaust Denial’, here.*

These debates are not for the faint-hearted. You’ll find detailed discusssions, for instance, of mass-grave construction. People have been thinking about this for a long time, since wars produce lots of human and animal corpses which need to be got rid of quickly. (The Belgians, apparently, made a major advance in this area in 1814!). That’s not all, though, you’ll also read about the number of "muffles" on the ovens delivered to Auschwitz, oven repair protocols, coke deliveries, cremation procedures, and much more. Historical documents also come into play: there’s analysis of aerial photos, document authenticity tests, disputes about the meaning of the word Sonderbehandlung.

I’m not going to link to any of the Holocaust-questioners’ documents here, since it may not be legal to do so in Germany. You can find them on the HC website, though. If you do, you’ll see that there are different kinds of Holocaust deniers. The dumb ones say it never happened. These people are irrational cranks who are in little danger of being taken seriously, at least among educated people.

The HC website challenges the more subtle, ‘David Irving’ kind of Holocaust denial. People like Irving don’t dispute that many European Jews died under Nazi rule, but do question what they describe as the received wisdom, for instance that about 1 million Jews were killed in the gas chambers at Auschwitz. As the Holocaust History website puts it:

"Revisionists" claim to believe certain minor aspects of the Holocaust, in the hope they will appear reasonable. So, they will admit that some Jews suffered under the Nazis, and that there were some Nazi excesses, but deny an overall extermination plan. But once questioned, it becomes quickly apparent that their real position is as that they deny all of the major elements of the Holocaust: the plan to kill the Jews, mass shooting by the Einsatzgruppen, gassing at extermination camps such as Auschwitz and Treblinka, just to mention a few.

Some of these deniers are university-trained, wear suits, can gain access to and read documents in the original language, and write footnote-filled books that look academic. They usually reject the label "Holocaust denier," preferring instead "historical revisionist."

They work like a defense lawyer challenging the prosecution’s case. First, attack the credibility of eyewitnesses: SS officers admitted guilt because they were tortured or tricked; victim witnesses are exaggerating for sympathy or to cash in on lawsuits. (As Zimmermann notes, "deniers reject all post war testimony as fraudulent"). Second, attack the circumstantial inference: how do we know those cattle-cars were full of deported Jews? How can we be sure the bodies which were cremated in the ovens weren’t killed by the typhus that regularly swept the camps? If so many people were gassed in the gas chambers, why isn’t there more cyanide residue on the walls?  On this last point, American ‘execution technology specialist’ Fred Leuchter claimed to have found "too little" Zyklon B residue after chipping away chunks of a gas chamber wall and sending them to a lab. His report has since been discredited, and those who see Errol Morris’ 1999 documentary Mr. Death, which also deals with his career as a freelance electric-chair and lethal-injection-machine expert, know that Leuchter is not playing with a full deck.

I’m interested by the motivations of the ‘revisionist’ deniers. Deep down, their motivation is presumably some form of anti-Semitism. However, their credibility is important to them, so the more respectable-looking ones claim to be serious historians, and generally avoid openly anti-Semitic arguments.

The question is: what are they after? That is, what’s the real point of (1) admitting that the Nazis hated Jews and killed lots of them; but (2) arguing that the Nazis may not have killed quite as many Jews as is commonly believed; or (3) might have killed them in less chillingly inhuman ways than gas chambers or execution vans? (Deniers are particularly anxious to contest the fact that large numbers of Jews were executed en masse in factory-like gas chambers, instead of being shot or starved to death in ghettos. Apparently, the last two methods of extermination are not quite as controversial because they weren’t unique to the Nazis.)

Even if the deniers’ arguments held water, the deniers could hardly hope to ‘rehabilitate’ National Socialism. So what psychological needs does this qualified denial satisfy? I can think of only five, but perhaps I’m not creative enough.

  1. Questioning some aspects of the Holocaust is as a kind of secret handshake, allowing anti-Semites to recognize each other without having to openly denounce Jews;
  2. They believe that the ‘Zionists’ have exaggerated and exploited the Holocaust to justify the existence of Israel or distract attention from some ‘worldwide Jewish conspiracy’;
  3. Like all conspiracy theorists, revisionists enjoy having ‘secret’ knowledge that makes them superior to the naive fools they see about them;
  4. Closely related to #3 is the pleasure one gets on knowing (or, here, ‘knowing’) that some piece of commonly-held folk wisdom is untrue;
  5. They enjoy the role of free-speech martyr, considering themselves the only ones courageous enough to question the conventional wisdom.

Only reasons 1 and 2 are explicitly anti-Semitic. The rest, although cited frequently by the Holocaust deniers themselves, would also be true of anybody who challenges the conventional wisdom.

So here we have the second interesting question: how do you separate those with a legitimate interest in the Holocaust from those who are motivated by anti-Semitic resentment? Since the number of people actually killed at Auschwitz can never be known for sure, it is possible to have legitimate debates concerning the precise number of victims.

There seem to be two ways of separating the wheat from the chaff. The first clue to the motivations of Holocaust deniers/revisionists is the fact that they’ve chosen to question the Holocaust. Sociologists of knowledge tells us that what you choose to write about is as important as what you say. A left-leaning historian will analyze class phenomena (even if he does not expressly use Marxist terminology) because he finds the subject of class conflict infinitely more interesting than, say, soap operas. For the same reason, a Christian historian is more likely to write a book about the history of the Church than about the development of lock washers. There are probably plenty of genocides out there that could probably use more investigation, and even some revision. But creepy right-wingers, oddly enough, always decide to focus right in on the Holocaust, even though the evidence that it occurred is overwhelming, and thus the question of whether it happened is in no need of revision.

But, of course, the mere decision to research the Holocaust is suspect only if it’s undertaken with dark motives. To determine these motives, you may need to follow the revisionists around and listening to what they say in unguarded moments. The classic example is the 2000 defamation trial of Deborah Lipstadt. Lipstadt, an American historian, wrote a book called Denying the Holocaust in which she essentially called British historian David Irving a Holocaust denier and Nazi sympathizer.

In a decision that will go down as one of the gravest miscalculations in legal history, Irving sued Lipstadt for defamation in an English court. Lipstadt’s defense was "justification", that is, that her charges were "substantially true." To rebut Irving’s claim that he was a legitimate historian being persecuted for his unpopular views, Lipstadt was allowed to introduce dozens of excerpts of Irving’s speeches, miscellaneous writings, and even personal diary entries. They’re permeated with the odious, gin-and-resentment soaked racism exhaled by a particular kind of ratty English conservative. (Like many such English conservatives, Irving’s also much too colorful for his own good. The high point in this compendium of sour, petty slurs is a diary entry from September 17, 1994, in which Irving notes a children’s ditty he recited for his baby daughter Jessica, in which he called her "Baby Aryan")

The judge’s conclusion:

Irving has made claims that the Jews deserve to be disliked; that they brought the Holocaust on themselves; that Jewish financiers are crooked; that Jews generate anti-semitism by their greed and mendacity; that it is bad luck for Mr Wiesel to be called ‘Weasel’; that Jews are amongst the scum of humanity; that Jews scurry and hide furtively, unable to stand the light of day; that Simon Wiesenthal has a hideous, leering evil face; and so on.

In other words, Irving lost his defamation lawsuit, to resounding effect. Lipstadt wrote a book about the trial, and runs a blog concerned with the trial, and with Holocaust research.

Well, sorry to be going on about this glum subject for so long, but you can’t deny it’s interesting. Go on over and show some support to the brave men at Holocause Controversies. They’re putting on their rubber boots and wading through the fever swamps of Holocaust denial so you don’t have to!

16 thoughts on “Revisionist Deniers and their Critics

  1. “The Belgians, apparently, made a major advance in this area in 1814!”

    Three cheers for the Belgians. They are, I must say, underrated.

    Now, on a more serious note: I’ve been writing about the “six million” recently. The relevant post in my blog is the one entitled 6m, but you might want to read all of the last four, for the full context.

  2. “What are they after?”

    From my own experience with German “revisionists”, in many cases, while they do not put into question the extent of atrocities committed (e.g. 6 million killed), they want to make the point that throughout history, acts have been carried out against Jews almost anywhere in Europe, thereby trying to put the Holocaust into historical context. I always thought that with this sort of relativism these idiotic people want to free themselves from the thinking that Germans are by nature particularly prone to anti-semitism. However, they fail to understand that to make such claim in the first place implies that as a German you’re always guilty or responsible for acts your fathers, relatives and compatriots have committed which is completely irrational.

    For non-German revisionists not falling into this guilt-motivated category the reasons can be multifold. Apart from those motivated by pure antisemitism or antijudaism (these are clearly in the majority), I think there are also those who feel the need to balance the common interpretation of history they hold unduly pro-semitic, those who feel the need to question anything just for the sake of it and those who want to use their differing historical judgement as an explanation of the current world order.

  3. “There were no extermination camps on German soil” (Simon Wiesenthal, ‘Nazi hunter’)

    “Holocaust awareness is actually an official, propagandistic indoctrination, a churning out of slogans and a false view of the world, the real aim of which is not at all an understanding of the past, but a manipulation of the present.” (Boas Evron, Israeli political writer)

    “‘ The Holocaust’ is an ideological representation of the Nazi holocaust. Through its deployment one of the world’s most formidable military powers, with a horrendous human rights record has cast itself a ‘victim state’ and the most successful ethnic group in the united States has likewise assumed victim status.” (Norman G Finkelstein, Jewish writer)

    “Sources for the study of gas chambers are at once rare and unreliable” Jacques Baynac

    “the history of the genocide and the homicidal gas chambers is mainly in the form of oral or written witness testimony, which is always fallible” Jean Claude Pressac

    By your definition, then, all these guys are holocaust deniers…
    It seems it is not a question of whether holocaust history can be reviewed, criticised and revised, but rather who is allowed to do it.

  4. > “There were no extermination camps on German soil”

    That’s what Wiesenthal said, complying with post-WWII historical terminology. He never retracted and nobody ever rebuked him. No serious historian ever denied that Nazis had concentration and slave labor camps built in many places, including Germany, while extermination camps where only built in Poland and Belarus. Incidentally, they are merely following Nazi usage of the terms. One of Eichmann’s deputies, Dieter Wisliceny, interrogated at Nuremberg, referred to Auschwitz and Majdanek as “extermination camps,” while he called Mauthausen, Dachau, and Buchenwald “normal concentration camps;” cf Overy, Richard. Interrogations, p 356–7. Penguin 2002.

    This straw man, both simple minded and infamous, has a become a staple among …guess whom? Right, Holocaust deniers – troglodyte unit. Can we leave it with that? Go home, you have poop in your loincloth.

  5. The Pressac quote is pretty funny too, considering that Jean-Claude [sic] Pressac wrote two extensive volumes proving the historicity of the Holocaust in excruciating detail (Auschwitz: Technique and operation of the gas chambers and Les Crématoires d’Auschwitz). The quote is probably entirely fabricated, but in any event Pressac is not a Holocaust denier insofar as he simply does not deny the Holocaust.

  6. This just in, amusingly so: I ranted first and googled later, so it’s only now that I discover this beauty. Obviously, my mesolithic imagery was quite intuitive. Goes with the country, I guess. Besides, I understand that Mr Turley doesn’t consider himself a “‘denier’ as such.” Good for you, matey.

    > “The Pressac quote is pretty funny too”

    Pressac denied first, and recanted later. So, while Mr Turley proves to be, ugh, knowledge impaired (yes, I can be pc, too), at least we are profiting: all hail google. We could put the rubber boots on and wade through the rest of the list, but I’ll only do that (¡with gusto, hombre!), should tattoed brainy man insist.

    PS: so our host doesn’t throw a fit (me *and* Mark, that’s stark…): the links in this here blog have the rel=”nofollow” attribute set, so Conan won’t sizzle google juice out of this good old fashioned flame fest. Thor and Donar — I’m feeling young again.

  7. Hurrah! A response to revisionist views that resorts to childish name-calling and ad hominem attacks. – how surprising. Congratulations are in order, however because that’s one of the worst responses I’ve ever seen on this subject. (And I’ve seen some very poor ones). Look the quotes up. You might choose to argue over Wiesenthal, which is contentious due to context. But what about Evron? Or Finkelstein? How do you explain Jews who question the aspects of the Holocaust? Are they anti-semitic too? How does that work? The Pressac quote is genuine (for the benefit of the indivdual who suggested I had made it up) and comes from his book ‘The Technique and Operation of the Gas Chambers at Auschwitz’.
    What you’ve done here, in a few paragraphs, is sum up everything that is wrong with the study of this subject. Your response to someone who questions it is abuse. That is not how civilised people, discussing a piece of history behave. Neither is it how intelligent people behave. Its how those who fear open discussion behave. Anyone even faintly objective reading this will see clearly who is arguing with hysteria and irrational hatred.
    Apart from fanatics, who treat the Holocaust as a faith-based perspective and will defend all aspects of the story no matter what, you will have lost most of your credibility with your readers.

  8. > You might choose to argue over Wiesenthal, which is contentious due to context.
    > But what about Evron? Or Finkelstein?

    Try one, and move next on error, nonchalantly? No, we’ll do that step by step, ok? What’s contentious about Wiesenthal? I think he’s right, he did, you do, and so do historians — mine and, ugh, yours. So, where’s the beef that could add nutritional value to revisionist stew?

  9. The Wiesenthal quote is interesting because initially, after Nuremburg, many camps in Germany, in particular Belsen and Dachau were identified as extermination centres. My father, who was in the British army at the end of World War 2 will still tell you how there were gas chambers at Belsen in which many were murdered and he will talk about the emaciated bodies as being gassed (they were starvation and typhoid victims – accepted by all – look up autopsy reports of Dr. Larson). This was what people were told, in 1945 (and is what Belsen and Dachau Nazis were convicted of and then executed for, at Nuremburg). Yet history no longer believes this to be true and even Mr.Wiesenthal, of all people, accepts that.
    This constitutes a revision – the initial belief was exterminations at Belsen, Dachau, other camps in the ‘old reich’ – which history has revised to’no exterminations anywhere in the old reich.
    If the whole Holocaust story and all its details are somehow sacred and unchallengable and set in stone, why has this official revision occurred? Either its wrong to revise the Holocaust or it isn’t. If history can re-examine the evidence and change its mind about exterminations at Belsen and Dachau, why is it so wrong to re-examine the evidence for the other parts of the story?

  10. You feel it’s interesting, as you feel it illustrates your point, why not — but can we conclude that it is correct — and not even a wee bit contentious?

    As for your point, it’s a fallacy: neither my, and certainly not your historians are against the principle of constant revision, which would contradict elementary scientific process. Claiming as much is a straw man. You imply this fallacious reasoning with others, to easily disprove which nobody denies, again. My historians are willing to revise their views, but they feel that Zündel, Leuchter et al are wrong and worked shoddily, that’s why they oppose them. You may not agree, but I understand that you’re not a denier ‘as such.’ So we don’t have to go to the technical details, which I’m not willing to, except for providing you with links to sites and literature that do. But you know these, I guess.

    > and even Mr.Wiesenthal, of all people, accepts that
    On the assumption that he is a die hard liar, astonishment would be in order. Assuming the he was morally integer, seeking truth, it’s not. I’m a bear of very little brains and still fail to see, how Wiesenthal’s quote should make me ‘revise’ my views.

    > “why is it so wrong to re-examine the evidence for the other parts of the story?”
    There’s nothing wrong, and no scientist says so. There are lawmakers, that do, which may or may not be a good thing. If you must, can we discuss this after Wiesenthal, and the other bullet points?

  11. Nice to see you’ve abandoned the kindergarten rudeness – thanks for that. The reason I said its ‘contentious’ is because there are individuals and organisations who still maintain the original Holocaust story, involving gassings in the old reich, who claim that Mr. Wiesenthal’s words referred simply to semantics. They claim his statement that there were no ‘extermination camps’ on German soil means that although exterminations did happen at Dachau, Belsen etc these camps were just not denoted as ‘extermination camps’ and that this is all he meant. I thought perhaps you might know of this and be adopting it as your own position, hence your flippancy. But now I’m actually getting the feeling that you don’t know much about this subject at all and that your flippancy was simply defensive.
    Are you sure about historians not being against constant revision? I would love to be able to agree with that, as that’s how it should be. But with this topic its simply not the case. Haven’t you heard of Deborah Lipstadt or Daniel Goldhagen? The situation we have at the moment is that ‘Denial’ (whatever you may choose to define it as) is illegal in many states (as you know) and regarded as some kind of hate crime in others. Here in England it is not illegal – but a history professor who expressed revisionist views publicly would still be committing career suicide, (as with David Irving – who isn’t really a denier anywyay, but lets not get sidetracked) which I feel explains the lack of ‘official’ historical backing for revisionism. It needs a groundswell of opinion to build up first, which is happening, via the internet, before a professional historian will be brave enough to publicly support it. However I must admit to not having much respect for people who are simply waiting for historians to tell them what to think. The evidence is out there and freely available – go and look at it and make your own mind up.
    I don’t think Wiesenthal is an out-and-out liar, by the way, but I think he is a self-promoter and propagandist, an exaggerator, I suppose. For him to accept any reduction in the Holocaust legend which he has had such a major role in mythologising and which has given him such a fine living is indeed remarkable and worth pointing out.
    All this talk of ‘my historians’ and ‘your historians’ is fascinating because I came on to this thread quoting Pressac, Evron, Finkelstein, Baynac etc. None of them are deniers. I have read a great deal of material from all shades of the debate. If you haven’t done so (and I suspect from your comments that you haven’t) I would recommend that you read ‘The Destruction of the European Jews’ by Raul Hilberg and ‘The technique and operation of the gas chambers at Auschwitz’ by Pressac. These are supposedly the two most authoritative works of Holocaust history. Having read both, I can confirm that neither contains so much as a picture / drawing / diagram or even detailed description of a homicidal gas chamber. Pressac even admits in the book that all he could find were “criminal traces” of evidence regarding the alleged genocide. (Presumably somone will claim I’ve made that up too.) The fact is, if you actually read the material, rather than just what others have written about it, you quickly realise that the core of evidence for homicidal gassings is feeble at best, non-existent at worst. The historians themselves accept this and just work their theories around it. You don’t need to read anything by a ‘denier’ to see how shaky the whole story is.

    I would respectfully suggest that in future you write on subjects about which you have some knowledge. Smug metaphors, pretentious language and personal insults will only take you so far, I’m afraid.

  12. > Nice to see you’ve abandoned the kindergarten rudeness – thanks for that.

    That’s a misunderstanding. I was being playful when I didn’t expect a dialogue to ensue, and I won’t recant, though I didn’t mean it literally, of course. As I now bother to engage in dialogue, going on dealing out insults would be pointless, so when announcing a flame war I was teasing. However, things go astray. You evade, and this exchange gives you plenty of room to expose your ideas. I fell into the trap.

    > go and look at it and make your own mind up

    Claiming superior knowledge (“read the books I’ve read”) and asking to succumb won’t cut it. Hic rhodos, hic salta. Your site informs, that you don’t want “to engage in the sort of bickering-over-minutiae-debate that so dominates the subject”, besides, you “have no real interest in involving myself in potentially endless discussions about door-handle design or the technical details of the various cyanide sampling studies which throw up contradictory results.” Neither have I. You gave a list here, and I’m willing to discuss that, issue after issue. You’re not off the hook with Wiesenthal. You claim him to be a “holocaust denier” by Andrew’s definition, while you still haven’t shown that this follows, and his inclusion and mingling with deniers and their like amounts to FUD. That’s one of the tactics at a rhetor’s disposal, but that doesn’t make it legitimate.

    > The reason I said its ‘contentious’ is because there are individuals
    > and organisations who still maintain the original Holocaust story,
    > involving gassings in the old reich, who claim that Mr. Wiesenthal’s
    > words referred simply to semantics.

    Perhaps this was the case in the post-war years, as you related. Should it still be dominant or at least relevant in contemporary discourse, this possibly could indicate pertinence, when you included Wiesenthal in your list. I infer that you’re not speaking of individuals you know and spoke to, as their failings would hardly represent current discourse. Which organisations maintain this stance? I don’t know any that does, and thus deny pertinence. If they haven’t got websites, I’ll mail or fax them, we are in no hurry.

  13. Another pointless paragraph of pseudo-intellectual waffle. Look, you are discussing a topic publicly. You clearly don’t know much about it. You claim to support a thesis put forward by certain historians, yet you haven’t read them. You claim to denounce a thesis put forward by others, yet you haven’t read them.
    What a wonderful intellectual battle you are engaged in – supporting an imagined ally and fighting an imagined foe! It must be a great deal of fun.
    I could counter your silly posting, at length, for example by pointing you in the direction of ‘Nizkor’ (the anti-denial website), where you could find several respected current commentators on the Holocaust who still maintain that gassings occurred in the Old Reich, but I’m afraid I am not interested in continuing to have to explain the basics of the issue in order to discuss it.
    I posted on here, mainly through boredom, while engaged in a bit of random googling. As often happens I find a disturbing level of ignorance, even among supposedly intelligent people, towards Holocaust history and its revisionist responses.
    I’m sure you will attempt to glorify this as some sort of victory, but I’m not going to return, as I don’t see any point in continuing to discuss this with you. I would urge you, most strongly, once again, to acquaint yourself with the facts of this subject.

    All the best (sincerely),

    Mark Turley,
    Obergruppenfuhrer of the Holocaust Denial Troglodyte Unit, London Branch.

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