[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 Historical documents also come into play: there’s analysis of aerial photos, document authenticity tests, disputes about the meaning of the word Sonderbehandlung.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.
- 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;
- 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’;
- Like all conspiracy theorists, revisionists enjoy having ‘secret’ knowledge that makes them superior to the naive fools they see about them;
- Closely related to #3 is the pleasure one gets on knowing (or, here, ‘knowing’) that some piece of commonly-held folk wisdom is untrue;
- 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!