From Skeptic vol. 2, no. 4, 1994, pp. 72-75.

The following article is copyright © 1994 by the Skeptics Society, P.O. Box 338, Altadena, CA 91001, (626) 794-3119. Permission has been granted for noncommercial electronic circulation of this article in its entirety, including this notice.


A Review of Denying the Holocaust by Deborah Lipstadt. (Free Press, 1993; Hardcover: 278 pages: $22.95)

By Brian Siano

In 1979 Robert Faurisson, a professor at the University of Lyons, was condemned by a French court for the "falsification of history." One of the signatories to a petition defending Faurisson's right to free speech was linguist Noam Chomsky who, when asked to clarify his reasons, explained that the court's decision set a precedent where the state could define what history was. As reprehensible as Faurisson's views were, it was in cases such as his that free speech should be most urgently defended. Chomsky, needless to say, has never endorsed Faurisson's views.

On the other hand, Patrick Buchanan, former Presidential candidate, has claimed that the gas chambers at Treblinka could not have worked--a standard claim of Holocaust Revisionists. Buchanan also made note of what he called "Holocaust Survivor Syndrome," involving "group fantasies of martyrdom and heroics," and has argued against the prosecution of Nazi war criminals.

Deborah Lipstadt cites both of these cases as an indication of the influence of Holocaust Revisionists in her book Denying the Holocaust. On Buchanan, Lipstadt writes, "I am not suggesting that Patrick Buchanan is a Holocaust denier. He has never publicly claimed that the Holocaust is a hoax." She clarifies things a little by saying that Buchanan's reliance on Revisionist material is merely "disturbing," and finds "the latitude given him by his colleagues to be equally troubling." As for Chomsky, Lipstadt writes "His spirited defense of the deniers shocked many people including those inured to his antics," conflating defense of their rights with defense of their thesis, and calls Chomsky's free-speech position "ironic," because "he would have denied those same rights to proponents of America's involvement in Vietnam."

The fact that Lipstadt makes demonstrably false claims against Chomsky, but bends over backwards to limit her criticisms of Buchanan, certainly made me put my guard up over the rest of Denying the Holocaust. Which is too bad, because Lipstadt's book is a flawed, but indispensable Baedeker to the some of the ugliest lies in existence. Lipstadt's book came out just after I'd written two columns on the Revisionists for The Humanist. I came to the subject as a researcher, sort of, on pseudoscience. Lipstadt, a respected Holocaust scholar (she also wrote Beyond Belief), has a stronger historical background on the matter. Given the scattered research materials on the Revisionists I had to trudge through, it's good to have an all-in-one survey to recommend to people.

Lipstadt claims that the Revisionists have made substantial progress in having their lies promoted as a legitimate point of view; we would do well to be on our guard. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, the only people who'd suggest that the Holocaust was a fiction were the anti-Semites and conspiracy-mongers of the extreme Right. One such person was Paul Rassinier, a camp survivor who later developed delusions about Jews. He maintained that the Jews themselves caused many of the deaths he saw in the camps, and later went on to deny the existence of gas chambers. Rassinier's audience might have been limited to the Mad Dog Right, but for Harry Elmer Barnes, a revisionist historian of World War I.

When Barnes tried to apply the same standards to Hitler--that the Western powers were just as guilty of starting the war, that atrocities wer comparable on both sides, etc., he found himself without an audience. Rassinier's ravings gave Barnes the vain hope that he'd been right all the time, and anti-Semites of the time gained a new area of "research." Another figure of the time was Austin App, a Pennsylvania college professor who spent much of his free time circulating pamphlets and newsletters claiming that the Holocaust was a lie promoted by Zionists.

Arthur Butz of Northwestern University gave the Revisionists a new veneer of respectability in his book The Hoax of the Twentieth Century. As Lipstadt points out, the book made a strong effort to seem scholarly, impartial, and reasonable. Unlike previous efforts, so sodden with hate and bile they could be comfortably ignored, Lipstadt writes that Hoax "contained the requisite myriad notes and large bibliography that were the hallmarks of scholarly works, quoting many of the prominent historians who worked in this field and thanking a number of legitimate research centers and archives." In other words, it was difficult to dismiss it as crank literature unless one was willing to check Butz's claims. One could be easily lulled into considering that, maybe, Butz arrived at his conclusions out of his own research, and not because of anti-Semitism.

It was Willis Carto, the wealthy California businessman who founded the Liberty Lobby when the Birchers kicked him out (they couldn't tolerate his rants about Jews), who put the Revisionists on firmer administrative ground. Carto founded the Institute for Historic Review (IHR)--even the name says "We've got a neutral-sounding title, so yes, we're respectable, really." With a central clearinghouse, the network of neo-Nazi and fascist elements around the globe (including Carto's Noontide Press, The Spotlight newspaper, the Liberty Lobby and the Populist party), and a number of eager Revisionists with some clever publicity-attracting schemes, the IHR was designed to get people to doubt the Holocaust. They've also been trying to publish "revisionist" views on other historical atrocities, mainly to illustrate that doubts about the Holocaust might not be too far-fetched.

Most notable among the IHR's supporters and participants are British historian and fascist sympathizer David Irving; Ditlieb Felderer, a Swedish anti-Semite who mailed locks of hair and pieces of fat to leaders of Jewish communities, asking them to identify the contents as Hungarian Jews; Fred Leuchter, an uncredentialled engineer/execution-equipment entrepreneur who claims that the Auschwitz gas chambers couldn't have worked; and Mark Weber, former editor of the National Alliance's National Vanguard newspaper, and who maintains contacts with European neo-Nazis.

The relationship with Carto ended acrimoniously in late 1993. A mailing from the IHR accused Carto of becoming "increasingly erratic" in personal and business matters, and claims evidence that Carto drained money away from the IHR to finance the Liberty Lobby. (In a November 1993 letter to The Humanist, Mark Weber described Carto's relationship with the IHR as having been "rather tenuous.") The mailing blames Carto for trying to steer the IHR away from "non-partisan revisionist scholarship" to "ranting, racialist-populist pamphleteering." Carto has retaliated by claiming that the IHR has been run by the Anti-Defamation League since September 1993.

Bradley Smith had the provocative brainstorm to solicit full-page ads in college newspapers promoting Holocaust Revisionism. It was certainly a clever tactic. If the papers ran the ads, then students would be exposed to IHR arguments. If they refused, Smith could then jump on Free Speech principles and cause enough of a fuss to attract free publicity. The tactic worked; some papers that would otherwise reject ads deemed racist or sexist suddenly invoked Free Speech, and at least one paper ran the ad as an editorial. As Lipstadt notes, none of the papers had any real obligation to run the ad, and they would have been well within their rights to reject it. Why didn't they?

The entire episode illustrated, more than anything else, the confusion many college students have over the issues of free speech, censorship, offensive behavior and historical debate. They were groping for answers to a problem they knew little about. The problem I have with Lipstadt's account is that she does not see any reason to have published the ad in any context-- not even surrounded with editorials denouncing its contents and dissecting its lies. Lipstadt disparages this as the 'light of day' defense (i.e., that in the light of day the truth will prevail). She clearly doubts that it has much merit, closing her chapter with the lamentation that there were some people out there who see Bradley Smith and his ilk as being the "other side" of a legitimate debate.

But this is precisely the same reason Lipstadt wrote her book. In her final chapter, discussing how to confront this reprehensible movement, Lipstadt explains how her position has shifted. Originally, she writes, she did not want to dignify the Revisionists with any kind of attention. As their own habits have demonstrated, they seize upon any opportunity to look more important and scholarly than they are. But now they have become influential enough that they must be exposed and confronted. So now Lipstadt has written a book that, in part, criticizes those student newspaper editors who tried to expose them before.

Throughout the book, Lipstadt attacks the opportunistic free-speech-open-inquiry rhetoric of the Revisionists, and urges that the media be responsible and not give them a platform to air their lies. It'd be nice if we could rely on the media to give us facts and sober analysis. Instead, it's already choked with lies, ranging from State Department spokespeople to daily astrology columns. Citing the fact that these particular lies are anti-Semitic sounds a little hollow in this context; one must also demand that lies (and statements perceived as lies) about African-Americans, Asians, women, and gays be excluded as well. As ugly as such lies usually are, I'm probably not the only person uncomfortable with leaving the arbitration of acceptable debate in the hands of the news media, whose track record on such matters is far from sterling.

One must confront the Revisionists on two fronts. The first is in "opposition research," i.e., outlining their institutional affiliations and political agendas and goals. This Lipstadt does rather well, and it's the basis of her most valuable insight. The proponents of Holocaust Revisionism tend to be fascists, ranging from the neo-Nazi groups of Germany and the United States, to the supporters of Jean-Marie Le Pen in France, and some alarming sentiments in Japan and Austria as well. The Holocaust, among other things, gave fascism a bad name; remove the stigma of mass murder, and fascism can be easily repackaged and made palatable as merely an "efficient system."

Now, it is possible that one could doubt the Holocaust without being an anti-Semite. One could be massively ignorant of the subject, for example, or unwilling to believe that atrocities of that scale could be performed by humans. But Lipstadt makes it clear that even these remote possibilities are not an excuse for the Revisionists; even as they deny that it happened, they are actively involved in efforts to get another one going again.

The easy equation of Holocaust-doubt=Anti-Semitism=fascism creates several problems. True, naivet of the scale described above is extremely unlikely, but if the infamous Roper poll of Spring 1993--where substantial percentages of the U.S. population were willing to believe that the Holocaust might be a fiction--is any indication, thousands of Americans graduate high school with the ignorance or disbelief required for our hypothetical "honest' doubter. And the ones who do understand the Holocaust may know about it in only the broadest, schematic terms; the number six million, Hitler, Nazi uniforms, horrible medical experiments and the use of cyanide gas. It's the same problem the Creationists exploit. A few well-aimed questions such as those of the Revisionists can give such people the feeling that maybe, possibly, they've been snookered. (I suspect many of the college-newspaper editors whom Lipstadt excoriates felt this way.) It'd be a good thing if such people could be encouraged to develop a strong interest in history, but dismissing the doubts as "anti-Semitic" is more likely to provoke resentment and suspicion than anything else.

The readers of Skeptic may be disappointed when they find that Lipstadt has substantially avoided the second front, which is a detailed refutation of their actual claims. One could argue that their anti-Semitism isn't a guarantee that they're wrong, so a forensic debunking job is what's needed. Lipstadt does address their claims regarding Zyklon-B, the feasibility of the gas chambers, and the Diary of Anne Frank in an appendix. And throughout the book, she points out flaws in the major Revisionist arguments as she's summarizing them. But it's not the debunking job Lipstadt's admirably qualified to do. It's her area of expertise, she's better networked academically, she has better research resources to work with, and she can draw upon the common efforts of Holocaust scholars around the world. If she doesn't do it, then who will?

Although I'm disappointed, I can sympathize with Lipstadt's reasons for focusing on the opposition research. It's one thing to confront psychics, faith healers, or Creationists; one can confront their claims with science, and there's the feeling that something can be accomplished. But imagine having to "prove that the Holocaust occurred." Between the sheer enormity of the event, the mountains of evidence, and the infuriating passive-aggressive pose of the Revisionists, the job has all the absurdity of punching smoke.

Discussing the Vietnam War in American Power and the New Mandarins, Noam Chomsky writes that "by accepting the presumption of legitimacy of debate on certain issues, one has already lost one's humanity." The Holocaust is precisely that kind of subject. To satisfy the demands of the Revisionists for a "fair and open debate," one has to acquire infinite and fanatic detail on the mechanics of mass murder--merely to confront people who have no interest in reasoned debate. One can't avoid being diminished as a human being by the exercise.

This is one edge the Revisionists have on talk shows; while Holocaust scholars and survivors become more incredulous and angry, they play up the calm-and-reasoned-reflection pose and complain about how "emotional" their opponents are.

Another reason I wish that Lipstadt had decided to address their claims in greater detail--in other words, to write the definitive debunking of their claims along with revealing their political affiliations--can be found in an essay by Christopher Hitchens, written about former Klansman David Duke's candidacy for the governorship of Louisiana. After listening to a Duke supporter explain another Jewish conspiracy theory, Hitchens writes:

"He looked triumphant, as if a neat answer to a baffling mystery had been discovered by an Aryan physicist. It was the same with this boy's peer group. Amazingly lacking in any sign of formal education, they were capable of being positively scholarly on the subject of the Holocaust, the Crucifixion, Wall Street's support for Bolshevism and the Jewish love for the mongrelization of the races. (I, who count only the last three of these as myths, often had to do some very fast talking.) Somebody, in other words, has been putting in some steady work down here."
Butz's Hoax has become a classic of its kind. Lipstadt even compares it to the infamous Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion for its staying power among anti-Semites, and I think Hitchens' account provides a vivid illustration why. It provides readers with a catalog of scholarly-sounding arguments that allow them to quash the "popular wisdom," and it helps them tell themselves that they're better informed and more critical than the rest of the herd.

One of the reasons I wrote about the Revisionists in the Humanist was because I saw them as a clear danger to the overlapping community of skeptics, humanists, and freethinkers. There is an alarming similarity in the rhetoric. The Revisionists continually claim to be the dispassionate, facts-only researchers, and their leading lights are invariably heroic figures standing tall against the "political correctness" of the Holocaust. They're fond of characterizing the Holocaust as a kind of "religion," and religious people, of course, are supposedly motivated by unreason and emotion. (A recent Free Inquiry cover asked if religion was a form of insanity.) They tend to cite each other's works as the definitive "debunking" of this or that claim. Claims with a superficial resemblance are used to debunk each other; i.e., if court witnesses have been shown to be unreliable, then the accounts of Holocaust survivors are ipso facto fantasy.

And their writings appeal to those who want to see themselves as smarter than the Great Unwashed; All those others place heartfelt belief in this silly myth, but thanks to this easy guide, I can easily debunk their cherished beliefs. There's not a high level of tolerance for sentiment here, either; the humane desire not to injure or offend a persecuted minority is regarded as a coercive instrument to be ignored. I think my concern is justified, if only for the reason that the first critical letters I've received over my Humanist columns were from "freethinkers" who felt I should be "questioning" the Holocaust instead of insulting the Revisionists.

I also have a problem with Lipstadt's choice of the word "denial" to characterize the Revisionists. She claims that to adopt their terminology and call them revisionists is to give them unwarranted legitimacy. (I agree, and in my Humanist columns, I chose the term Holohoaxers, a nicely-derogatory term that adopts their continued reference to the "Holohoax.")

"Denial" has a cachet in the popular wisdom, summoning up a psychological mindset driven by fear, anxiety, and some form of familial dysfunction; one has the feeling Lipstadt chose it specifically for this reason. But Lipstadt's book makes it clear that the Revisionists are driven by a fascist agenda and by anti-Semitism, not "denial." And the word has a cultural loading that's troubling to the skeptics' community. While interviewing a therapist known for working with "Satanic Ritual Abuse" survivors, I asked for her opinion of people who doubted the existence of nationwide conspiracies of baby-slaughtering Devil worshippers. I was told that "well, there are people who doubt the Holocaust, too." UFO abductee therapist John Mack has also compared skeptics of his particular claims to Holocaust "Deniers."

Early on, Lipstadt writes that "Denial of an individual's or a group's persecution, degradation, and suffering is the ultimate cruelty--on some level worse than the persecution itself. Those who have not experienced the Holocaust or the sting of antisemitism may find it difficult to understand the vulnerability it endangers [sic] in the victim." Again, I wish Lipstadt wouldn't use the same rhetoric found among UFO abductees or the more questionable "ritual abuse survivors." It gives proponents of some very questionable claims a rhetorical weapon and, I think, trivializes the Holocaust by making it another pop-psychology trauma.

I'm also suspicious of this argument that only one particular kind of suffering gives people the required emotional insights. It seems to imply that non-Jews are incapable of having a legitimate understanding. This is like saying that the "lessons of the Holocaust" apply solely to Jews and anti-Semitism, when millions of others perished in the camps as well. This leads us into the tricky terrain of the Lessons of the Holocaust, and since confronting the Revisionists is such an impertaive, we must venture here as well.

The Holocaust is "unique" for many reasons. It's not just because of the number of people killed: mass murders with comparable or higher numbers (the Ukranian famines under Stalin, the African slave trade, the wars against Native American nations, the extermination of Armenians under the Turks) didn't have a similar ideological pathology driving them, and the coldly technological approach of using gas chambers has no real parallel in history. The Holocaust also exists in living memory among Americans. Not only have many survivors emigrated here, but a great number of prominent American intellectuals are also Jews. The Holocaust exists in America as a tool, a standard for gauging oppression, horror, and evil.

The problem with such tools is that they become blunted and broken with unskilled use. Oppression and atrocities may be played up over similarities to the Holocaust. . . or played down because they're not similar enough. For example, the late 1970s provided a slew of articles over the "autogenocide" of Cambodians under Pol Pot. (Five years later, the United States was supporting the Khmer Rouge, sponsoring its entry to the United Nations, and comparisons to Hitler were forgotten.) "Ethnic cleansing" in Bosnia attracts strong comparisons to the exterminations of Jews, including Newsweek's publication of excerpts of the "Bosnian Anne Frank's" diary.

In a booklet on the Revisionists titled Hitler's Apologists, the Anti-Defamation League cites as an example of "Holocaust distortion" comparisons between the Holocaust and Israel's response to the Palestinian intifada of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Several editorial writers and cartoonists either wrote or drew parallels between the actions of Israel and those of Nazi Germany, usually playing up the "historical irony" aspects. This, according to the ADL, is an "outrageous distortion" of history. One might quarrel with details over the analogies, but to lump editorial cartoonists with neo-Nazi Revisionists isn't legitimate.

Occasionally one runs across an exclusivity over the Holocaust among some Jewish scholars. For example, a now-notorious 1990 editorial by Edward Alexander in Congress Monthly referred to "every exploded fiction about the Holocaust--ranging from the notion that not only Jews but also Poles, Gypsies, Communists, and homosexuals were chosen by the Nazis for annihilation." Statements like this are catnip to the Revisionists, who love to claim that Jews perpetuate the "Holohoax" for moral and financial gain.

Some of the fuel for black anti-Semitism comes, in part, from resentment over the fact that many Jews cite the Holocaust as evidence of a "victim" status--despite their having succeeded in America as much as any other "white" ethnic group, while racism still affects the lives of millions of American blacks. The decline of anti-Semitism among whites in post-war America can be attributed in part to the Holocaust, but no comparable decline in racism has occurred within living memory. Louis Farrakhan's speeches about the sufferings of Africans under slavery, complete with estimates of millions killed, is an effort to appropriate the specific moral power of the Holocaust. The lie that Jews ran the slave trade adds a nasty irony to the gambit as well--the same 'irony' that would apply if people believe the Jews had 'put one over' on everyone else.

Lipstadt addresses historical comparisons only as far as the Revisionists try to equate the Holocaust with lesser evils. In what she calls the use of "immoral equivalencies," several Revisionists have tried to argue that the Holocaust isn't much different from less-publicized atrocities committed by the Allies in wartime. The firebombing of Dresden, the use of atomic weapons at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the internment of Japanese-Americans are consistent favorites. Why be so upset at the Holocaust, the Revisionists argue, when there was so much other death and destruction inflicted by the Allies as well?

Now, it's true that history is grist for the propagandist's mill, and a lot of respectable history has been written through the debunkings of older myths. The Revisionists are merely clever opportunists when it comes to pointing out the double-standard--the giveaway is the implication that atrocities are, overall, nothing special. Lipstadt's point about their attempt to rehabilitate fascism is clearest here.

But this leaves Lipstadt in a bind as well, if only in her zeal to discredit the drawing of such analogies as a Revisionist gambit. If the Holocaust is to have any moral lesson for humankind as a whole, it really can't be so unique that nothing can be compared with it. One has to be able to draw analogies to the present, which always provides warning signs for a far more horrendous future. The only lesson of the Holocaust that makes any sense to me is that people are capable of great evil, and the only prevention lies in constant vigilance, bravery, and a true internationalist spirit. It's not as stirring as "Six million dead, never again," but sadly, brotherly love just doesn't have much pizazz these days.

Despite my criticisms, Lipstadt's Denying the Holocaust is a valuable contribution to the Watch on the Rhine. It's a good overall history of the Revisionist movement, and even when more detailed debunkings are published, Lipstadt's book will still be a standard reference on the subject. The Revisionists are supple dancers around the truth. But they'll have to work hard to get around Lipstadt's indictment.