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.
WATCHING ON THE RHINE
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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.