Refuting those who deny the Holocaust

August 23, 1993|By Jeffrey M. Landaw | Jeffrey M. Landaw,Staff Writer

The Diary of Anne Frank ends: "Despite everything, I believe that people are good at heart." If she could have lived to see what the small but growing Holocaust denial industry has tried to make of her work -- as well as the rest of the mountain of evidence of Nazi Germany and its collaborators' attempt to wipe out the Jews -- she might have revised her judgment.

Revision of judgments in the light of better evidence, as Dr. Deborah Lipstadt observes, is what history is all about. But she bridles at the use of the common term "revisionist" for the subjects of her book.

The word was first applied to historians questioning the United States' role in World War I and was picked up by academic opponents of the Cold War, Dr. Lipstadt writes, but for them, "the canons of evidence are as incontrovertible as they are for all other historians. In contrast, evidence plays no role for deniers."

Dr. Lipstadt devotes much of her angry, depressing book to the arguments of people for whom -- to put it gently -- Nazi Germany's innocence in the second world war and the non-existence of the Final Solution are premises, not conclusions. To them, all testimony is perjured, all physical evidence faked, all documents "euphemistic, hyperbolic, or irrelevant" when not simply forged.

Arthur Butz' book "The Hoax of the Twentieth Century" brought the deniers' theories from their home among Nazi-lovers and anti-Semites to a wider audience. He not only accuses the Allies of forging mountains of documents almost overnight to prove their case at Nuremberg, but contends they brainwashed the Nazis on trial there into believing in their own guilt.

The question arises: Why flatter these sick, vicious people with a book-length attack? One reason, Dr. Lipstadt writes, is that "many powerful movements have been founded by people living in similar irrational wonderlands, national socialism foremost among them." Those who remember the Holocaust, as victims, perpetrators or eyewitnesses, are dying, and many are too distant, or estranged, from later generations to talk about what they did or saw. And over the last generation, as the deniers

played down their anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi associations to pose as disinterested truth-seekers, they infiltrated the mainstream enough to make this book, like the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, a needed piece of public education.

"Denial arguments," Dr. Lipstadt writes, "have permeated the work of those who would not describe themselves as deniers." Her list ranges from Patrick Buchanan, the columnist and presidential candidate, on the hard right, to Noam Chomsky, the eminent linguist, on the hard left. Motives for using these arguments -- not all listed in the book, but plain enough -- include a desire to attack Israel's reason for being; nostalgia for an empire in Britain; a desire to "normalize" the past in Germany and collaborator states; hatred of the interventionist Franklin D. Roosevelt (in some cases, of Woodrow Wilson as well); and what John Lukacs, a conservative historian born in Adm. Miklos Horthy's reactionary, anti-Semitic but not yet murderous Hungary, calls "one-dimensional or sclerotic anti-Communism." What we have most to worry about, especially in the United States, is ignorance and naivete.

As late as 1975, a mainstream history teachers' publication praised Harry Elmer Barnes, who began in the 1920s as a World War I revisionist and ended as a Holocaust denier, as "a useful model for those who believed in the relevance of history." The Atlantic Monthly and other mainstream media reported uncritically on Fred Leuchter, a self-styled death-penalty expert, even after he appeared in a much-publicized Holocaust denial trial that demolished his claims to know his subjects.

The London Sunday Times hired David Irving, the writer of popular history, to translate fragments of Josef Goebbels' diaries, though he had already gone on record as believing, first, that the Holocaust had been planned and carried out by Hitler's aides behind his back, and, later, that it hadn't happened at all.

Dr. Lipstadt worries most about the American college campus. The deniers have picked up some odd, often unwitting, allies, but among the most odd are those in the post-1960s academy, where "much of history seems to be up for grabs and attacks on the Western rationalist tradition have become commonplace" and "it became harder to say that an idea was beyond the pale of rational thought."

In 1991, the "Committee for Open Debate on the Holocaust" tried to place an advertisement in college newspapers calling the Holocaust a hoax. More than a dozen schools accepted it, either as advertising or as an op-ed article. Recalling the impotence of the Weimar Republic, and then of all Europe, in the face of the Nazis, the editors who accepted the ad -- or, in some cases, the faculty advisers who overruled the editors -- argued that they had no right to "censor" any "political" statement by refusing to print it.

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