Holocaust denial flies in the face of overwhelming evidence.

Yet, decades after the Nazis' crimes, it continues - and the president of Iran is merely its latest, and highest-profile, advocate.

May 21, 2006|By ARTHUR HIRSCH | ARTHUR HIRSCH,SUN REPORTER

When a three-day conference in Tehran on the future of the Palestinians ended last month, the few hundred militant leaders and their backers had heard speeches condemning Israel and pledging support for Hamas - but not, as many anticipated, any experts challenging evidence of the Holocaust. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said he'd stage a conference of Holocaust skeptics, right around the time he referred to the mass murder of European Jews during World War II as a "myth."

Ahmadinejad may be the first president of a country to challenge the Holocaust, allying himself with an array of claims viewed among serious historians in much the same light as the case for a flat Earth. He seemed to soften that a bit during the April meeting, referring to his "serious doubt" that the Nazis killed 5 million to 6 million Jews.

If the Iranian president does convene a conference challenging Holocaust evidence - a former Iranian foreign minister said it is still being planned - he'll step into what scholars describe as a parallel universe, an arena of minutiae and semantic gamesmanship where the weight of historical evidence is never so great that it cannot be dismissed with a fine point, even if the point has been willfully or innocently misconstrued.

"This is a completely other world," says Michael Marrus, a Holocaust scholar at the University of Toronto. "They are the masters of the tiny detail. They have twisted and exploited every minor issue."

In Telling Lies About Hitler: The Holocaust, History and the David Irving Trial, Richard J. Evans, professor of modern history at Cambridge University, refers to the "obscene and ridiculous fantasy-world of the Holocaust deniers," to which most scholars on Nazi Germany pay little mind.

The scholarship about Holocaust denial might recommend ignoring the whole thing, if it were not for the fact that stranger notions have caught on. Writer and lawyer Alan Dershowitz has called Holocaust denial the new Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, the bogus blueprint for Jewish world domination.

This piece of 19th-century czarist propaganda was exposed as a fake in the 1920s, but that has not stopped Hamas, which now runs the Palestinian government, from citing the Protocols in Article 32 of the party charter as evidence of Israeli menace.

When Hitler's National Socialists made similar use of the Protocols in the 1930s, it joined the many myths about Jews - such as stories about killing Christian children in religious rituals, conspiring with the devil, killing God's son - that have helped to shape Jewish experience.

Holocaust denial suggests an odd turn on this pattern, as the argument would have a cataclysmic Jewish experience seen as a myth contrived by Jews for political advantage.

Attempts to debunk accounts of Nazi atrocities have been around in various forms since soon after the end of World War II, with skeptical articles first emerging in France.

Those who carry on this denial tradition, including writers such as the Briton David Irving - now in jail for violating Austria's laws against denial - frequently deny that they deny the Holocaust. They acknowledge that the Third Reich persecuted, deported and even murdered some Jews.

Mark Weber, head of the Institute for Historical Review, identified by scholars in the field as the chief purveyor of denial literature in the United States, considers the term "denier" a smear. He's quick in an interview to say that, of course, "there was a Holocaust," but he rejects the very points that give the term its meaning.

He insists that the Nazis pursued an anti-Jewish policy of deportation, not extermination. He does not accept that they used gas chambers, nor that they killed between 5 million and 6 million Jews.

Weber and others in this camp insist upon their scrupulous attention to evidence. They say they rely on scientific studies. They write books loaded with footnotes. They attend conferences where research papers are presented. They say their work is no different from any academic pursuit, except that they reach politically unpopular conclusions.

Deborah E. Lipstadt, who teaches modern Jewish and Holocaust studies at Emory University in Atlanta, published one of the early books on the phenomenon in 1993 only after overcoming strong impulses to ignore Irving and others, hoping they would go away. In Denying the Holocaust, she insists deniers are racist extremists who demand attention not for the merit of the ideas but "because of the fragility of reason and society's susceptibility of such farfetched notions. Many powerful movements have been founded by people living in similar irrational wonderlands, national socialism foremost among them."

The evidence is a sea of paper, photographs, motion pictures, artifacts of wood, leather, metal, cloth, concrete, chemical residues, human voice. From such stuff people make legal cases, history, culture, identity - each its own sort of story.

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