Danger in Denying Holocaust?
Murphy, Kim. "Danger in Denying Holocaust?" Los Angeles Times, 7 January 2000, sec. A1-A16.
A young German chemist named Germar Rudolf took crumbling bits
of plaster from the walls of Auschwitz in 1993 and sent them to
a lab for analysis. There were plenty of traces of cyanide gas in
the delousing chambers where Nazi camp commanders had had blankets
and clothing fumigated. There was up to a thousand times less in
the rooms described as human gas chambers.
Rudolf, a doctoral candidate at Stuttgart University, concluded
that large numbers of Jews may have died of typhoid, starvation
and murder at Europe’s most famous World War II death camp,
but none of them died in a gas chamber.
When a report of his findings – commissioned by a former
Third Reich general – got out, Rudolf lost his job at the
respected Max Planck Institute and his doctoral degree was put on
hold. He was sentenced to 14 months in prison under a 1985 German
law making it a crime to incite racial hatred, his landlord kicked
him out, he fled into exile and his wife filed for divorce.
There are many who say Rudolf got exactly what he deserved. But
to the increasingly vocal movement of Holocaust deniers and revisionists,
Rudolf stands as a crucial figure because of what he represents:
a highly trained chemist who purports – despite a wide variety
of scientific evidence to the contrary – to have physical
proof that the gas chambers at Auschwitz did not exist.
Over the last decade, supporters of such theories have scrutinized
hundreds of thousands of pages of Third Reich documents and diaries
made available after the collapse of the Soviet Union. They have
analyzed gas chamber construction. They have pinpointed contradictions
and hard-to-believe details in stories told by camp survivors and,
amid nearly universal scorn fro the academic establishment, won
testimonials for some of their work from academics at respected
institutions, such as Northwestern University and the University
The revisionists, whose theories will be at the center of a high-profile
libel trial scheduled to begin Tuesday in London, are not operating
in a vacuum. A 1993 poll by the Roper Organization found that 22%
of Americans thought is possible that the Holocaust never happened.
The theorists contend that far fewer than 6 million Jews died in
Europe during World War II – and that most of those who died
did so through starvation, disease and ad hoc executions carried
out by lower-level Nazi officers.
That scenario has been almost universally dismissed as a flawed
misreading of history, cooked up out of deep-seated anti-Semitism.
Indeed, at least two dozen people have been prosecuted in Germany,
France, Spain, Austria, Poland, and Canada since 1990 under various
laws prohibiting racial hatred and the defaming of the memory of
those who died in Nazi death camps for even questioning what has
become one of the defining horrors of the modern age.
Now one of the leading deniers of the Holocaust, British historian
David Irving, is striking back, suing the most prominent critic
of the movement, Emory University professor Deborah Lipstadt, for
libel. The trial is likely to feature many of the world’s
premier WWII historians weighing in on the mechanics, logistics,
chain of command and blueprints for the extermination of millions
of European Jews.
In her book, “Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault
on Truth and Memory,” Lipstadt accuses Irving of skewing documents
and misrepresenting data. The book quotes analysts who describe
his work as “closer to theology or mythology than to history.”
As a British citizen, Irving can take advantage of British libel
law, which places much of the burden of Lipstadt to prove her book
did not libel the historian. Irving says his lawsuit will prove
Lipstadt’s book is part of an international Jewish campaign
to discredit him.
Irving, author of biographies of Adolf Hitler and his propaganda
chief, Joseph Goebbels, has argues that Hitler has never been found
to have ordered a massive extermination of the Jews and, in fact,
tried to stop some of the killings. He has described Auschwitz as
“a very brutal slave labor camp, where probably 100,000 Jews
died.” And not unlike U.S. Reform Party presidential candidate
Patrick J. Buchanan, he asserts the world would have been better
served if Winston Churchill had accepted Hitler’s peace overtures
in 1940 and allowed Hitler to fight it out with Josef Stalin in
Confronting Deniers’ Arguments Head-On
Lipstadt was among the first in the American Jewish community to
abandon the long-standing practice of ignoring the Holocaust deniers,
choosing instead to confront their arguments head-on. Her book accuses
Irving of misreading documents and distorting facts.
Historians she quotes have said Irving ignores the fact that the
Nazis deliberately avoided a paper trail and that it is quite plausible
that Hitler would never personally have affixed his signature to
the Final Solution.
She cites accusations by prominent British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper
that Irving “seizes on a small and dubious particle of ‘evidence’”
and allegedly uses it “to dismiss far more substantial evidence
that may not support his thesis.”
“There are more people in the United States who believe that
Elvis Presley is alive than who believe the Holocaust didn’t
happen. As an American, that’s a demi-consolation,”
Lipstadt said in an interview. “But I see it as a clear and
future danger. The future danger is when there are no people left
who can say in the first person singular, ‘This is what happened
to me,’ it’s gong to be much easier to deny it.”
For Irving, who is regarded in some mainstream quarters as one
of the premier documentarians of the Third Reich, it is an issue
of professional vindication. It is no accident, he says, that he
has been banned from even entering Canada, Italy, Germany, and Austria
because of Holocaust denial laws in those countries. “They
regard me as dangerous, and the word ‘dangerous’ puzzles
me,” he said. “I don’t go around punching people
in the face… ‘Dangerous’ can only mean dangerous
to their interests, either in the long term or the short term.
“In the end, it isn’t really a question of whether
it’s 6 million or only 1 million” Jews who died. “I
think the figures have been inflated, and the significance of the
inflation is that the Jewish community is trying to make out that
their suffering is unique in its grandeur and the methods applied
to achieve it. And it wasn’t. It was just one of the many
barbarisms committed under the cloak of the war.”
Some revisions in Holocaust history have been generally accepted.
Stories that Jewish remains were manufactured into soap and lampshades
have been dismissed as myth. There were, most historians now agree,
no human gassings at Dachau. Deaths at Auschwitz, once estimated,
based on the testimony of Nazi commanders, at up to 3 million have
been scaled back to about 1.1 million. Even the widely accepted
figure of 6 million Jewish dead all over Europe has been questioned
in recent years by some of the world’s most prominent Holocaust
Raul Hilberg and Robert Jan van Pelt, two of the leading authorities,
now believe the figure is probably closer to 5.1 million.
Still, scholars say, the evidence of a massive extermination campaign
that resulted in the deaths of millions of Jews is so exhaustive
that it is irrefutable.
It includes detailed stories from camp survivors, confessions and
memoirs from Nazi commandants (including Auschwitz commander Rudolf
Hoess), testimony of Jewish prisoners who removed bodies from the
gas chambers, blueprints uncovered from newly opened archives in
Moscow that construction of the gas chambers, records from the contractors
who built the gas chambers and order for large quantities of hydrogen
cyanide gas, far more than would have been needed for fumigation,
according to Van Pelt and others.
There is the sheer number of Jews who arrived at the camps and
never left, far more than could have fallen victim to disease or
starvation, most historians believe.
Since when, Lipstadt wants to know, does anyone in the name of
academic inquiry have the right to claim there is “another
side” to the Holocaust debate? And why is there even a debate?
To this, Rudolf, who could be called as a witness at the trial,
says that no issue of history should be exempt from reexamination
– even if it pains the victims.
In convicting him, Rudolf says, the court took no notice of prominent
German military historian Joachim Hoffman, who credited the quality
of Rudolf’s research and said that suppress it would “work
a powerful hindrance to legitimate striving for scientific understanding.”
The court apparently was moved, however, by a preface by the former
Third Reich general who had commissioned Rudolf to do the research,
Otto Ernst Remer, who in 1992 himself was sentenced to prison for
incitement to racial hatred.
Could a report commissioned by a man like Remer – who once
joked while sniffing a cigarette lighter that he was mimicking “a
Jew nostalgic for Auschwitz” – ever be a justifiable
contribution to scientific literature?
More to the point, says Irving, should there be political limits
on academic inquiry?
“I think, by the end of this case, the word ‘scholarship’
will come to stink,” Irving predicts. “Scholars tend
to award that accolade to each other. And their scholarship usually
consists of sitting in libraries reading each other’s books.”
Irving prides himself on relying on primary sources for his biographies;
interviews or diaries of the principals, radio transmission intercepts,
memorandums. In the case of his book “Hitler’s War,”
Irving interviewed in detail most of the surviving members of Hitler’s
staff and only used documents that would have crossed Hitler’s
In the process, Irving said he did not come across a single document
or interview that indicated Hitler had ordered a campaign to exterminate
“Others who have come across with something have looser criteria
than I do, like the Nuremberg trials…I won’t accept
that. Not standing by itself,” he said.
Irving’s numerous critics say he fails to address the fact
that the extermination campaign was carried out in deliberate secrecy,
without written orders. SS chief Heinrich Himmler “explicitly
forbade all discussion of it, and if it had to be mentioned, it
was always disguised as ‘resettlement’ or ‘transport
to the east,’ Trevor-Roper point out in a review of Irving’s
St. Martin’s Press abruptly dropped plans to publish Irving’s
controversial biography of Goebbels in 1996 in the wake of a storm
of criticism from reviewers, the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai
B’rith and even according to some employees, telephone death
threats against the book’s editor. Thomas McCormack, chairman
of the publishing house, said he read the book and found it “repellent
[and] effectively anti-Semitic.” When the Doubleday Military
Book club backed out as well, Irving self-published the book, calling
the whole affair “the most extraordinary treatment of a historian
since what the Iranians did to Salman Rushdie.”
Yet Irving has his admirers as well. Christopher Hitchens, writing
of Irving’s work in Vanity Fair, called him “not just
a Fascist historian, [but]… also a great historian of Fascism.”
Gordon A. Craig, considered the dean of German historians, acknowledged
that Irving has been an “annoyance” but said: “The
fact is that he knows more about national socialism than most professional
scholars in his field.” His book on Hitler, Craig said, “remains
the best study we have of the German side of the Second World War.”
On the advice of her lawyers, Lipstadt won’t discuss Irving
or the upcoming trial. But she did say there is danger in allowing
what she calls Holocaust deniers to wear the mantle of legitimate
revisionists – those who look at accepted history and raise
new and often enlightening questions.
Political Agenda Cited by Lipstadt
“There’s a definite political agenda,” she said.
“This is not just Looney Tunes history. These are people who
want to make national socialism respectable again. And how do you
make a thoroughly discredited movement respectable?
“First of all, you deal with moral equivalencies. You say,
‘Oh yes, the Germans bombed London, but the Allies bombed
Dresden. There were Bergen-Belsen and Auschwitz, but the Americans
had camps for the Americans of Japanese descent.’ But there’s
no moral equivalency for them to bring up about the Holocaust. So
instead, they are left denying the Holocaust. And denying it in
such a way that you almost hear them saying, ‘It didn’t
happen, but it should have.”
Van Pelt, who is considered one of the world’s leading authorities
on Auschwitz, prepared an 800-page report on the death camp for
the trial. “The whole idea of trying to prove the Holocaust
is, for me, a kind of ridiculous exercise. But in some ways, it
forces historians to show what they can do. I think the case has
forced me…to look at things I preferred not to look at in
the past,” he said.
Van Pelt now can tell you how the gas chambers operated, how the
capsules of Zyklon B were dropped in the ceiling vents, how the
bodies were hauled out, and how long it took human beings to die
at what concentrations of gas (about 35 minutes, in most cases).
Van Pelt’s new report has not yet been made public, and Rudolf
has not responded to it. “I can deal with Himmler. I can deal
with Hoess. There’s a certain kind of naïve honesty in
what they do, however evil it is,” Van Pelt said. “But
the contortions and complete fabrications of these deniers is obscene.
“What they do is take all kinds of very straightforward evidence
and basically turn it upside down. And it’s an incredible
effort to simply sit there and take every sentence they write and
compare it to the record…It doesn’t help you to understand
anything except the contortions of their minds. And their minds
are not very interesting.”
Reprinted with permission of the Los Angeles Times.
David Irving, who has filed a libel suit, in 1983.