When Professor Deborah E. Lipstadt first decided to study and write about the phenomenon of Holocaust denial, in the late 1980s, many of her colleagues counselled her against her decision. Holocaust denial was, in their eyes a fringe movement of no-importance, akin to the Flat Earth Society. She was, in short, warned against taking ‘these kooks’ seriously.
Almost twenty-years later, and Lipstadt’s concern seems prophetic. The development of the world wide web has meant that global publishing has never been easier or more economic, a fact that applies equally to those who publish racist, neo-nazi propoganda.
Lipstadt is, perhaps, best known as the historian whom David Irving sued for libel. Lipstadt had referred to Irving, author of Hitler’s War as a Holocaust denier in her authoratitive work Denying the Holocaust – The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory. A British court, in a landmark ruling, found in favour of Lipstadt, judging that Irving was an “active Holocaust denier”.
Professor Lipstadt was kind enough to agree to an interview with Three Monkeys Online, to discuss Holocaust denial
For the benefit of those who haven’t read Denying the Holocaust, how has Holocaust denial evolved since 1945?
It began almost immediately after the war when some fringe intellectuals tried to denigrate the Jews’ suffering at the hand of Nazi Germany. They spread the notion that the Holocaust had been a myth. Their attempts gained little traction until the mid-1970s when the Institute for Historical Review was founded in Southern California. The IHR claimed that it was interested in “revising” mistakes in history. Interestingly enough, virtually the only “mistakes” they addressed related to the Holocaust. They insisted on calling themselves “revisionists.”
With the establishment of the IHR deniers changed their tactics. Instead of engaging in overt anti-Semitic attacks, they adopted the modus operandi of scholars and academics. They gave their publications the look of academic journals. They made their conferences appear to be academic gatherings.
Rather than marching wearing swastika laden clothing and carrying neo-Nazi flags and looking like skinheads, they tried to appear as if they were respectable folks with a sincere academic interest whose intent it was to fix historical mistakes.
It was telling, of course, that the only mistakes in which they were interested were the Holocaust and other matters which were designed to portray the Allies as aggressors, the Germans as victims, and the Jews deserving of whatever was done to them. As one pundit observed, when you read the material published by the deniers you were left with the impression that “the Jews were not killed but they were so awful they should have been.” [By the way, I fully expect some denier – possibly David Irving – to take that last sentence out of context and use it in some article on web posting.]
Three Monkeys Online recently published an interview with A.C.Grayling, whose latest book addresses the issue of whether the Allied bombing of Germany and Japan in 1945 constituted a war crime. Unfortunately this is a topic also close to the hearts of Holocaust deniers, as you point out in Denying the Holocaust. It poses a problem for Academics like Grayling, and magazines like Three Monkeys Online. Should we steer clear of valid historical questions like these for fear of unwittingly providing material that can be used/abused by neo-Nazis?
We should NEVER avoid valid historical questions. For example, when historians realized that the death tolls for Auschwitz/Birkenau were too high, they recalculated and lowered them. They did not hesitate to do so, even though some people feared – correctly so – that it would “give comfort to deniers.” Instead, serious historians welcomed the corrected information.
Another example of correcting a mistaken notion relates to the accusation that the Nazis rendered Jewish corpses into soap during the Holocaust. During the war and afterwards many people said that the Germans made Jews into soap. No one knows the precise origins of this rumor, but it persisted after the war. Survivors who arrived in Israel were sometimes called: ‘Sabonim’ [Soaps]. In fact, there is no proof that the Germans regularly processed Jews into soap. They may have and probably did experiment in doing so, but we have no indication that it was ever done on a mass basis. Many historians, myself included, have regularly talked and written about this, despite the fact that there are those who argue that it “plays into” deniers’ hands.
Correcting mistakes does not, in any way, lessen the Germans’ crimes. The Germans’ actions were horrendous enough that there is no need to support myths in lieu of facts or to fear the facts.
By the same token, if the Allies did things wrong, then we should address it and acknowledge it. I have no doubts that they did some terrible things. Nothing, however, that they did can compare to the Nazis’ crimes which include the Holocaust, the T-4 [euthanasia program], medical experiments on prisoners, and so much else.
To return to the heart of your question: historians do not need to fear the truth. Deniers, it should be stressed, as was demonstrated in my trial and affirmed by five different judges, are not proposing an iconoclastic version of history. They twist the truth and lie about the facts. As Judge Charles Gray, the presiding judge in my trial, wrote in his decision, “Irving had “significantly misrepresented what the evidence, objectively examined, reveals.” Judge Gray’s choice of words to describe Irving’s writings about the Holocaust were unambiguous: “perverts,” “distorts,” “misleading,” “unjustified,” “travesty,” and “unreal.” And, the Judge further stressed, these were not mistakes. Irving’s “falsification of the historical record was deliberate and … motivated by a desire to present events in a manner consistent with his own ideological beliefs even if that involved distortion and manipulation of historical evidence.” [see Part XIII of the judgment]