Sixty-six years after the liberation of the death camps, we’re approaching the point where there are no living witnesses to the Holocaust. What implications does that have both for the teaching of the Holocaust, and for Holocaust denial?
I used to worry a great deal about this. There is a unique power possessed by the person who can say: “This is my story. This is what happened to me.” But the tyranny of time guarantees that we will only have those voices for a few more years. In fact, I concluded my book, Holocaust Denial: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory, with this very concern.
Yet during my trial my fears were assuaged about what will happen when the survivors are gone. My defense team chose not to use survivors as witnesses because we did not perceive of this trial as being about proving that the Holocaust happened. We saw our job as having to prove that I told the truth when I called David Irving a Holocaust denier. In other words, we were not proving precisely what happened. We were proving that what Irving claimed happened did not. It is a distinction with a difference. Survivors would have been, in the view of the court, “witnesses of fact.” We did not think we needed witnesses of fact. [see Lipstadt, History on Trial: My Day in Court with David Irving, (Ecco 2005)]
Furthermore, Irving was representing himself and we did not want to ask elderly survivors to stand in the witness box to be cross examined by a man whose objective, we feared, might well be to humiliate and confuse them. Instead we relied on first rate historians and on documents. Some of the historians relied on testimony given by survivors. However, the testimony on which they relied was all given in the years immediately following the war. In other words, it was written documents.
Relying only on written documents and transcripts of testimony, we nonetheless achieved a stunning victory. As our lead historical expert, Richard Evans, wrote after the trial: “The trial demonstrated triumphantly the ability of historical scholarship to reach reasoned conclusions about the Nazi extermination of the Jews on the basis of a careful examination of the written evidence.” [Evans, Lying About Hitler, p. 266]
In an article in the Jerusalem Post you wrote: “Other forms of denial — declaring President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to be Hitler’s equivalent or denouncing Israeli soldiers as Nazis — are still prevalent. These charges are a form of Holocaust denial because, irrespective of how one feels about the United States’ or Israel’s policies, comparing them to the actions of the Third Reich is a complete distortion of the truth.” To compare torture in Abu Ghraib with Nazi interrogation methods, or Israel’s often-used policy of collective punishment with tactics deployed by Nazi troops against partisans are charges that are not without some historical merit. There are differences and similarities that deserve to be discussed – if only to prove clearly that there are important differences. To label these charges as forms of Holocaust denial surely plays into deniers hands, seeming to be a political usage of the Holocaust designed to prevent criticism of either the US or Israel.
I do not think my criticism plays into deniers’ hands. One simply cannot compare what the Germans did and what the Americans or Israelis are doing.
The Germans attempted to murder an entire people in Europe and beyond, e.g. North Africa. The Germans were intent on murdering every Jew on which they could lay their hands. They were so committed to this objective that in May 1944, two weeks before the Allies reached Rome, the Germans were engaged in deporting Jews from Rome. One might have assumed that they would be focused on repelling the enemy.
Similarly, in July 1944, a month after the landing at Normandy and over a month after the liberation of Rome, they took ships to the island of Rhodes in order to round up the members of that Jewish community, most of whom traced their roots on the island back over two thousand years, and take them to Auschwitz to be murdered. Of the thousands who were taken, only 151 Jews survived. One might have assumed that with the Allies on the European continent and the Russians steadily advancing on the eastern front, the Germans would have focused all their energies and military resources on fighting the Allies. Instead they were intent on tracking down every Jew they could find in order to kill them.
When the Russians were on the outskirts of Auschwitz the Germans gathered up the remaining Jews in the camps and took them on a horrendous “death march” back to Germany. They did not want to allow live Jews to fall into the hands of the Russians.
Whatever you think of Israel’s policies or of those of the United States in Iraq, the objective is not to murder all the Iraqis or Palestinians. To make such comparisons is to engage in “soft-core” denial.
What difference, if any, has 9/11 had on the Holocaust denial movement?
I don’t think it has had a tremendous impact in Europe and North America. It has energized denial in the Arab/Moslem world, as exemplified by Iranian President Ahmadinejad.
Holocaust denial has become an increasingly widespread phenomenon in the Arab world in countries like Egypt that have close economic and diplomatic ties with both the European Union and the US. Do you think that it’s time that official pressure was brought to bear, for example limiting foreign aid to countries that turn a blind eye or encourage Holocaust denial?
One would have hoped that intelligent and responsible people in these countries would have put an end – through public criticism – to these efforts. One might have expected that there would be a recognition of the fact that the active denial so prevalent in the Arab/Muslim world makes those who express these views look silly at best and nefarious at worst. This has not happened.
I have not seriously considered the notion that denial should be linked to foreign aid. I am not sure this is the best direction to take. I would certainly argue that any country which encourages Holocaust denial and fails to condemn those who engage in it, would be a questionable ally at best.