The Holocaust Historiography Project

Historical news and comment

A prominent Holocaust historian wrestles with a rising revisionism

Mark Weber

Defenders of the crumbling Holocaust story are confused and frustrated about how best to respond to the increasingly “sophisticated” arguments of Revisionists, a leading Holocaust historian says. Writing in the April 1991 issue of Dimensions, the Zionist Anti-Defamation League’s “Journal of Holocaust Studies, “ Deborah Lipstadt declares that Revisionist historians must be relentlessly “exposed” and denounced, while carefully avoiding any discussion of what they actually write and say.

Lipstadt teaches history at Occidental College in Los Angeles. She is the author of Beyond Belief: The American Press and the Coming of the Holocaust, 1933-1945, and is currently working on a book about Holocaust Revisionism. If it is anything like this essay, her forthcoming work will be little more than a polemical smear job.

Holocaust revisionism can no longer simply be “brushed off, “ she writes in her essay, “Resisting History,” because Revisionists have adopted a much more serious and scholarly approach in recent years:

Lately, the deniers' work has become more virulent and dangerous, in part because it has become more sophisticated. Their publications, including The Journal of Historical Review, mimic legitimate scholarly publications. This confuses those who do not immediately know the Journal’s intentions.

To demonstrate that revisionist “books and journals have been given an academic format,” an illustration of the front cover of the Spring 1990 Journal accompanies Lipstadt’s essay.

Lipstadt sees dark clouds on the horizon. For one thing, “the impact of revisionist claims on young people is of valid concern since they are the most willing to listen.” Revisionists “have also strengthened their ties with influential political groups both within the United States and Europe, “ she warns gravely. One such group, she adds, is France’s National Front. “Although these groups are small, their influence and power seem to be increasing rapidly.”

Ms. Lipstadt expresses particular concern at the worldwide impact of American execution expert Fred Leuchter’s forensic investigation of the alleged gas chambers of Auschwitz and Birkenau, and his conclusion that they were never used as extermination facilities.

While the overall impact of Holocaust Revisionism is still quite limited, Lipstadt sees no reason for complacency:

What is clear, however, is that the existence of Holocaust denial has given relativism a cloak of respectability. Denial has stretched the parameters of debate so far to one side that questions once considered outlandish and dismissed as historically untenable now find acceptance … These include doubts about fundamental aspects of the Holocaust — the existence of gas chambers, Hitler’s knowledge of the Final Solution, and the innocence of the Jews.

Responding to the arguments and facts presented by Holocaust Revisionists is very hazardous, Lipstadt contends, because what they write and say is now such a sophisticated mixture of truth and falsehood that they are “confusing readers who are unfamiliar with the deniers' tactics.” On another occasion, Lipstadt has said that, “unless you're a specialist, it’s hard to debate them [the Revisionists].” (New York Daily News, Oct. 15, 1990, p. 29.) Moreover, she writes in her ADL essay, “to debate them [Holocaust Revisionists] is to risk giving their efforts the imprimatur of a legitimate historical option.”

In Lipstadt’s view, responding to the Revisionists is a fruitless task:

The speciousness of their arguments, not the arguments themselves, demands a response. The insidious way in which denial enters the mainstream often disguised as relativism must be fully exposed … We need not waste time or effort answering the deniers' contentions.

Contradicting herself somewhat, Lipstadtmakes a feeble effort to refute Revisionism by giving a distorted and essentially dishonest summary of what she contends are the “claims” of “the deniers.” Without citing a shred of evidence, she falsely charges, for example, that “the revisionists draw a great deal of inspiration from the Protocols [of the Elders of Zion].”

Quoting from a 1962 essay by American Revisionist historian Harry Elmer Barnes, Lipstadt contends that “for some deniers, Hitler … was a man whose only fault was that he was 'too soft, generous and honorable.' “ What Barnes actually wrote is not quite so simplistic:

While the theory of Hitler’s diabolism is generally accepted, there are very well informed persons who contend that he brought himself and Germany to ruin by being too soft, generous and honorable, rather than too tough and ruthless. They point to the following considerations …

(From “Revisionism and Brainwashing, “reprinted in Barnes Against the Blackout, p. 251.)

Lipstadt also writes:

Deniers acknowledge that some Jews were incarcerated in places like Auschwitz, but, they maintain, the camps were equipped with recreational facilities like swimming pools and dance halls.

While Lipstadt can safely assume thatmost of her readers will “knowingly” dismiss this latter contention as absurd nonsense, there were, in fact, recreational facilities in the camp, as numerous former inmates have recalled. (One such Auschwitz survivor, Marc Klein, confirmed that “the SS administration allowed regular amusements for the prisoners, “ including cabaret performances and soccer, basketball and water polo matches. JHR, Summer 1991, pp. 133-134.] )

Perhaps Lipstadt’s most grotesque distortion of the truth is her assertion that “For the deniers what happened to the Jews is beside the point: Jews were not victims, they are victimizers.” As anyone familiar with the writings of Rassinier, Faurisson, Butz and Irving is aware, no serious Revisionist denies the victimization of millions of Jews in Germany, Poland, Hungary, Romania, Ukraine and other European countries. They were deprived of their liberty and property, rounded up, and brutally deported to crowded ghettos and camps where hundreds of thousands died under miserable and often horrible circumstances.

In a recent talk at San Diego State University, Lipstadt compared Holocaust “deniers” to those who believe that the earth is flat, and wrongly asserted that Holocaust Revisionism was begun by “the neo-fascist George Lincoln Rockwell … in the 1950s.”

In fact, the generally acknowledged pioneer of Holocaust Revisionism was Paul Rassinier, a French wartime Resistance activist who was arrested by the Gestapo and interned in the Buchenwald and Dora concentration camps. After the war, he authored a series of books that took issue with the extermination legend. His first was a memoir of his camp experiences published in 1948, which was followed by Le Mensonge d'Ulysse in 1950. (One could also plausibly argue that the first Holocaust Revisionist was Hermann Göring, who declared before the Nuremberg Tribunal in 1946 that there had not been any German program or policy to exterminate Europe’s Jews.)

Lipstadt, who is not stupid, must know full well that much of what she says and writes is quite simply not true.

If Revisionist arguments are really as nonsensical as Lipstadt insists, she and others would presumably have no difficulty whatsoever refuting them. But as Lipstadt is certainly aware, efforts to seriously refute Revisionist arguments are almost invariably a calamity for the “Exterminationist” side.

The Pressac fiasco is a good case in point. Large amounts of money were spent by the “Nazi hunting” Klarsfelds and their allies to publish and distribute Jean-Claude Pressac’s 564-page book about Auschwitz, which was meant to be a definitive response to the Revisionists. As Journal readers know, Pressac’s 1989 work has proven, in fact, to be a tremendous, if unintentional, boost to the Revisionist view of the Holocaust issue.

After reassuring readers that only twisted or misguided minds could give any credence to Revisionist arguments, Lipstadt declares, rather paradoxically, that these absurd “flat earth” views pose a grave danger to the very foundations of our social order. “Holocaust denial, “ she warns darkly, is “an attack on the most basic values of a reasoned society.”

If anything, it is polemical writing like Lipstadt's, with its barely veiled assault against the principle of free speech and free inquiry, that really strikes at the foundations of a free and reasoned society. Her words are all the more ominous because they are sponsored by the Zionist Anti-Defamation League, with its formidable financial resources and political clout.

Anxious about what she calls “the dangers of free inquiry, “ and troubled by the Revisionist commitment to free speech, Lipstadt warns:

It is this commitment to free inquiry and the power of mythical thinking that explains, at least in part, how revisionists have attracted leading figures and institutions. [MIT professor] Noam Chomsky is probably the best known among them. Chomsky wrote the introduction to a book by French revisionist Robert Faurisson … Chomsky’s example shows why the dangers of free inquiry should be taken seriously.

(To be precise, Chomsky did not endorse holocaust revisionism. He simply defended the revisionists' right of free speech.)

Lipstadt continues with what amounts to an oblique attack against the principle of free speech:

Those who are committed to the liberal idea of dialogue fail to recognize that certain views are beyond the bounds of rational discourse … In the case of Holocaust denial, reason becomes hostage to a particularly odious ideology.

What is implied here is that only the ADL-approved version of Second World War history should be tolerated.

Lipstadt is not optimistic. “Many people, “ she notes with dismay, now “regard revisionist arguments as a test of free speech.”

“It is only when society comprehends this group’s real intentions, “ Lipstadt warns, “that we can be sure that history will not be reshaped to promote a variety of pernicious objectives.” The Revisionists' hidden motives, she rather predictably explains, are “racism, extremism, and virulent anti-Semitism.” These days, this is just about the most terrible accusation that anyone can make. What’s worse, this charge is almost impossible to disprove, especially when made by an organization as influential as the ADL.

For ADL publicists like Lipstadt, it simply does not matter that articles and essays by Jewish and non-White writers have appeared in the IHR’s quarterly Journal, along with explicit denunciations of racism, and that the IHR publishes and distributes writing by some of the best-known and most widely read historians in the world today.

Similarly, it doesn’t matter that Harry Elmer Barnes, who is correctly identified by Lipstadt as a prominent American Revisionist historian, made clear his personal view of Hitler and his regime in the very essay misleadingly quoted earlier by Lipstadt.

The truth about 1939 in no way involves or necessitates any approval of Hitler, National Socialism or the National Socialist regime [wrote Barnes] … Nothing that I have ever written or ever shall write is even more remotely designed to “rehabilitate Hitler.” … The National Socialist regime was assuredly not one for which I have either public or personal affection … As an American liberal, I could hardly be regarded as admiring any form of conservative totalitarianism.

(From “Revisionism and Brainwashing,” reprinted in Barnes Against the Blackout, pp. 244, 245, 248.)

In any case, the racism/anti-Semitism charge is ultimately irrelevant. In the final analysis, Revisionist arguments must stand or fall on their own merits, or lack of them. To dismiss them because of the real or imagined motives of the Revisionists would be like rejecting the one-time “extremist” findings of Nicholas Copernicus — that the earth revolves around the sun — by charging that he was motivated by hatred of the papacy and the Church.

Holocaust Revisionism is particularly insidious, Lipstadt maintains, because it “robs the Holocaust of its uniqueness and its capacity to offer the world ethical, moral and political lessons. It reduces the Holocaust to a merely relative evil.”

As any serious student of history understands, of course, every historical episode is both unique and relative. While every event just like every person is unique, each historical event also has parallels with similar happenings in the past and future.

History is the record of human behavior — in all its complex tragedy and glory — which is precisely why it is so fascinating and so well worth studying and understanding. Just as experience and maturity enable us to anticipate how other human beings are likely to act in given circumstances, so also does a study of history help to understand and anticipate how societies, nations and governments are likely to act in given situations.

To review any historical era or event thoughtfully and objectively is, inevitably, to “relativize” it. Contrary to what Lipstadt believes, though, it is only by taking a sober, thoughtful and dispassionate view of the fate of European Jewry during the Second World War that humanity can draw useful lessons from this dark chapter of history.

What Lipstadt and those like her implicitly argue is that Jewish history must be treated differently than the history of any other people or nation. It must be treated with a special reverence, she suggests, and viewed not historically, but theologically.

Even her constant use of the term “Holocaust denial” is revealing. She treats “The Holocaust” as something close to sacred dogma — much as a devout Christian might regard the Resurrection of Christ — which only blasphemous heretics would dare “deny.” (To deny the validity of Christianity in the State of Maryland was a crime punishable by death until 1826.)

For partisan moralists like Lipstadt, the fate of Europe’s Jews during the Second World War must never be regarded as one of many grim chapters of human history. Instead “The Holocaust” must be considered as a grand but simplistic drama of Good versus Evil, a morality play about innocent victims and satanic victimizers.

In this essay, Ms. Lipstadt shows how at least one arm of the powerful Holocaust lobby is franctically trying to cope with the increasingly influential phenomenon of Holocaust revisionism, and provides, however unintentionally, some revealing insights into this lobby’s ominous agenda for our society. Her frantic protests nothwithstanding, Lipstadt also demonstrates that she is herself guilty of the very prejudice and close-mindedness she so lightly imputes to Revisionists.

At the same time, this essay is encouraging. Lipstadt acknowledges the effective and growing impact of Holocaust Revisionism, and concedes that Revisionist arguments are difficult to refute. Finally, this essay confirms that the forcesof intolerance and bigotry are not invincible, and that historical truth can prevail over even the most formidable of adversaries.

Source: Reprinted from The Journal of Historical Review, vol. 11, no. 3, pp. 353-359.