Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Deborah Lipstadt, "Denying the Holocaust" (1993)

The subtitle of this book is "The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory." My summary of it is clunky, to say the least. My apologies.

For those interested in the topic of Holocaust denial, this book is already likely familiar; if not its content, for author David Irving claiming that Lipstadt's discussion of his ideas was libellous. More on this case can be found at Emory University's Holocaust Denial on Trial site.

Lipstadt begins at an interesting point, by looking at First World War 'revisionists', trained historians who sought to diminish the idea of German guilt and share the problem out among all of the countries who participated in the war. Some also sought to pin a larger part of the blame on the Allies, particularly for their post-war conduct that almost guaranteed another war.

She also chronicles early efforts - primarily by Frenchmen (such as Rassinier) - to diminish or challenge the severity of the Holocaust. As she notes, early challengers did not attempt to deny the reality of the Holocaust outright, but instead to play down numbers, intentions, and how widespread a phenomenon the institutionalized slaughter was. Additionally, she notes that early claimants also attempted, in what was often a parallel effort, but that was also connected to Americans who were bitter about the US having joined the war, describing Allied practices as being just as bad as those carried out by Nazi Germany.

She also considers the role played by historians within the German historikerstreit; arguments waged over the 1980s regarding the degree of German guilt that should be carried for World War II, and how exceptional the development of national socialism and its values were within Germany.

Lipstadt develops – gradually and yet inexorably – two primary theses: firstly, that over 60 years, Holocaust deniers and their ideological predecessors undertook their efforts as part of a desire to rehabilitate fascism and advance anti-semitism, and secondly, that over the same period Holocaust deniers have worked to have their claims accepted not as hatred or historical falsification, but to generate sympathy for the idea that they are not being accorded access to free speech and open debate, and that their claims are not being assessed with healthy academic objectivity.

Lipstadt reveals how deniers, particularly leading lights such as Harwood, Butz, Ernst Zundel, and the Institute for Historical Research, as well as those functionalized by them, such as Fred Leuchter, have actively trod upon, rejected, and worked directly in the face of the foundational requirements of credible historical scholarship, such as objectivity, careful weighing of evidence, and careful attention to context.

An equally valuable contribution is Lipstadt’s close analysis of how various American universities dealt with attempt during the early 1990s for a revisionist organization to print several ads questioning the reality of the Holocaust. It is through these efforts that we see the flawed logic of citing First Amendment constitutional rights as a rationale for allowing promulgation of anti-semitic faux scholarship regarding the Holocaust. Nonetheless, it is this exact concern that led many institutions and university campus newspaper to allow the ads to be published, even often with the idea that the ads were patently anti-semitic and false, but that they needed to be seen and discussed. As Lipstadt points out, however, the First Amendment does not force anyone to allow someone space to advance views, it simply guarantees that the government’s ability to stop someone from attempting to advance their views is limited. Similarly, she offers that willingness to dispute the reality of the Holocaust with deniers – whose track record is not one of abiding by professional popular rules of conduct when it comes to historical research and debate – gives their stance more credibility and attention than it deserves. Instead of debating deniers, Lipstadt carefully assesses the methodology and motivations of the deniers. Removing their ability to set the terms of debate, she wisely forces deniers to defend their record of scholarship, not to attempt to prove the obvious.

Notes for self:
- Willis Carto was a member of John Birch Society in the late 1940s/early 1950s. This would be about the same time that Ben Klassen was a member of the same organization. (144)

- Lipstadt claims that the ADL sees Carto as the “most important and powerful professional anti-Semite in the United States” (145)

- Francis Parkey Yockey’s Imperium: The Philosophy of History and Politics (1948) called for a new 'imperium' of Western 'Aryan' nations that would rule using the values of Hitlerian National Socialism (146/7)

- Yockey described as “Culture-Distorters” those who mixed races, were egalitarians or believers in human rights, participatory democracy, and Jews. (148)

- In 1975, the Liberty Letter, published by Carto’s Liberty Lobby, was folded into the Spotlight, a tabloid newspaper published by the same organization. The Spotlight contained a wide variety of content, such as Bible analysis, conspiracy theorizing regarding the likes of the Center for Foreign Relations and the Tri-Lateral Commission, as well as advice on avoiding taxes and fighting the IRS. (150)

- Other conspiracies are investigated as a means of attempting to legitimize and popularize the idea that our perspective on historical events can result from falsification or miseducation. (154/5)

- Speaking of the turn to academicizing Holocaust denial, Lipstadt writes, “They attempt to project the appearance of being committed to the very values that they in truth adamantly oppose: reason, critical rules of evidence, and historical distinction.” (217)

For more on Lipstadt, see my discussion of her 2011 book, The Eichmann Trial.