Sunday, November 5, 2000
Insult to Injury
By ADAM BRESNICK
Holocaust historiography has reached a strange moment in the United States. On the one hand, with the popular success of such films as "Schindler's List" and "Life Is Beautiful" and the establishment of the American Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., the fact of Hitler's campaign of industrial murder against the Jews is well established in the minds of most Americans. On the other hand, Holocaust deniers continue to peddle pernicious untruths with the help of the Internet, which allows for the endless exfoliation of misinformation and raw anti-Semitism. In the wake of Peter Novick's (left) scrupulously researched 1999 study, "The Holocaust in American Life," debate rages about the significance of the Nazi genocide for contemporary American culture and, more particularly, for American Jews. How has the Holocaust functioned in American political discourse? Was the Holocaust, as Elie Wiesel and others have argued, a unique event in human history, the summa of human evil? Or must it be treated as one among other examples of unimaginable human cruelty, such as the Armenian, Cambodian and Rwandan catastrophes? Given the mainstreaming of the Holocaust, has there arisen, as Norman Finkelstein scandalously claims, a "Holocaust Industry" that exploits the memory of Auschwitz for ideological reasons? So it is that we find ourselves in a curious spot, for despite the relentless archival work of historians, the facts of the Holocaust must be reiterated against the claims of the deniers, just as the significance of these facts remains a matter of apparently endless contention.
Michael Shermer and Alex Grobman's "Denying History" shows in convincing detail how Holocaust deniers wrest sinister untruths from the documentary evidence of the Nazi extermination campaign against the Jews. Holocaust denial propounds three phony claims: that the number of Jews who perished in the camps was far less than the currently accepted 6 million, that there were no gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau and that Hitler did not intentionally set out to exterminate European Jewry. Against these claims, Shermer and Grobman's book affirms that the Holocaust, which they define as "the systematic bureaucratically administered destruction by the Nazis and their collaborators during the Second World War of an estimated six million Jews based on racial ideology," is a demonstrable historical event. The book presents the controversies of Holocaust denial as well as the leading figures in the movement, like David Irving and Robert Faurisson (left, speaking in 1991; right after being attacked by Jewish dissenters in 1989), and it marshals a formidable amount of empirical evidence for Hitler's Final Solution. Equally important, Shermer and Grobman offer an account of history as "practical hermeneutics" for, as they see it, any historian worthy of the name must test his theories against the evidence and interpretations at hand to produce more and more accurate accounts of past events. In addition to hoisting Holocaust deniers on their own petard, Shermer and Grobman defend the honor of historiography from the depredations of relativism.
Shermer and Grobman present a history of Holocaust denial, from Alexander Ratcliffe, the leader of the Scottish Protestant League who famously claimed, "What Britain needs is a Hitler," to Paul Rassinier, a French socialist who was interned at Buchenwald and eventually slid whole-hog into denial, and Willis Carto, founder of the Institute for Historical Review, a rabidly anti-Jewish organization funded by Jean Farrel Edison, the granddaughter of Thomas Alva Edison. "Denying History" makes clear the essential operation of Holocaust denial: to find one detail that does not fit in the picture we have of Hitler's extermination campaign against the Jews and to argue that this detail necessarily indicates that the entire account must be wrong. Irving's conviction, for example, that the Holocaust never transpired was clinched by Fred Leuchter's erroneous claim that there was never any Zyklon-B gas at Auschwitz, despite the mountain of documentary evidence to the contrary. An obscure consultant in electric-chair technology, Leuchter received $30,000 from neo-Nazi Ernst Zundel to go to Auschwitz to determine whether the gas chambers existed or not. Leuchter illegally entered Auschwitz to collect samples from the walls of the gas chambers. A chemical analysis showed that no traces of cyanide were found, prompting Leuchter to write "The Leuchter Report: An Engineering Report on the Alleged Execution Chambers at Auschwitz, Birkenau." It appeared that Leuchter had dealt the deniers the card for which they had slavered for years, and the movement lionized him. Yet "The Leuchter Report" is the sheerest hokum, as Leuchter did not bother to consult with anyone about the chemical properties of cyanide, which cannot penetrate more than 10 microns--one-tenth the width of a human hair--into brick. Any Zyklon-B traces that might have withstood the elements for 50 years would have been diluted hundreds of thousands of times. Yet Irving praised Leuchter for coming
"back with these earth-shattering results. The big point: there is no significant residue of cyanide in the brickwork. That's what converted me. When I read that in the report in the courtroom in Toronto, I became a hard-core disbeliever."
Were it not for the fact that Holocaust deniers are pernicious anti-Semites, they would appear merely comical, for they are indeed a ragtag bunch of misfits. Among the more fascinating and pathetic deniers is David Cole, himself a Jew, whom Shermer and Grobman describe as a "meta-ideologue." Cole has been a member of extremist groups of every stripe, from the Revolutionary Communist Party to the John Birch Society, from the Jewish Defense League to the IHR. (It is interesting to learn that Bradley Smith, one of the IHR's chief ideologues, was once married to a Jewish woman and attended her son's bar mitzvah.) One has the sense that each of the deniers here profiled is a damaged individual and that the turn to Holocaust denial is a symptom of deeper personal problems, even though Shermer and Grobman do not indulge in speculative psychology. That is a wise choice on their part, for such psychologizing does not get one very far when it comes to refuting the deniers' claims, because looniness has always been essential to the Nazi ideology. It was Hitler, after all, who said, "The Jew must clear out of Europe. Otherwise no understanding will be possible between Europeans. It's the Jew who prevents everything. When I think about it, I realize that I'm extraordinarily humane." No doubt many Holocaust deniers think themselves similarly humane.
The second half of "Denying History" sets forth in overwhelming detail the essential events of the Holocaust. Shermer and Grobman adopt what they term a "contingent view of history," in which human will and historical circumstances conspire to produce events that become clear only in retrospect. The Nazis, they point out, undertook the forced sterilization and euthanasia of mentally handicapped individuals in the 1930s, opening the door for the exterminationist campaign of the 1940s, though such a campaign could hardly have been foreseen a decade earlier. The itinerary of contingency begins with rampant Nazi anti-Semitism and moves incrementally to the eviction of Jews from their property, to their expulsion from Germany, to their being cordoned off in ghettos, eventuating in their internment in concentration camps and their murder in the gas chambers and crematoriums. To demonstrate this progression, Shermer and Grobman seek a "convergence of evidence" for, as they rightly claim, no single fact in and of itself is enough to verify the occurrence of the Holocaust. Examining written documents, Zyklon-B traces, eyewitness testimony, ground photographs, aerial photographs and extant ruins of the camps, Shermer and Grobman mount a patiently stunning case that denies the deniers.
FINKELSTEIN would claim that Shermer and Grobman are merely talking to the wall, for it is a central tenet of "The Holocaust Industry: Reflections of the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering" that historians, as much as deniers, are playing games with the discourse of the Holocaust. Finkelstein's book is a polemic designed to raise the hackles of bien-pensant liberals and conservatives alike. Building on the insights of Novick's "The Holocaust in American Life," Finkelstein takes aim at the American Jewish establishment, which he believes has used the Holocaust in order to defend an increasingly militarized Israel and to curry favor with American elites. Like Novick, Finkelstein notes the reluctance of the American Jewish community of the 1950s to discuss the Nazi extermination. American Jews during the Cold War did their best to repress the Holocaust because they wished to normalize themselves as assimilated members of a triumphalist American polity. Correspondingly, Finkelstein claims, American Jewry did not publicly ally itself with Israel, because this would risk the charge of dual loyalty and would be politically dicey in an America that still considered Israel to be no more strategically important than the Arab states.
But, for Finkelstein, everything changed with the Six-Day War. In Finkelstein's dialectical account, as Israel assumed center stage in U.S. Mideast policy, "the Holocaust proved to be the perfect weapon for deflecting criticism of Israel." In order to assist Israel in flexing its military muscle, the American Jewish establishment invoked the memory of the terrible annihilation of European Jews. In a final turn of the screw, Finkelstein argues that American Jews' commitment to Israel and their summoning of the Holocaust are ruses that barely camouflage what he takes to be the real agenda: ensuring the steady expansion of Jewish power in the United States and of Israeli might in the Mideast. "In fact, they were doing what American Jewish elites had always done: marching in lock-step with American power." As Finkelstein sees it, this long march has led American Jews to a position of "preeminence" in American society. Unlike "Blacks, Latinos, Native Americans, women, gays and lesbians," he claims, "Jews alone are not disadvantaged in American society."
It is disconcerting to see one as critically sophisticated as Finkelstein offer so reductive an account of the position of American Jews and of the nature of power in a castigating tone often redolent of that used by virulent anti-Semites. If Jews are preeminent, why do they have to curry favor with power? Surely one or two generations' remove from a terrible European history of displacement, pogroms and exterminations does not produce the sense of security Finkelstein believes American Jews enjoy. And is it really the case that Jewish elites dictate the beliefs of the Jewish community, as Finkelstein implies? Finkelstein reifies power so thoroughly that it is hard to know where it stops and where it begins. Though he is right to decry the manner in which the Holocaust allowed the ancient theme of Jewish chosenness to reassert itself, surely Finkelstein should be able to see how the claim "Jews are better" just barely masks the claim "Jews are worse," for the very bravado of the statement testifies to an essential anxiety. Any Jew living in America knows the dialectic of grandiosity and abjection that has inspired Jewish artists from Woody Allen to Philip Roth.
Finkelstein is at his best when he skewers the pieties of those who would sacralize the Holocaust by making it into a kind of inverted mystery religion. Among these is Wiesel (right), for whom the Holocaust is at once uniquely Jewish and universally human. Finkelstein offers a stinging account of the hoaxes and hucksters who have profited from the Holocaust, saving particular vitriol for Benjamin Wilkomirski (a.k.a. Bruno Doessekker), whose fraudulent memoir, "Fragments," still has defenders, including Israel Gutman of Yad Vashem, the Israeli museum of the Holocaust. Gutman admits that though the events the book recounts are phony, "the pain is authentic." And Finkelstein is finally right to point to the essential strangeness of the American Holocaust Museum: "Imagine the wailing accusations of hypocrisy here were Germany to build a national museum in Berlin to commemorate not the Nazi genocide but American slavery or the extermination of the Native Americans." Though the comparison is forced, it underscores how the American Holocaust Museum's existence in the nation's capital testifies to the Holocaust particularism that is anathema to Finkelstein.
In the book's final section, "The Double Shakedown," Finkelstein attacks the institutions responsible for distributing restitution money to Holocaust survivors. There is autobiographical pathos here, as Finkelstein's mother received a scanty $3,500 from the Claims Conference, described as "an umbrella of all major [American] Jewish organizations," for her years in the camps (though Finkelstein does say in a footnote that his father received a $600 monthly stipend for many years), while the conference's lawyers and administrators responsible for paying out funds enjoy fat salaries. Simmering throughout this section is the conviction that financial compensation is no compensation at all, something that is even more disquieting given the ongoing cases against European banks. In Finkelstein's account, the pain his parents and other survivors endured is finally trivialized by the reparations industry, which has become a kind of corporatized bureaucratic entity far removed from the crimes it seeks to redress. Though the rhetorical extremity of "The Holocaust Industry" will no doubt cause many to write it off and focus instead on Finkelstein's prickly personality, the book does manage to vigorously critique a number of Holocaust presumptions. That Finkelstein does so from the position of leftist Jewish child of survivors, as opposed to rightist anti-Semite, makes the sting that much more biting.
Adam Bresnick writes for several publications, including the (London) Times Literary Supplement