John K. Roth, Elisabeth Maxwell (Editors-in-Chief)
THIS book ran into controversy even before it was
published. It gathers together the papers -- over 200 in
all -- delivered at a large conference held in Oxford
last year. But one
paper, by Israel Charny, director of the
Jerusalem Institute on the Holocaust and Genocide, was
rejected by the publishers and the conference organisers
on legal grounds, because it mentioned a number of
Holocaust-deniers by name
and accused them of falsifying history.
Whatever the qualities of the article in question, its
rejection was disturbing. The conference was held in the
immediate aftermath of the libel action brought by David
Irving against Deborah Lipstadt for mentioning him by
name as a Holocaust denier
and accusing him of falsifying history. Yet the fact that
he lost the action -- recently confirmed by the Court of
Appeal -- seems to count for less in the eyes of
publishers than the fact that he brought it.
Penguin and their insurers may have spent more than
two million pounds in mounting a successful defence of
their author and their book, but other publishers seem
unwilling to contemplate spending even a fraction of that
sum in the unlikely event of having to fight another case
of a similar kind.
I myself have suffered under the blight that the
English libel law casts on the free discussion of such
issues, since my book on the Irving trial -- available in
the USA since mid-March -- was rejected by Heinemann
earlier this year, although they had originally given it
copious praise in advance publicity, because they thought
the legal risks of publishing it in the UK were too
It was good of various contributors to the conference
to thank me and the expert witnesses in the case for the
contribution we made, and especially good of Sir
Martin Gilbert, whose kind words of welcome to me as
a participant in the conference (Vol. I, p. 5) were
really more than generous, particularly since I did not
actually attend it.
The conference was inspired by Elizabeth
Maxwell, widow of the late Robert Maxwell
(himself no mean exploiter of the libel laws). Its scale
and ambition were a testimony to her drive and
dedication. The project "Remembering for the Future"
appears to be motivated by the fear that, as survivors
die out, the world will forget what they suffered. In
fact, there is little evidence of this; rather the
contrary, indeed, for as personal memories fade from the
scene, cultural memory is taking over.
The past decade-or-so has seen the proliferation of
Holocaust memorial exhibits, most recently at the
Imperial War Museum in London. It has seen the subject
treated in film notably in Steven Spielberg's
"Schindler's List." It has seen Holocaust Memorial Days
proclaimed in a variety of countries including our own.
It has seen a new wave of legal actions against
perpetrators and on behalf of survivors. It has seen the
Holocaust debated and discussed in public and in
educational institutions as never before. The danger of
forgetting has never seemed more remote.
Indeed, this extraordinary recovery of public memory
has itself attracted the attention of commentators such
Finkelstein and Tim Cole, who in their
different ways -- and with widely varying degrees of
plausibility and sophistication -- have questioned some
of its central assumptions.
As for Holocaust-denial
-- that absurd and repulsive movement of people who
apparently believe that there were no gas chambers, no
extermination programmes, no six million dead -- opinion
surveys have shown that the number of Americans who
believe anything they say is far smaller than the number
who believe Elvis Presley is still alive, while there are
now almost more books about
Holocaust-denial than there
are by the deniers
Rather than countering a trend towards amnesia and
denial, therefore, these three huge volumes should be
seen as part of this more widespread recovery of
How important are they? The publishers have no doubt
that they add up to "the most extensive and powerful
reassessment of the Holocaust ever undertaken." I am not
so sure. These volumes are simply too huge, too varied,
and -- inevitably -- too uneven to add up to anything
much at all.
What they do offer, however, is a fascinating
kaleidoscope of research, argument, reflection and
debate, with papers from the most varied disciplines,
from law and philosophy to film studies and theology.
Some of the essays are too short to make anything more
than a couple of basic points, and the extent to which
the format of the conference allowed them to make any
really substantial presentation of new research findings
is somewhat limited.
These are volumes for dipping into rather than trying
to read through as a whole and, according to what your
interests are, there will certainly be something here to
provoke and annoy as well as instruct and inform. As a
historian, I naturally found the first volume more
instructive than the second or third, and particularly
valued the various, though rather inconclusive,
contributions on the relation of the Nazi extermination
of the Jews to other acts of genocide, whether by the
Nazis against Gypsies, Jehovah's Witnesses and the like,
or more widely in modern history.
On the other hand, I was irritated by the tone in
which some critics of the "Holocaust industry," such as
Peter Novick were attacked. One contribution even called
him a Holocaust-denier.
it is possible to have doubts about the concept of the
Holocaust -- was it really a sacrifice, as the term
originally meant? If so, by whom, for what? -- and to
criticise some of the ways it has been interpreted or
instrumentalised in politics, culture and education (not
a few of them on display here), without having doubts
about the reality of the terrible events which the term
has been invented to describe?
At places, I found myself worried by the aura of
sanctity and mystification in which some of the
contributors seemed to want to envelop the whole
However tempting this may be, it's surely not
conducive to the kind of rational debate and dedicated
research that the conference originally set out to
- Richard J Evans is professor of
modern history at Cambridge University. He was an
expert witness in the Irving libel trial. His book
about the trial "Lying About Hitler," was published by
Basic Books, New York, last March.
urge all our readers: keep the Richard Evans items
coming, and we will post them here (besides, there is
quite a special reason why we are collecting them).
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