Tuesday 1 February 2000
Science & Ideas
Wrestling with the past
New debates over old horrors: the Holocaust and the writing of history
By Jay Tolson
AS the proceedings of David Irving v. Penguin Books Ltd. and Deborah Lipstadt enter their fourth week in a London court, many observers are at odds about what is really at stake. Legally the issue is clear: Did an Emory University professor libel a British writer by calling him a "Holocaust denier" who distorts historical evidence to suit "his ideological leanings and political agenda"? But there are greater questions at hand -- including whether the general public cares about, or even recognizes, reasonable standards of historical accuracy.
Irving, 61, a Hitler apologist and author of numerous World War II-era histories and biographies (The Destruction of Dresden, Hitler's War), prides himself on the detailed research that has earned some of his books the qualified praise of John Keegan, Hugh Trevor-Roper, and other respected historians. He charges that Lipstadt's Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory impugns his work and threatens his livelihood. Part of that livelihood was derived from speeches he gave to neo-Nazi audiences in Germany and Austria, where, among other things, he dismissed the crematoriums at Auschwitz as tourist attractions built by the Polish communist regime after World War II. Now banned from Austria, Italy, and Canada for violating laws against denying the Nazi genocide, he claims he is not a denier but only one who challenges the scope and means of Jewish killings and the fact of Hitler's involvement in the Final Solution.
How to argue. Some who are following the case have asserted that the Holocaust itself is on trial -- or at least its scope and means. Alan Gold, a novelist who has written about the denial phenomenon, says it is nothing less than "a case that will test the facts upon which the deniers stake their claim to history." Yet others say that the trial raises questions about whether or how reputable historians should argue with deniers. "I used to wonder why you even dignify such an absurd position," says historian Eric A. Johnson. But given the influence of deniers, Johnson suspects they can no longer be ignored. The danger, as many scholars acknowledge, is in creating the impression that deniers represent merely another side of a reasonable debate -- like the one over global warming, for example. Still, Lipstadt and her English publisher felt they had to fight Irving, even though the plaintiff would have accepted a settlement of 500 pounds (about $800). "If we settled, we would be agreeing that we libeled him," says Helena Peacock, head of the legal department at Penguin Books. "It would have been a win for him."
It's tempting to say that the outcome of the trial will have nothing to do with the reality of the Holocaust. "It's more about the silliness of English libel law," says Walter Reich, a professor at George Washington University and former director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. (Compared with U.S. law, British libel law puts a much greater burden on the defendant.) Yet some historians maintain that the trial may have serious ramifications for how the Nazi genocide is talked about, studied, and represented. One concern that is often raised regards the burgeoning "Holocaust industry," by which is meant everything from museums and memorials to Steven Spielberg's film projects to Holocaust-studies programs. David Cesarani, a professor of Jewish history at Southampton University in England, vigorously defends "opposing neo-Nazism and the Holocaust denial that is associated with it." But he cites respectable academics who argue that memorializing efforts are "being used wrongly or simply getting out of hand," in some cases triggering a backlash that benefits deniers such as Irving.
In his recent Holocaust in American Life, University of Chicago historian Peter Novick argues that American Jewish leaders have used the Holocaust to advance a range of agendas, including bolstering ethnic identity and galvanizing support for Israel. And while he acknowledges the anxiety many people feel as survivors pass away and the Holocaust "recedes into the past, into 'mere' history," he is concerned that too much emphasis on memorializing can lead to a corrupted understanding of what history is. "For the most part, deniers are crazed positivists," Novick says. "They think one fact can prove or disprove everything, which is why they all seize on the fact that there is no written document in which Hitler orders the Final Solution and ignore all other evidence."
These battles come at a time when historians are presenting compelling new evidence and analysis of how the genocide was carried out. Eric Johnson's new book, Nazi Terror: The Gestapo, Jews, and Ordinary Germans, for instance, presents a very different understanding of everyday German involvement from the one set out in Daniel Goldhagen's controversial -- and bestselling -- Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust. Goldhagen drew heavily on the behavior of police battalions in Poland to demonstrate that "eliminationist anti-Semitism" extended far beyond Hitler and the Nazi Party elite to include most ordinary Germans. Johnson, concentrating on Gestapo interactions with citizens in three German towns, sees a far greater range of citizen reaction, from direct participation (spying on neighbors) to silent acceptance of the Final Solution, which most knew was going on. "Silent complicity is horrible," Johnson explains, "but we have to see it in a more nuanced light than Goldhagen's blanket condemnation." Finding the "local Eichmanns" more culpable than most ordinary citizens, Johnson shows how the Nazi regime shaped social psychology from 1933 on.
Fine line. Maybe what is most at stake in the Irving trial is the ability of the public to distinguish between this kind of nuanced historical revisionism (and honest disagreements among revisionists) and the outright distortions that are found not only in books but in neo-Nazi and antisemitic Web sites throughout the Internet. Writing in February's Atlantic Monthly, D. D. Guttenplan sees the case as testing a fine but important line between revisionists, who re-examine the policies and perpetrators of the Final Solution, and deniers, who resort to half-truths or shoddy proof to deny or minimize the Holocaust.
Complicating the issue, Guttenplan writes, is that even reputable scholars sometimes get attacked for questioning any of the supposedly established facts about the Holocaust. And when these scholars are blocked from doing their work, "the result is a blurring of distinctions between memory and propaganda that serves only the interests of the Nazi perpetrators and their political legatees." There is a world of difference, he writes, between Raul Hilberg, whose monumental Destruction of the Jews (1961) drew fire merely by lowering the estimated number of Jewish deaths from 6 million to 5.1 million, and, say, Fred Leuchter, a designer of execution devices who used questionable experiments to "prove" that there were no gas chambers at the Auschwitz and Birkenau death camps. (Leuchter, whose findings have been endorsed and used by Irving, is the subject of a current documentary, Mr. Death.)
Because such distinctions have been blurred, Irving and similar deniers have been able to wrap themselves in the respectable mantle of revisionism -- and sow doubt among the general public. Signs of their success should give pause. A 1993 Roper Organization poll found that 22 percent of Americans thought it possible that the Holocaust never occurred. Unfortunately, a victory by Irving might win more converts to that muddled skepticism.
February 14, 2000