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The Atlantic Monthly

February, 2000



The Holocaust on Trial

[continued, part iii]


Irving's Preoccupations

MY sense of Irving the man was unavoidably colored by sorrow. We had spoken on the phone several times, and had been exchanging e-mails for several months, before the gray afternoon last autumn when I presented myself at his flat, in a red-brick Victorian building off Grosvenor Square, just around the corner from the American embassy. I'd read enough of his interviews to know that Irving could be provocative, truculent, or charming. But when I came to see him, he was none of those things. He seemed deeply tired (he was due to leave for a lecture tour of the United States the following day) and more than a little sad.

A few days earlier the oldest of his five daughters had committed suicide. Named Josephine Victoria (she was born, in 1963, on the anniversary of Franco's victory in Spain), she'd been schizophrenic, Irving said, for "half her life." More recently she had lost the use of both legs in an accident. "At the hospital they said to me, 'You know, she must have been very determined.' For someone who is legless to pull herself up and throw herself out of a fourth-floor window ... " Irving stopped and then continued, responding to a question I hadn't asked. "Do you ever wonder whether you are mentally unsound or not? How do we know? There is no thermometer you can stick in your mouth that will say, 'Oh, today I'm a bit unbalanced.'"

I'd been to his flat once in the summer, to pick up some material, but Irving had been away. "Contact my staff (Bente) in London," he e-mailed me. Bente turned out to be the mother of Irving's youngest daughter, Jessica, who had to be collected from school, and so I was left alone, seated in Irving's study leafing through his press clippings under the gaze of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whose portrait on the mantelpiece above Irving's desk was flanked by a pair of framed front pages from the Völkischer Beobachter, the Nazi Party daily.

Völkischer BeobachterOne article, Irving later told me with a certain amount of malicious pleasure, was headlined "PROPHETIC WARNING TO JEWRY" -- the paper's report of Hitler's famous January, 1939, speech to the Reichstag:

Today I want to be a prophet once more: If international-finance Jewry inside and outside of Europe should succeed once more in plunging nations into another world war, the consequence will not be the Bolshevization of the earth and thereby the victory of Jewry, but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe.

This time -- perhaps in deference to his siblings, who, though embarrassed by Irving, had come to London for the funeral -- the papers had been taken down. Nor was a famous self-portrait of Hitler, given to Irving by the Führer's secretary, anywhere in evidence. And Irving himself, a husky, square-jawed man with a weakness for martial metaphors ("It may be unfortunate for Professor Lipstadt," he had remarked to me on the telephone, "that she is the one who finds herself dragged out of the line and shot"), was on his best behavior.

There were glimpses of the Irving I'd read about. "In crude terms, you've got a problem," he said regarding the fate of Hungarian Jews shipped to Auschwitz in 1944, "because you're talking about 45,000 tons of meat." He described "a very good friend": "Sometimes I say, 'He's Jewish but ...' Jewish but very nice, very decent, and so on -- from which you can see I have all the stereotypes embedded in me." But these half-hearted attempts to shock me were not very convincing -- nor, I think, were they meant to be.

When he's among friends, Irving's manners are less fastidious. At a lecture in Germany a few years ago a television cameraman captured his wit: "There's the one-man gas chamber, carried by two German soldiers looking for Jews alone in the Polish countryside. This one-man gas chamber must have looked like a sedan chair, but disguised as a telephone kiosk. How did they convince the victim to step, of his own free will, into this one-man gas chamber? Apparently there was a phone in it, which would ring, and the soldier would say, 'It's for you!'"

And there is his light verse, to be recited, according to Irving's diary (which he has had to make available to Lipstadt's lawyers), when out with his daughter and "half-breed children" are wheeled past: "I am a Baby Aryan / Not Jewish or Sectarian / I have no plans to marry an / Ape or Rastafarian." But since Jessica, now six (she spent a portion of our interview sitting on my lap), was barely a year old when that entry was written, the intended audience was probably her mother, whose reaction, Irving noted with satisfaction, was "suitably shocked."

Irving is a prodigious diarist, and though the entries I've seen read more like the first drafts of a press release than like a record of his inner life, the need to fill up the pages does sometimes allow something personal to slip through. His love affairs, for example, are apparently recorded in a code based on the word "amiable," as in "Caroline came round and was amiable." But even the sections cited by the defense in various expert reports hardly reveal a passionate Jew-hater. Irving believes in a worldwide Jewish conspiracy -- both to discredit him personally and to exploit the Holocaust for political and economic ends. He habitually refers to Jewish groups as "traditional enemies of the truth," and as far back as 1963, describing a speech by Oswald Mosley at Kensington Town Hall, he wrote, "Yellow Star did not make a showing." But his recurring preoccupations are money and his career, not the Jews.

Irving likes to point out that at one time both his lawyer and his publisher were Jews. The lawyer, Michael Rubinstein (who says he's not Jewish), told me that relations with Irving had been proper and professional. As for Lord Weidenfeld, the assumption of mutual utility can be gleaned from a letter he sent Irving after a newspaper article, obviously inspired by Irving, suggested that Weidenfeld had been pressured not to publish Hitler's War. "I have every reason to believe," Weidenfeld wrote, "that it was the reporter's tone and not your intention to disturb a businesslike and friendly climate of cooperation between us." The firm of Weidenfeld and Nicholson went on to publish Irving's biographies of Field Marshals Erhard Milch and Erwin Rommel.

In the end, Irving's relationships with individual Jews don't take us very far. Deborah Lipstadt is a Jew, and Irving sued her. But Gitta Sereny is not a Jew, and after she wrote an article for the London Observer accusing him of peddling a "clever mixture of truth and untruth," Irving sued her as well. In fact Lipstadt never accuses Irving of anti-Semitism. She charges him with "Holocaust denial" -- an accusation that has also been leveled against some Jews.



HilbergIN 1962 Commentary asked Hugh Trevor-Roper to review Raul Hilberg's The Destruction of the European Jews. Hilberg's analysis of the Nazi machinery of extermination, Trevor-Roper wrote, carried "a profound social content." The "most surprising revelation," he warned Commentary readers, would also be "the least welcome" -- namely, Hilberg's depiction of the extent to which the Nazis relied on the Jews to assist in their own destruction.

The magazine, published then as now by the American Jewish Committee, hastened to counter Trevor-Roper's praise with an article by the Harvard historian Oscar Handlin, titled "Jewish Resistance to the Nazis." Handlin accused Hilberg of "impiety" and "defaming the dead." In 1968, when Hilberg went to Israel on sabbatical, officials at Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust memorial, refused to allow him into the archives (a situation anticipated by the response to his book published in Yad Vashem Studies. The review was titled "Historical Research or Slander?").

Eichmann in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt's report on the Eichmann trial, fared no better. Writing in The New York Times Book Review, Barbara Tuchman accused Arendt of "a conscious desire to support Eichmann's defense." The Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith condemned what it called an "evil book," reminding its members,

It is common knowledge that Eichmann himself deliberately planned the cold-blooded senseless liquidation of an entire people.... Eichmann personally conceived the idea of liquidating Jews as a means of "solving" the Jewish problem.... He probably could have successfully proposed mass Jewish emigration to his superiors [but] instead he selected the gas chamber, the crematorium and the soap factory.

These attacks, as Peter Novick points out, were "not just false but the reverse of the truth." Like Hilberg, Arendt was assailed for highlighting the role of the Jewish communal leadership in the tragedy -- perhaps even more virulently than Hilberg, because in her view Jewish leaders had been particularly culpable. "Wherever Jews lived," she wrote, there were recognized Jewish leaders, and this leadership, almost without exception, cooperated in one way or another, for one reason or another, with the Nazis. The whole truth was that if the Jewish people had really been unorganized and leaderless, there would have been chaos and plenty of misery but the total number of victims would hardly have been between four and a half and six million people.

Once again Commentary, the voice of the American Jewish leadership, pronounced its anathema, with the editor, Norman Podhoretz, personally declaring Arendt's reports "complex, unsentimental, riddled with paradox and ambiguity" -- all, to Podhoretz, apparently, terms of abuse. Arno Mayer's Why Did the Heavens Not Darken? is subtitled "The 'Final Solution' in History." Mayer wanted to rescue the Holocaust from a "cult of remembrance" that in his view had "become overly sectarian" and thus impeded historical understanding. "Whereas the voice of memory is univocal and uncontested, that of history is polyphonic and open to debate," Mayer wrote. History "calls for revision."

To the Anti-Defamation League those were fighting words. Even worse, Mayer claimed that the Nazis were motivated not by simple anti-Semitism but by a hostility to "Judeobolshevism" -- the Nazi word for the belief that Jews controlled both communism and capitalism. Mayer wrote that there was no evidence to suggest that when Adolf Hitler invaded Poland, his objective was "to capture the maximum number of Jews for slaughter." Indeed, the Nazis went to great lengths to push Jews to emigrate. Contrary to Lucy Dawidowicz's The War Against the Jews (1975), which argued that genocide was one of the Nazis' principal war aims, Mayer held that Hitler was far more concerned with his "crusade" against communism, and that only after the failure of Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union, did the Nazis vent their murderous frustration on the Jews of Eastern Europe. Mayer's book jacket carried an endorsement by Pierre Vidal-Naquet, who also wrote a preface to the French edition.

Mayer's thesis that anti-communism was more important in Nazi ideology than anti-Semitism was certainly open to argument, as was his account of events leading to the Final Solution. But argument was just what Mayer didn't get from his critics, who preferred insult and innuendo. "'A mockery of memory and history,' 'outrageous,' ... 'bizarre,' and 'perverse'" were, said the historian Richard Evans, reporting on the controversy for a London newspaper, "just some of the more printable" responses. Leading the charge was The New Republic's reviewer, a young Harvard graduate student named Daniel Goldhagen.

Hilberg, Arendt, and Mayer are all not just Jews but refugees from the Nazis. There can be no doubting their obvious, sympathetic, personal identification with the victims of the Holocaust. "By 1942, in her eighties and blind," Raul Hilberg's grandmother "lay in bed most of the time," Hilberg writes in The Politics of Memory (1996). "Apparently that is where the German raiders found her and where they shot her on the spot." Hannah Arendt had been arrested for illegal Zionist activity, and interned by the Vichy French, before escaping to the United States. Arno Mayer's book opens with "A Personal Preface" telling of his own hair-raising escape from Luxembourg and occupied France, and of the fate of his grandfather, who refused to leave Luxembourg and died in Theresienstadt. Such personal bona fides didn't prevent the Anti-Defamation League from including Mayer in its 1993 report "Hitler's Apologists: The Anti-Semitic Propaganda of Holocaust 'Revisionism,'" where his work is cited as an example of "legitimate historical scholarship which relativizes the genocide of the Jews"; his crime is to "have argued, with no apparent anti-Semitic motivation" -- note how the absence of evidence itself becomes incriminating -- "that though millions of Jews were killed during WWII, there was actually no premeditated policy for this destruction."

Defending Raul Hilberg or Arno Mayer from the charge of anti-Semitism (or, as it is more frequently put, "self-hatred") is tedious and pointless. So why bother? Because such attacks on honorable scholarship demonstrate that the Holocaust has from the very beginning been contested ground even -- perhaps especially -- among Jews themselves. And because it isn't only Holocaust deniers who twist facts, obscure the truth, and, in Deborah Lipstadt's phrase, create "immoral equivalencies."


flagThe Lever of Guilt

IN Israel, as you might expect in a country where in the 1940s the slang for "Holocaust survivor" translated as "soap," the battle over how to represent the Nazi genocide has always been bare-knuckled and out in the open. The arguments go back to the Second World War itself, when supporters of mainstream Zionism sought to discredit the Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe -- the group agitating most noisily for rescue -- as a vehicle of the right-wing Zionist terrorist group Irgun. As indeed it was. David Ben-Gurion and other Zionist leaders were not thoughtlessly "writing off" European Jewry, Peter Novick says. They were just making a "chilling ... appraisal of what was and was not possible."

Still, when the dimensions of the Jewish catastrophe became clear, Ben-Gurion moved quickly to turn guilt into political capital. What is notable about this effort is that it failed. With the possible exception of Britain, where fear of being compared to the Nazis may have prevented a more forceful response by London to the Zionists' unilateral declaration of independence, countries responded to the birth of Israel on the basis of their own national interest, as Novick points out. The Soviet Union, which was eager to undercut British influence in the Middle East, supported it. Countries with ties to the Arabs -- Britain among them -- did not. President Harry Truman, who recognized Israel over State Department opposition, may have been motivated by domestic political considerations -- or by a sincere concern for Jewish refugees. But there is no evidence that guilt played any part in his decision. Indeed, as we have seen, the initial responses to the Eichmann trial revealed a mistrust of Israel's motives that was perhaps understandable, coming only a few years after President Dwight Eisenhower had condemned Israel's actions in the Suez crisis. Novick barely mentions Suez, which is a shame, because it gives strong support to his view that at least in the 1950s the Holocaust provided Israel with no useful "moral capital."

Novick also appears not to notice that just as the Cold War shaped American responses to the Holocaust, it also shaped responses to Israel -- because until June of 1967 it was far from clear that Israel was on "our" side. After all, Ben-Gurion and his associates were socialists. In their war for independence the Israelis were armed with Czech machine guns; from 1956 to 1967 Israel bought the bulk of its weaponry from France, a country whose discontent with American power actually led it to withdraw from NATO's military command. And it was not until after the Six-Day War that Norman Podhoretz declared that Israel was the religion of the American Jews. What support there was tended to come from the left, from places like The Nation and the newspaper PM, whose columnist I. F. Stone was an early and vocal advocate for the new state.

All that changed after 1967. Novick doesn't draw an explicit connection between Israel's debut as America's strategic asset in the Middle East and the explosion of Holocaust discourse in the United States, but what he does say is suggestive. For one thing, the image of Jews as military heroes effaced "the stereotype of weak and passive victims, which [had] inhibited Jewish discussion of the Holocaust." More important, in Cold War terms Israel was now unambiguously on America's team. And if circumstances made it easier for American Jews to talk about the Holocaust, to draw on the "moral capital" that Israel had miraculously accumulated, that was just as well. For in its determination to hold on to the territories gained in battle, Israel began to forfeit whatever sympathy it had attracted as an underdog.

The crucial point, surely, is that it was only after Israel and the United States were bound together strategically that the Holocaust and support for Israel became, in Novick's phrase, "the twin pillars of American Jewish 'civil religion.'" Similarly, it was only in post-1967 America that certain aspects of the Holocaust and its aftermath -- from questions of resistance and collaboration to arguments over the propriety of accepting reparation payments -- became not just controversial but unmentionable. An exaggeration? In 1953 Lucy Dawidowicz, at the time the American Jewish Committee's resident expert on communism, could both criticize Israel for taking German money and invidiously contrast that willingness with Israel's refusal to take responsibility for displaced Palestinians. Thirty-five years later, when Arno Mayer merely disagreed with Dawidowicz's interpretation of Hitler's intentions, he was practically excommunicated.

Though it is considered impolite to mention them in public, there are still a number of "live questions" about the Holocaust. The dispute between intentionalists like Dawidowicz, who say that genocide was part of Hitler's plan from the beginning, and functionalists like Mayer, who argue that the Final Solution evolved in response to changing conditions and the fortunes of war, is far from settled. David Irving may seize on the arguments of the functionalists as part of his campaign to exculpate Hitler from responsibility for the Holocaust, but that hardly makes them his allies.

Another open -- though stifled -- question regards the number of survivors. Irving's claim that Jews inflated the number of Holocaust victims in order to extort money from Germany merely demonstrates his imperviousness to fact. The payments to Israel were for absorbing and resettling refugees, and it would thus have been in Israel's interest to exaggerate the number of survivors, not the number of victims. But that doesn't mean there weren't individual beneficiaries who, in order to qualify for payment, claimed to have spent the war hiding in Poland when they had in fact been living, in relative safety if not in comfort, deep inside the Soviet Union.

More delicate still is the question of survivor testimony. According to Elie Wiesel, "Any survivor has more to say than all the historians combined about what happened." Would Wiesel censure Deborah Lipstadt for saying "Lots of survivors who arrived at Auschwitz will tell you they were examined by [Dr. Josef] Mengele. Then you ask them the date of their arrival, and you say, 'Well, Mengele wasn't in Auschwitz yet at that point.' There were lots of doctors ... [somehow] they all become Mengele"? Would he censure her -- or any other historian -- for daring to ask for evidence, documents, corroborating testimony? That, after all, is what historians do.

And when they are prevented from doing it, either by Jewish groups who feel that the Holocaust belongs to them alone or by Zionists seeking to preserve Israel's "moral capital," the result is a blurring of distinctions between memory and propaganda that serves only the interests of the Nazi perpetrators and their political legatees.

FoxmanYet time and again those who insist on the truth in all its "complex, unsentimental," paradoxical, and ambiguous detail are shouted down. Norman Finkelstein and Ruth Birn, whose book A Nation on Trial (1998) pointed out the many scholarly defects of Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners, were subjected to a sustained campaign of personal abuse. Finkelstein and Birn were no more extreme in their condemnation than Raul Hilberg, whose essay deploring "The Goldhagen Phenomenon," in Les Temps Modernes, described the Harvard professor's work as "lacking in factual content and logical rigor" and casting a "cloud ... over the academic landscape." That didn't keep Abraham Foxman, the head of the Anti-Defamation League, from trying to discourage the publication of A Nation on Trial.

It isn't only anti-Semites who, in T. S. Eliot's infamous phrase, find a "large number of free-thinking Jews undesirable."

Part iv: continued




Berlin, Saturday, February 26, 2000


Courtesy links: Professor Evans' witness report • click to download download


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