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Wednesday, April 6, 2005


Holocaust Deniers Should Not Go Unchallenged

by Lewis Regenstein

A FEW days ago I went to see Revisionist historian David Irving, who was in Atlanta for a dinner meeting and speech (taped by cable TV's C-SPAN). It was an interesting evening, one that has created an uproar in the press and among Jewish groups, with much of the coverage being partially inaccurate, misleading, and incomplete.

The subject was Irving's lengthy and bitter court battle with Emory professor and Holocaust expert Deborah Lipstadt, who declined an invitation to appear on C-SPAN in a separate program in order to avoid any association with Irving. More than 500 historians have signed a petition asking C-SPAN not to air the Irving talk.

(Last Sunday, C-SPAN aired what may be its version of a compromise, running a program that featured short excerpts from talks by Lipstadt and Irving, with commentary by others.)

In his talk, Irving did not rant and rave and engage in hate-filled speech, but rather built his case calmly and methodically. His scholarly style was impressive; indeed, this is what makes his rhetoric so dangerous, and, unfortunately, believable to many people.

Addressing a few dozen people, Irving focused on his legal battle with Lipstadt, describing in detail how she and her lawyers had, in effect, destroyed his reputation and ruined his career.

Arrayed against him, he said, were some 40 solicitors and barristers (lawyers), historians, experts and consultants, funded by almost $3 million in donations raised for Lipstadt's defense, in addition to the $7 million spent by her publisher, Penguin Books. (Lipstadt says her team was only half that large.) He charged that Lipstadt "took the Fifth" by refusing to take the stand and testify at her trial, on the advice of her lawyers.

He said he is not a "Holocaust denier" but "questions certain aspects of it." He spoke of "the great Jewish tragedy of World War II," and acknowledged that "unpleasant things happened to very large numbers of Jews killed at the camps." He described mass shootings of Jews on the Eastern Front, which the British learned of contemporaneously through intercepted and decoded messages from the perpetrators. But that is about the extent of his concessions that there might have been a Holocaust.

Irving makes the most of the host of misconceptions, misunderstandings, and falsehoods that have been circulated about the Holocaust. For example, the official death toll at Auschwitz, long put at 4 to 4.5 million, has now been lowered by consensus to about 1.1 million. This reduction of some three million deaths created a propaganda windfall for the Revisionists, even though it does not affect the overall total of up to six million victims of the Holocaust.

Amazingly, Irving also disputes the fact that Auschwitz was "a factory of death," and specifically the existence of gas chambers there. He claims that in a crematorium building said to contain the gas chambers (a building people visit there today), no one ever died.

click to enlargeIn saying this, Irving relies on the fact that the original buildings containing the crematoria and gas chambers, along with much of the Auschwitz death camp records and infrastructure, were demolished or largely dismantled by rebelling inmates, or by the Germans to destroy evidence of mass murder. He claims, misleadingly, that the gas chamber building there now contains an air raid shelter, not a gas chamber, and that it was constructed by the Polish government after the war as a model of what was there previously.

The thing that struck me about Irving's fascinating and skillfully delivered talk was how flimsy some of his arguments and "facts" are, and how easy it would be to refute them and discredit him.

For example, Irving`s suggestion that Hitler did not order and may not have fully known about the Holocaust is literally laughable. Just mentioning this one oddity of his repertoire -- based on the lack of any known written order from Hitler, who obviously did it verbally -- should be enough by itself to discredit him among many people. Kick out this one flimsy prop and the whole rotten structure collapses.

I am no expert, but I could have refuted much of what he said, in a way that would have made it clear to the audience that he was not being candid with them. In fact, I tried, successfully I hope, to do so by asking a detailed, three part question at the end which disputed the veracity of some of his statements -- a pebble of truth tossed into a sea of distortions.

I hate to think of all the people who come to hear him and go away with so much misinformation left unquestioned. I understand the position taken by Jewish organizations and leaders that debating or appearing with Holocaust deniers lends them respectability and helps spread their views. But since so much of what they, and Irving, say can easily be refuted, perhaps some selective exceptions to this position should occasionally be considered, such as appearing separately on C-SPAN.

I think it is important that legitimate Holocaust historians find some appropriate way to publicly and effectively counter Irving and set the record straight. But this cannot be done if the true experts pass up opportunities to go on camera, tell the truth, and discredit the misinformation that is now being fed to audiences all over America and is going largely unchallenged.

Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, writing about "falsehoods and fallacies," stated that "the remedy…is more speech, not enforced silence…."

Lipstadt and her colleagues worked hard to defeat Irving in a London court. I think they could do the same in the court of public opinion.

Lewis Regenstein is a writer in Atlanta.


Index to the media scandal surrounding Prof Lipstadt's attempt to silence C-Span and the history debate
The Irving - C-SPAN correspondence 

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