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National Post

Toronto, Monday, September 27, 1999

Dismissing communism's crimes

by George Jonas

Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter Jr., is a documentary that premiered recently at the Toronto Film Festival. Errol Morris, who made it, is described by film critic Roger Ebert as "America's most intriguing and sometimes perplexing documentarian."

The film focuses on Fred A. Leuchter Jr., a designer and constructor of electric chairs, gas chambers, and lethal injection machines.

A mixture between an eccentric, a pedant, a bungler, and a buffoon, Mr. Leuchter is one of those earnest dullards who somehow persuade themselves they're penetrating and dashing. Even more interestingly, he also comes across in the film as a repressed sadist who has convinced himself that he's a humanitarian. Mr. Leuchter muddles on designing execution equipment for various penitentiaries in America, until he gets hopelessly out of his depth by agreeing to act for Toronto Holocaust-denier Ernst Zündel as a defence expert at his (Zündel's) trial for spreading false news.

Stalin and Mao killed tens of millions of people. But no one seems to care much

I'm not proposing to review Mr. Death here, except to note that I agree with Roger Ebert, who wrote in a recent review that "among documentaries about the Holocaust, this one is invaluable, because instead of simply repeating familiar facts, it demonstrates the very process of self-deception that made the Holocaust possible." This may be true not only about Mr. Leuchter, but also about some of the other interview subjects in Mr. Morris' film, such as Mr. Zündel and revisionist historian, David Irving.

What I'd like to address, however, is a related subject in self-deception.

The Nazi Holocaust claimed about six million Jewish victims. This is the number of peasants Stalin starved to death in Ukraine alone, just for a warm-up, before his series of show trials began in the 1930s, as cited by British scholar Dr. Frank Ellis in the National Post recently. The total number of communism's victims is about 12 times greater.

According to the Black Book of Communism, an 846-page study published in Paris by a group of French historians in 1997, Marxist holocausts claimed 20 million victims in the former Soviet Union, and between 45 million and 72 million in China. The global tally adds to these figures between 4.3 million and 5.3 million in Cambodia, Vietnam, and North Korea, 1.7 million in Africa, 1.5 million in Afghanistan, 1 million in Eastern Europe, and 150,000 in Latin America.

These were not casualties of war or civil war. These human beings were murdered by communists, or perished in gulag-type camps in various communist regimes, or in the cellars of their secret police. The total, taking the lower figures, is more than 73 million people. But while Holocaust-denial is rightly condemned, engaging in gulag-denial (or perhaps in gulag-denigration) remains respectable, if not de rigueur, in Western intellectual circles.

To go no further, in a recent issue of the National Post, while dismissing French director Regis Wargnier's Est-Ouest, film reviewer Stephen Cole asks, in all seriousness: "Eight years after the fall of the Soviet Union and more than three decades after Solzhenitsyn's writing came to our attention, does the world really need an expose on communism?"

Mr. Cole raises his astounding question not in a left-wing periodical but in the National Post, routinely described as conservative. Now Mr. Wargnier's movie may merit dismissal (I haven't seen it), but imagine a critic saying about Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List, no matter how little he thinks of it: "50 years after the fall of the Third Reich, do we really need an expose on Nazism?" If a reviewer wrote that, there's a fair chance it would be all he wrote for that (or maybe any) newspaper.

Even if a hapless critic only meant to say that the Holocaust has had so much exposure in the last half century that a filmmaker cannot revisit the subject unless he has something genuinely new to say about it, he'd risk censure. But, as Mr. Cole realizes or intuits, it'll cost him nothing to breezily make a similar statement about the gulag.

Perhaps I'd better bring up something here to avoid misunderstanding. For me, the Holocaust isn't a TV series. As a Jewish child in Europe, I am what current jargon calls a "survivor."

I'd be the last person on Earth to dispute that Nazism needs to be exposed forever. I'm only suggesting that the gulag must be remembered just as keenly. Unfortunately, it isn't. Holocaust-denial is nothing less than a crime in most Western countries; it can cost a person his reputation, his livelihood, in some cases even his freedom. In contrast, we maintain such a discreet silence about the victims of communism that gulag-denial isn't even necessary. It's generally replaced by gulag-dismissal.

Gulag-dismissal in our culture comes in casual, throw-away lines by film reviewers like Mr. Cole. We've been there, done that. Communism is old hat, fit only for old dogs who cannot be taught new tricks, like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Let's get on with important things, such as the latest story of young lesbian love or that wacky caper movie with a great soundtrack of Japanese rock music.

Or, indeed, another brittle documentary on the puzzle of Holocaust-deniers.

This isn't just a figure of speech, for in a subsequent issue of the National Post Mr. Cole offers not just one, but two enthusiastic pieces about Mr. Death. He isn't troubled by the fact that 54 years have passed since Nazi Germany collapsed, and 52 years since Primo Levi published his 1947 memoir, Survival in Auschwitz. Mr. Cole doesn't ask whether "we really need" another expose on the Holocaust.

In Mr. Cole's defence, he may simply like Mr. Morris' work and not think much of Mr. Wargnier's. That would be fine, except that's not what he puts on paper. Mr. Cole doesn't merely question Mr. Wargnier's work: He questions his theme. As the Bard had it, there's the rub.

Far be it from me to hold Mr. Cole's double standard against Mr. Death. Let's by all means have further exposes on the Holocaust, all the more so if they're as ingenious and compelling as Mr. Morris' opus. Not only because the Holocaust merits perpetual discussion, but because Holocaust-denial is a genuine puzzle.

First, it's a puzzle because it disputes a thoroughly documented historical event that is still within the living memory of witnesses. But it's also a puzzle because it's so detrimental to those who embrace it. Unlike gulag-denial, Holocaust-denial isn't a smart career move.

In The New York Observer Ron Rosenbaum quotes Mr. Morris as saying "I didn't want to make a movie proving the world is round." Presumably he meant that refuting Holocaust-deniers is too easy, in a class with refuting people who believe the moon is made of green cheese. Indeed, discrediting Holocaust-deniers isn't very challenging; the challenging thing is figuring out why some people persist in denying the Holocaust when it's not only false and stupid, but it doesn't do them a damn bit of good.

One answer is, well, they're anti-Semites. But while this answer may fit Ernst Zündel, Mr. Morris doesn't think it fits his central subject, Fred Leuchter, Jr., and I think Mr. Morris is right. Another answer is, well, they're ignorant, but that answer doesn't fit historian David Irving. (If ignorant people have anything in common with well-educated people, it's that very few in either group deny the Holocaust.) A third answer is, well, they're sick -- but that doesn't seem to fit Mr. Leuchter or Mr. Irving or Mr. Zündel, at least not in any clinical sense. And if we take "sick" as just a synonym for "weird," the word becomes so diffuse that, while it may fit all three, it explains nothing.

So in the end the truly interesting question doesn't get answered in Mr. Death -- which isn't to say that it shouldn't have been raised. The fact is, most questions worth raising have no answer, or at least none that are simple or easy.

For instance, there's no easy answer to why Mr. Cole seems to believe that some holocausts are worth continual discussion, while others, notably Soviet holocausts, are only worth sweeping under the rug. I find this a fascinating question. Perhaps Mr. Morris can tackle it in his next documentary.

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